When Dear Evan Hansen actors Andrew Barth Feldman and Stephen Christopher Anthony need a friend to carry them, who do they turn to? Their fellow cast members, of course.
“They always have my back,” explains Feldman, 17, who’s been playing the title role for the past nine months. “They’re like family.” He and Anthony both currently star in two different productions of the musical — Feldman on Broadway, Anthony on the national tour — that has hit an emotional chord with so many people of all ages. A third version of the Tony Award–winning musical is also playing in London.
“It’s a very fun place to play,” shares Anthony of his coworkers. “I’m very lucky to be with actors who are so present and so inventive.”
Dear Evan Hansen, written by Steven Levenson with music by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2017. It centers around Evan, a senior in high school with social anxiety and no friends who is just trying to fit in. His therapist suggests he write positive notes to himself about why “today is going to be a good day.” One day, troubled student Connor Murphy gets his hands on one of Evan’s letters. When Connor’s parents find the letter after Connor dies by suicide, they believe Connor wrote it to Evan as his way of saying goodbye. That’s when a huge lie begins to spiral out of control. It affects Evan’s classmates, his mom (who’s always working), and Connor’s family.
Anthony has been playing Evan Hansen for the last year and a half after originally understudying Taylor Trensch on Broadway. His favorite part of his journey has been exploring new cities across the country, in addition to catching the unexpected each night on stage.
“The other actors in the show are constantly surprising me with new discoveries and takes on moments,” Anthony explains.
Here’s what the leading men say about how Dear Evan Hansen continues to resonate three years after it opened on Broadway.
How has the role of Evan Hansen evolved for you since you first put on the blue striped polo and cast?
Stephen Christopher Anthony: I feel like I’ve just gotten closer and closer to understanding him the more time that I spend with him. Through[out] the rehearsal process, I allowed Evan to very much be me and explore when I’ve been at my lowest, to find myself in Evan.
Andrew Barth Feldman: I learn something new about him every single day, which is really cool that, nine months in, that is still happening. Like, why specifically is he anxious about calling the pizza delivery guy or talking to him at the door? Was there an incident with the pizza delivery? It’s that sort of thing. Why does he do all these tiny little things that he does?
Anthony: Part of that is because the show itself is so alive — it can really breathe from night to night. Moments change and evolve based on what we’re seeing from our other actors. The other actors in the show are constantly surprising me every single night with new discoveries and new takes on moments.
What’s the one thing you learned recently about Evan?
Anthony: I’m becoming very interested in all of the opportunities Evan’s had where he might tell the truth, especially to [his mom] Heidi. I’m finding all of these moments in the show where he comes dangerously close to just spilling everything and asking for help.
Feldman: All of his ticks — shirt grabbing, and twitching — why is that there? He’s trying to control his anxiety, and that’s been really interesting to explore. At the same time, I’m realizing so many things about myself. [Evan] does that for this, and maybe that’s why I do that. Lisa Brescia [Heidi Hansen] told me the other day I am really learning so much on the job. Learning how to be present every single night is something that I never thought about too much in high school. The adrenaline was there so often because we would only do two to five shows of any production. But at some point on Broadway, when you do it so much, the adrenaline isn’t there every night. So you need to stay present and think about the stakes in the story. I think that’s been the best way to learn. Having moments with Lisa, where she is unbelievably present, giving, and generous on stage [has] helped so much.
What does it feel like to play what’s now an iconic role?
Anthony: It is such a tremendous honor. I still can’t believe it every time I put the polo on. It’s a really special thing to spend so much time with.
Feldman: I’ve always been terrified. I know the responsibility because I saw Ben [Platt] do it twice. I think I’ve learned to compare myself less and less [to other actors playing Evan] because my performance is totally different. One person might think it’s better; one person might think it’s worse than any other Evan. It doesn’t really matter. [You have a] responsibility to people with anxiety and people who can relate to Evan.
Anthony: You kind of have to separate yourself from the spectacle of it and just make it a really personal experience. I have to show up with where I’m at every day and not make it any more complicated than it is. It’s harder to simplify that because it is such a big deal.
What’s been the most challenging part for you?
Anthony: The tour itself certainly has its challenges. I’m at the St. Louis arch right now, someplace I’ve never been. It’s very fun. At the same time, you do your eight-show week, finish on Sunday. Then every Monday, you’ve got maybe eight hours of travel, two planes, maybe a bus. Then you get to a new place and you don’t know where anything is. Tuesday night, your performance is reviewed again.
Feldman: I was really terrified about not being perfect every night. And then I came to terms with the fact that there’s no possible way I could be perfect any night. Taylor Trensch, who passed the [baton] on to me, said that a lot of time during long runs, you feel like you’re not doing your best work. But as long as you’re staying present [and] you can find one moment of truth with your scene partner, that’s a success. That was difficult to learn because I was really hard on myself. I still am, but I think I didn’t realize how much I’d have to claw away at that insecurity. I’m thankful this cast has helped me so much in navigating it. The cast is also changing too. Especially now when we’re getting new people, we always have each other’s backs. Even when I don’t feel 100 percent, it’s always really great to do it with them and live in that story with them.
Anthony: The other challenge is, it’s a very emotional experience and you have to learn to separate yourself from it.
How do you separate yourself from that?
Anthony: I had to separate myself from the show a little bit. I sort of the think of it as the show working through me instead of carrying the weight of the responsibility, so that emotional journey makes it easier to let go at the end of the night.
What is a typical day like for you?
Feldman: If I have a free day, we’ll go out and do some quiet activity or else I’ll just be at home doing Legos or something. A lot of days I have school. I’m tutored 15 hours a week. I’ll [be driven] into the city usually about four hours before the show and get there two and a half hours before the show.
Anthony: One of my favorite things to do in every city is find a great breakfast spot. Having sort of like a regular spot to go to every day, where they start to recognize you, is really comforting to me. That’s a nice quiet place to start my day. I read my book. I do a lot of yoga, which is very centering for me. It’s a nice habit to have.
Feldman: My diet is very restrictive. I’ll eat sushi, which happens to be super helpful for your voice, apparently. Then for dinner I will have a roast beef and avocado sandwich.
Anthony: I eat good food, and then when I get to the theatre, I have to say, I’ve done my job for the day. Now, Evan, you need to show up and do your part.
Feldman: [I do] everything I possibly can for my voice so it’s the last thing I need to worry about.
Anthony: A lot of my day is spent getting my voice ready. I’m checking in with my voice throughout the day.
How has Dear Evan Hansen helped move difficult conversations forward in 2019?
Feldman: This show opened up the conversation about anxiety, depression, and mental health. There are still people who have yet to acknowledge their own anxiety, depression, or whatever they may have. This show is doing the job of articulating that for them and holding up a mirror, saying, “Let’s talk about this.” We’re here to help you through this. We’re here to support you; there will always be people here to support you.
Anthony: Social media has really consumed us all so much. It allows people to believe that everyone else is living this perfect life. This show sort of created a space where it’s OK to talk about not being OK all the time, where you don’t have to pretend.
When you’re off stage during the show, what are you doing?
Anthony: We make backstage as fun as we possibly can. We all recognize that we’re going through something very difficult together every single night. So, when we’re backstage, we’re playing games, we’re laughing. We have dance parties before the show sometimes. I think we all recognize it’s really important to make this space that we work in very positive.
Feldman: Doing my best to stay in the mind-set. [And] drinking water, usually.
Who is your favorite celebrity who has visited?
Anthony: We met Tom Hanks in L.A. That was incredibly special. Rufus Wainwright was at one of my shows in Costa Mesa [California], I think. That was pretty special. [I am a] huge fan of his.
Feldman: Meeting Neil Patrick Harris was really, really cool. The day after that, Gavin Creel came to the show, and he’s another hero of mine. Another one really personal to me is Jodi Benson.
Is there someone’s story from the stage door that has resonated with you the most?
Feldman: People say, “I was Evan” or “I am Evan” or “The show saved my life.” That’s an incredible thing to hear. Seeing teary-eyed mothers tell me that I gave them some more insight into their child. That is the greatest gift.
Anthony: There was a father in Durham, North Carolina. After his second time seeing it, he came back and he said, “I got every one of my kids on the phone and we had the most open, honest conversation we’ve ever had about mental health — about checking in on your friends and showing up for each other.” That’s the sort of thing I hear over and over. That’s what is so special. It’s bringing people together.