When Andrew Barth Feldman steps onto the stage at the Music Box Theatre on Jan. 30 as the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” he will carry with him the Broadway dreams of thousands, maybe millions, of teens who aspire to follow in his path.
Of this responsibility, he is keenly aware. As the first teenager to take on the leading role in the Tony Award-winning musical, Feldman’s biggest hope is to keep that dream alive for others. “I don’t want people to think that it’s an anomaly, that it happened to me and it’s never going to happen to anyone else,” he says, sitting at the grand piano in the Woodmere home he grew up in. “It can and it will.”
By now, the star-is-born story of how the 16-year-old junior at the Woodmere Academy came to get one of Broadway’s most coveted roles is on its way to theatrical legend. It started in July when Feldman won the extraordinarily competitive Jimmy Award (formally, the National High School Musical Theatre Award) for best actor after performing a song from his school’s production of “Catch Me If You Can.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” was a sponsor of the event, meaning lead producer Stacey Mindich was in the audience and casting director Tara Rubin was one of the judges. “The minute Andrew came onto the stage and opened his mouth, my stomach lurched,” says Mindich. “I just thought, how do I get him before all the other producers in this room get him. … Evan is so particular that you know him when you see him.”
Two days later, the young performer met with Rubin, followed shortly by an audition in front of the entire creative team. “All these people who are heroes to me,” says Feldman. One of them was director Michael Greif, who says he was attracted to Feldman's “great vulnerability” in the role, in part because of his young age. “I noticed some very original choices that seem like choices that really come out of a teenager’s point of view,” says Greif, calling from Los Angeles where he was working on “Rent: Live.” Greif also says he appreciated Feldman’s fresh take on the material. “He’s a terrific, inquisitive thinker.”
Not long after that, his mother got the call that he’d been cast. When she broke the news, “I flipped,” says Feldman. “There are pictures of me in the car freaking out.” He and his family were sworn to secrecy, a form of torture especially excruciating to this lover of Twitter and Instagram. “I did a lot of lying,” he told a jammed session at BroadwayCon in early January. But once the news was announced in November, life has been a whirlwind for this young man, who says being on Broadway is “what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Becoming Evan Hansen
No surprise that as soon as he could, he took his thoughts straight to Instagram. In a lengthy post, he wrote about his love for the show (my “dream role”) from the moment he first heard the song “Waving Though a Window,” and of seeing it shortly after it opened and feeling so overwhelmed he told his parents that he wasn’t ready to talk about it. The process of finding the character, he wrote to his 36,000-plus followers, had already started. “I’m cracking open a new shell every day, realizing something about him that I hadn’t already. … it’s like meeting myself for the first time.”
As opening night approaches, Feldman is digging even deeper to figure out the inner workings of this emotionally and vocally challenging “monster of a role.” He describes the character as a 17-year-old with severe social anxiety “who just really wants to be a part of something, and really wants to be seen and be heard.” Thus far, older actors have done the part. Ben Platt was 23 when he opened; the current Evan, Taylor Trensch, is 30. “To be 16 and take on this part … with that kind of vulnerability,” says Greif, is significant. “I know the exhilaration and responsibility he feels … all we need to do is create the most supportive environment for him as he investigates the part through his own lens.”
That support system extends well beyond the team at “Dear Evan Hansen.” Among those cheering him on will be the vast number of local performers who’ve worked with him in community theater, school and camp productions since his first foray on stage at age 8 as Mr. Bundles in “Annie” (which may well be the smallest part he’s ever had). When he was 12, Feldman started his own theater company, Zneefrock Productions, as a bar mitzvah project, doing cabarets and full-scale productions to benefit NEXT for Autism (one of his cousins is on the spectrum).
Tasha Partee, Feldman's theater teacher at Woodmere Academy, says she was struck with him instantly, during an eighth grade production of “Tarzan.” His talent, she says, “was so apparent so early on.” She remembers taking notes during a rehearsal and having nothing to say about his performance beyond “Andrew is magical.”
Family and future
And then of course there is family — mother Barbra, an administrator at Woodmere Academy; father David, an attorney (his parents are divorced); an older sister, and two cousins he considers “like brothers.” Barbra Feldman jokes that her son calls her the “anti-stage mom,” but she says he’s completely grounded and this is all he’s ever wanted to do. “It’s what makes him tick,” she says.
As would any mom, she has the obvious concerns. “All I want is a healthy, happy child,” she says, acknowledging he’s pursuing “a really tough business.” Still, she gives off the understandable vibes of a very proud mama and she sticks close, driving him back and forth to Manhattan (“I’m a professional driver,” she quips), helping pick colors for his dressing room and dealing with the inevitable stress her son faces. So far, she’s not concerned. He’s used to juggling three or four shows at once, she explains, so “he’s managing this beautifully.”
That includes considering what comes after “Evan Hansen.” Feldman won a $10,000 scholarship at the Jimmy Awards, so he’s looking ahead to college, though still trying to figure out what he wants that experience to be. Theatrically, since he’s already snagged his dream role, he says he’d love to originate something. “It would be a really cool experience,” he says, “to have a blank slate, to figure it out.”
Showing a wisdom beyond his years, Feldman says he’s going to give himself time to settle in. “Evan is a difficult guy to snap into,” he says, noting that he’s learned from others in the cast that he’s “not going to figure it out right away.” As a fan of the show well before he was cast as its star, Feldman recognizes the deep meaning it holds for many. “I sort of know how people feel about the show because that’s how I feel about the show,” he says. “It really struck a chord in me … I was getting to a place in my life that all teenagers get to, exploring who we are and what it means to be part of something bigger.”
As prepared as he appears to be, when asked whether there’s a role that terrifies him, he responds immediately, almost without thinking. “Evan,” he says. “Evan terrifies me, but in the best way. I can’t wait.”
SHE GAVE HIM HIS SHOT
“This show is my baby,” says Stacey Mindich, the lead producer of “Dear Evan Hansen” and the woman who is largely responsible for giving Woodmere teen Andrew Barth Feldman his shot at stardom.
But then Mindich, who grew up in West Hempstead and is a former Newsday intern, says she “feels personally connected to every Evan.” Mindich was in the audience at the Jimmy Awards last July when Feldman wowed the judges with his song from “Catch Me If You Can.” Obviously, she says, there were many great kids at the Jimmys, but when she saw Feldman, “I knew he was Evan.”
In part, that’s because she says she and casting director Tara Rubin are always wondering “where the next Evan might be lurking … I’m always looking for him because he’s so hard to find.” Mindich says they recently concluded a search in Toronto that took eight months and involved 400 boys (the role eventually went to Vancouver, British Columbia, native Robert Markus).
A former magazine editor, Mindich describes herself as a “Broadway lover,” but says she fell into producing almost by accident, wanting to help support a show that was struggling (the Off-Broadway flop “Make Me a Song”). After shadowing the producers, she recognized that the skills you needed as a producer were very similar to those of a magazine editor. “You’re nurturing stories, you’re finding the right people to tell the stories … it’s just larger, more costly and more dramatic in theater.”
Speaking of drama, there was a little bit in the room when Feldman auditioned. Often they audition by tape, says Mindich, but she thought so much of Andrew that “I drove them all bananas to get them in the same room at the same hour.” She made it happen but once they were gathered — a lofty bunch including director Michael Greif, orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, writer Steven Levenson, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — she started questioning herself. “I got so scared I was overpromising and underdelivering,” she says.
Then, Feldman did his thing and she relaxed. “I looked over and I saw Ben Pasek’s face and he was somewhere between the biggest smile I’ve ever seen him give and also about to burst into tears. And I knew that I had not overpromised.”
WHAT "Dear Evan Hansen"
WHERE Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.
INFO From $89; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com