It began in D.C. as a little-known musical at Arena Stage in 2015.
By 2017, it ruled Broadway, winning six Tonys, including Best Musical.
Now, “Dear Evan Hansen” returns to the nation’s capital as its North American tour swings through the Kennedy Center now through Sept. 8.
“It’s really an incredible journey,” said actress Jessica Phillips. “It’s been pretty amazing to come back to D.C. with it in this incarnation and meet all of the people who watched it four years ago in its infancy, watched it grow and watched it launch and head to New York and become such a success. It’s become a dream come true for people who are mounting theatrical productions.”
The story follows high schooler Evan Hansen, who writes letters to himself to deal with social anxiety. His mother suggests that he get classmates to sign his arm cast, including Connor, who swipes one of Evan’s letters that professes his crush on Connor’s sister Zoe, sparking controversy when tragedy strikes the school.
“It is about relationships around people who are struggling and the mental health issues that affect our lives and affect our families and affect our relationships,” Phillips said. “It just happens to be a show where a suicide is a part of the story.”
The title role was made famous by Tony winner Ben Platt (“Pitch Perfect”), who is reportedly going to play the role in an upcoming movie version by Universal.
At the Kennedy Center, Ben Levi Ross plays the part in six of the eight shows each week, while alternate Stephen Christopher Anthony fills in for two shows a week.
“They’re both spectacular,” Phillips said. “Ben Platt’s iconic performance won all of the awards, but Ben Ross is new and different because he has the material to let him really shine. What you see in his performance is an incredible fragility. You feel for him as he makes his way through all of these obstacles and you root for him to come clean and reveal himself to the people who love him the most.”
That includes his mother, Heidi, played by Phillips, who said that director Michael Grief let her make the role her own after the Tony-winning performance by Rachel Bay Jones.
“He put us in a room last August (and) encouraged us to do what was unique to the skills that we bring to the table,” Phillips said. “We were not only able to find ourselves in these characters, we were able to do that with each other, so we have this really special ensemble production. We have a lot of trust in each other, and we have found our relationship with each other, which is really a special gift.”
Grief is the four-time Tony nominee behind “Rent” and “Next to Normal.”
“To have a conversation with him about character choices and intention in a scene is paramount to speaking with someone who has seen the show for the first time,” Phillips said. “We’ll have a conversation, and he’ll well up and become emotional because he is so in tune with this storytelling and vision for how these characters interact. I’ve just never had that experience with a director before.”
Steven Levensen penned the book, and the music and lyrics come from “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman” composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
“Most people associate our show with two songs, ‘You Will Be Found’ and ‘Waving Through a Window’ because they speak to the foundation of what the message is,” Phillips said. “‘Sincerely Me’ is an incredibly upbeat, fun song to watch, probably my favorite in the show. ‘If I Could Tell Her’ is a beautiful love song between Evan and Zoe. Then my favorite is ‘So Big / So Small’ at the end, where Heidi and Evan sit together in stillness and connect for the first time.”
Visually, the show “waves through the window” of our digital device screens.
“It’s set against a backdrop of this scrolling social media screen of text threads, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all kinds of social media platforms that are constantly scrolling,” Phillips said. “So much of our interaction in life is curated versions of ourselves behind a window, tapping on the window of this glass screen, behind which we have two-dimensional versions of ourselves. They’re filtered, not fully fleshed out versions of how we are in relationships with people.”
When the lights go out to Evan’s teary eyes, audiences will get emotional.
“I’ve had parents come up to me at the stage door confessing that their teenagers begged them to come,” Phillips said. “They weren’t expecting to see themselves in the characters and be so swept up. I’ve had moms start to cry unexpectedly in front of me, saying how thankful they were and how moved they were by seeing their own story on stage. This tells the story of so many families trying to parent teens in a digital age. It’s really universal storytelling and that’s really special.”
Hear our full conversation below: