When you’re making a movie musical, you’re probably going to be looking for actors who can, you know, sing. It’s a truism that would seem to apply to “Dear Evan Hansen,” an adaptation of that Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, with a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It stars Ben Platt as the title character, a socially anxious teenager perpetuating a lie that has given him a welcome dose of popularity.
But when the filmmakers of “Dear Evan Hansen” were assembling their roster, they did not necessarily start with a list of Hollywood’s best-known singers. As its director, Stephen Chbosky, said in a recent interview, “I don’t really try to cast actors — I try to cast people. What I’m looking for is this almost invisible quality of them as human beings. I just encourage every actor to put their stamp on the character and tell a little bit more of the truth.”
The result is a cast with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences with singing for an audience: some who have been doing it their whole lives and were thrilled to do it in front of a camera; some who are terrified of it; and others who wish they got the chance to do it even a little more often.
Here, five of the stars from “Dear Evan Hansen” talk about how they learned to love the sound of their own music.
Though filmgoers have seen Julianne Moore sing a few bars in “Magnolia” and a couple of rock songs in “What Maisie Knew” (and lip-sync Renée Fleming’s opera vocals in “Bel Canto”), she hasn’t sung eagerly for an audience since her high-school production of “The Music Man.” So when she was approached to audition for the role of Evan’s mother, whose tender solo number, “So Big/So Small,” is arguably the culmination of the musical, she was understandably nervous. But working closely with vocal coaches and the musical team was enough to land her the role and abate her anxiety — until it came time to film her big song. On that day, Moore said, “I thought I was going to swallow my own tongue, I really did. Because it was so terrifying. Even one of our camera operators, who was really a great guy, afterwards he went: ‘That was hard, huh?’” Perhaps the surest sign that Moore had succeeded, though, was the feedback she received from her husband, the director Bart Freundlich, after an early look at the film. As Moore recalled, “My husband came to the screening and my kids came, too, and my son’s girlfriend. So I had a posse with me. And my husband said he was so relieved. He said, ‘The way you talked about that song, I was really ready for something terrible.’”
Even devoted fans of Amy Adams probably missed the start of her professional ascent in dinner-theater musicals, like the Boulder’s Dinner Theater production of “A Chorus Line,” in which she played Kristine. “She was the girl who couldn’t sing,” Adams explained. “Which then made me nervous, because then I thought people thought I couldn’t sing.” As she started to break through as a film actress, Adams said there were few opportunities in movie musicals — and few such movies being made at all. Even for her role as Giselle in the Disney musical “Enchanted,” Adams said she wasn’t initially sought for her singing talents and had to audition further “so that they would let me do my own singing — they were prepared to bring somebody in and I was like, no, no, no, let me try.” (She prepped by listening over and over to Kristin Chenoweth’s Glinda songs from “Wicked,” before learning she’d be working with that show’s original Elphaba, Idina Menzel, on “Enchanted.”) Though Adams said her role as a grieving mother in “Dear Evan Hansen” called for “limited singing,” she was careful to prepare in the weeks before filming. “I do enough karaoke to know the dangers of taking it on faith,” she said. “You know when you think you can nail a song and then you’re like, wow, I really didn’t? I know better.”
As the scion of a showbiz family (his father, Marc Platt, is a producer of this very film) and a performer since childhood, Ben Platt has never, ever wavered in his faith in the power of song. Well, except maybe that time back in 2012 when he was performing in the rock musical “The Black Suits” and stressed out about the rigorous regimen he had to follow to maintain his voice. “I did have a little moment where I was like, ‘Eff this, I’d rather just act without singing — it’s so much easier and less stressful,’” Platt said. “That lasted all of 30 seconds.” When he originated Evan Hansen on Broadway, Platt threw himself into the role — so much so that he did not allow himself to miss a performance for the first several months of its run. Then, he said, “I hemorrhaged and got a polyp on my vocal cords. I had to heal with lots of silence and a white board and the right cocktail of medication. It was my body telling me, you can’t be superhuman.” But on the film version, Platt said he found pleasure in getting to be loud (when appropriate for his character) without having to reproduce that volume in show after show. “Evan is a very meek character and it takes a lot of time to come out of his shell,” he said. “But the few times that he does raise his voice or scream, I did feel less fear that I had to save it for singing.”
Growing up, Kaitlyn Dever came by her musical tastes in a traditional fashion: being driven by her father. “He used to play the Cure in the car and I used to hate it, hate it when he played the Cure,” she said. “Now it’s my favorite band of all time, because I just didn’t really understand when I was 6 years old, driving to ballet class. Now I fully get it.” She tapped into other family bonds a few years later when she and her sister Mady started their own band, Beulahbelle — as Dever explained, “We’re sisters anyway, we might as well make a band” — and landed a couple of songs on the soundtrack of the Jason Reitman comedy “Tully.” Dever learned of her audition for Zoe Murphy, the love interest, in “Dear Evan Hansen” while en route to London. So, she said, “I ended up booking a studio space so I could sing it alone somewhere and not in a hotel room where I would be disturbing guests, blasting ‘Requiem’ at 2 o’clock in the morning because I’m jet-lagged” — then flew back to Los Angeles and landed the role.
Even before she trained as a child gladiator in “The Hunger Games,” Amandla Stenberg was a classically taught violinist: “I started on the Suzuki method, but I was intimidated by the competitions that I was attending,” Stenberg recalled. “There’d be kids crying in the corner and their fingers would be bleeding. So I quit for a while.” Fortunately she found a new teacher who showed her how to improvise on the instrument and play in a variety of styles, and by high school she was part of a folk duo called Honeywater, though Stenberg now says of that project, “It’s a past life.” After placing some of her solo songs in the soundtracks of her movies like “The Hate U Give,” Stenberg was approached to play Alana Beck, Evan’s high-achieving classmate — and to help write a new song, “The Anonymous Ones,” for the movie with Pasek and Paul. “Which completely floored me, of course,” Stenberg said. “I was like, me? It was a total you-must-have-me-confused-with-someone-else moment.” The new number was created over Zoom sessions while Stenberg was in Copenhagen and her songwriting partners were in the United States, which meant a lot of late nights. “I was pretty delirious by the end of them,” Stenberg said. “They felt like virtual sleepovers.”
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