Six nights a week, a scene builds around the stage door at Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street in Manhattan.
On a recent July evening, more than 100 young people crowd behind barricades carrying playbills, posters and iPhones, awaiting the arrival of a young star with golden pipes. No, it’s not Justin Bieber but rather Ben Platt (“Pitch Perfect”), the 23-year-old actor-singer of the hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” Platt stole the show at the 2017 Tonys with not only his talent and charisma but also the inspirational speech he delivered after his victory for best actor in a musical.
“Don’t waste any time trying to be like anybody but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful,” Platt shouted, clutching his award.
It’s this kind of message and spirit that has given a voice to a segment of today’s youth who are dealing with bullying, anxiety and social media’s overwhelming power. “Dear Evan Hansen” addresses these issues directly, connecting with many millennials.
“The whole show spoke to me,” says Rachael Petito, 24, of Lindenhurst, who has a “Dear Evan Hansen” tattoo on her left foot. “I had a lot of things go on in my life that set me back a little bit. This show kind of put me back together again.”
The show focuses on anxiety-filled, sensitive high schooler Evan Hansen, who sees a therapist for his condition and writes “Dear Evan Hansen” letters to himself as an exercise of encouragement. At school he has an interaction with a troubled boy named Connor Murphy, who ends up killing himself.
In a mix-up, one of Evan’s letters, which was dark in tone, gets mistaken as Connor’s suicide note. What follows in the aftermath is the Murphy family and local community’s reaction to Evan’s supposed role in Connor’s life and the impact it has online.
After winning six Tonys and drawing celebrities such as Carol Burnett, Katy Perry, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand backstage, “Dear Evan Hansen” is now a hot commodity on Broadway. Once the stage door scene is done each night, several members of that crowd turn around and wait on line all night, hoping to obtain the standing-room tickets that are sold when the box office opens in the morning.
“From the beginning, there was an energy and buzz around the show,” says Lattingtown native Will Roland, 28, who plays Evan Hansen’s comedic friend Jared Kleinman. “When we were doing the show at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., people were flying from around the country to come see the new musical Michael Greif was directing or to come see Ben Platt live. People got really jazzed about it.”
Greif previously directed “Rent” and “Next to Normal.”
A SHOW THAT CONNECTS
Nassau BOCES psychologist Randi Miller, 48, of East Meadow has seen the show twice and has tickets for two more in the fall.
“The show is finding people, whether they are teenagers struggling with anxiety and depression, parents trying to reach out to their kids or anyone searching for their place in life,” she says. “It has a message for everybody.”
The subject matter and its high-tech delivery with a multimedia stage, which virtually projects tweets plus posts on Facebook and Instagram above the stage, have captured young theatergoers’ attention.
“Young people are seeing themselves represented and spoken for in a way that isn’t common. If you are 17 years old, you don’t see yourself onstage in ‘Hamilton,’ ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘Cats,’ ” says Roland. “There’s a level of engagement and enthusiasm coming from our audiences, especially for the young ones for whom it’s not just a play. It’s a big event in their lives that they continue to talk about and listen to after they leave.”
Young admirers of the musical have dubbed themselves “Fansens” and are active on several Facebook groups. Friends Alexa Foodim, Skylar Gronich and Kayla Menkes, all 16 and from Melville, say they listen to the soundtrack daily.
“We were hooked from the first song,” says Foodim. “The music is not like regular show tunes. It’s very real and easy to connect with.”
The type of emotions the music elicits is all over the spectrum.
“It made me laugh and cry,” says Menkes. “During ‘Words Fail,’ I was hysterically crying. For ‘Sincerely Me,’ I was hysterically laughing, that’s when you know it’s a good piece of theater.”
These teens are aware of the dangers social media can have.
“We often have assemblies showing us how just using a phone could bring people unhappiness,” says Gronich. “One post could make such a difference is someone’s life.”
Fansens are known for seeing the show numerous times. Tom King, 25, of Port Jefferson Station has gone 10 times, dating back to its initial Off-Broadway run at Second Stage Theatre in 2016.
“Because it’s so visual and has all these technical aspects, it’s virtually impossible to grasp it all in one viewing,” King says. “No matter where you sit, you’ll always find something new.”
Like Evan, King suffers from anxiety and gets comfort from the show.
“Every time I sit down in that theater, I know I’m going for a ride,” says King. “I always walk out feeling uplifted.”
The overall message from the show that theatergoers walk away with is “You will be found,” which also serves as the tagline for the musical.
“You need to look for signs of someone struggling who may need help,” says Sami Pye, 17, of Roslyn. “One small thing could be the last little small thing pushing them over the edge. We must look out for one another.”
Petito adds, “No matter what happens in life, there are people to help you. You shouldn’t be afraid to speak your mind or feel like there’s nobody there for you.”
Keeping communication going is the key — that’s the sentiment resonating throughout the show.
“Having deep meaningful communication in our lives is something that is more and more fleeting in our digital age,” says Roland. “Ideally, the show prompts people to examine how they move through their lives with regards to technology and social media, plus being honest with themselves and those around them.”
WHAT “Dear Evan Hansen”
WHEN|WHERE 3 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., Manhattan
INFO $119 to $199; 212-239-6200, dearevanhansen.com
STAGE DOOR DRAMA
Those who wait at the stage door to meet Evan Hansen himself, actor Ben Platt, might be disappointed to hear that he doesn’t always emerge. In fact, Platt recently received some heat via Twitter for his absence.
In response to the criticism, Platt released the following statement on July 3:
“Performing ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ every night is wonderful but also hugely tough — as much as I would like to be out there every night, very often I cannot come to the stage door after the performance. My priority must always be self-care so I can re-create the same quality show each night. That’s my job, and what each and every audience member is paying for and deserves. Before you tweet hateful things about how I don’t value our incredible fans when I can’t come to the door, please pause to consider that my responsibility to them is first and foremost to give my all each night. I preserve myself because I value each of them deeply.”
While some fans might be cranky, others seem to understand.
“Stage dooring, in my opinion, has gotten somewhat out of hand,” says Tom King, 25, of Port Jefferson Station. “A lot of people feel that they are owed something. People shouldn’t be expecting an autograph or a picture.”
Lindenhurst’s Rachael Petito, who got to meet Platt, respects his position.
“He was in a little rush, which I understand. It was after a weekend show, and he was exhausted,” says Petito, 24. “But, he’s the kindest person I ever met.”— DAVID J. CRIBLEZ