For the Evan in Tampa's 'Dear Evan Hansen,' a demanding role comes with love and anxiety

Ben Levi Ross plays the title role in 'Dear Evan Hansen,' which hits the Straz Center next week. He's dating Tampa native Taylor Trensch, who played Evan on Broadway.
Published April 2

The video is just so cute you can’t stand it.

First you see Evan Hansen No. 1, arms pulled snug behind his back, singing the comforting love song Only Us. Then into the studio sidles Evan Hansen No. 2, squeezing just past a violinist. They take each other’s hands, and with the widest and warmest of smiles, sing together:

It’ll be us, it’ll be us, and only us, and what came before, won’t count anymore ...

Since its release on Valentine’s Day, the video has some 575,000 spins and counting on YouTube, most of them from the borderline obsessive fan base of Dear Evan Hansen, the smash musical that makes its Tampa debut at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on April 9.

The reason the clip is so irresistible? Evan No. 1 is Ben Levi Ross, an understudy to original Evan Ben Platt on Broadway, and the lead of the national tour that’s coming to Tampa. Evan No. 2 is Tampa native Taylor Trensch, who held the Broadway role until January — and who happens to be Ross’ real-life boyfriend.

“There was an overlap of I think three months where he was still doing the role when I had started the role, and we were both doing it full time,” Ross said by phone before a recent Dear Evan Hansen performance in Fort Lauderdale. “Honestly, it’s nice to have someone who understands exactly what you’re going through every night, and understands the pitfalls of this job, and also the high moments of this job.”

Dear Evan Hansen comes with plenty of both. Written by Steven Levenson with music by La La Land duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the musical tells the story of anxious teenage outcast Evan, who is encouraged by his mother (played in Tampa by Jessica Phillips) to write letters to himself as a means of therapy. When one such letter is found in the possession of fellow outsider Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), Connor’s parents (Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar) and sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna) begin to believe the boys were closer than they really were. After a family tragedy rocks them all, Evan’s friendship with Connor becomes a much bigger deal, first at his school and then across social media, until the misunderstandings and lies begin piling too high.

The play received an avalanche of acclaim for its handling of sensitive issues like mental illness and the pressures of social media. That, combined with a cast recording that had the highest-charting debut of a Broadway soundtrack since 1961’s Camelot, earned Dear Evan Hansen six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score.

But the lion’s share of accolades went to Platt’s indelible Evan, one of the most demanding lead male roles in recent Broadway history. Without Evan’s painfully relatable bundle of nerves and guilt, his aching performances of Waving Through a Window or For Forever, there might be no “Fansens” — the term adopted by obsessive Dear Evan Hansen fans worldwide.

“One of the biggest things for me is the constant level of anxiety that’s required of Evan to do a truthful portrayal,” Ross said. “If you’re portraying it truthfully every night, you’re going to finish after a three-hour show completely exhausted. Not only does Evan not leave the stage for pretty much the entire show, but he also sings pretty much every song in the show. So you have this conglomeration of mental gears grinding each other constantly for three hours.”

Ross actually nabbed the gig in his first stab at Broadway, fresh out of Carnegie Mellon University. He joined the cast as an understudy for Evan and other roles, first under Platt and his replacement Noah Galvin, then Trensch. Only once did he get to play Evan on Broadway. But he was encouraged to develop his own take on the character for the national tour, starting from scratch with the musical’s original creative team.

Still, only a small handful of actors have ever played Evan full time, few enough for hard-core Fansens to know them all by name. That two of them fell into a real-life relationship was — like the friendship between Evan and Connor — a story almost too good to be true. (Even the original Evan ’ships the two actors. After Trensch Instagrammed a shot of him and Ross cuddling up in late February, a moony Platt commented: I just don’t I can’t I really I mean I just I.)

The video of Only Us, sung in the musical by Evan and Zoe, was the brainchild of a producer who “had seen that fans were really connecting to mine and Taylor’s relationship, and she thought that would be a special thing to release for Valentine’s Day,” Ross said.

While he understands the fascination, Ross has found that becoming that sort of celebrity hasn’t always felt natural. The part where people like Tom Hanks, Katy Perry and Nancy Pelosi are coming backstage to meet him on tour? That part’s cool. The part where the intense connection fans have to Evan begins to bleed into real life? That’s different.

As an understudy, he said, “I found that the fan base was connecting very specifically to just me as a person” on social media — “it was really more about us as people, and us backstage, and whatever we were doing. And when I took on the role full time, those people were still sort of obsessed with me as a person, and couldn’t really separate me and Evan. That was a little bit troubling, because I just wanted to be able to introduce this role into the world with my interpretation, and not have any history with how people were looking at me.”

Perhaps all too aware of Evan Hansen’s problematic social media status, Ross recently deactivated his Instagram, and probably won’t start it up again until after the tour.

“I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed, as one does,” he said. “I want to commit as much as I can to this role and give everything that I can to this role, and sometimes that means not sharing everything in my personal life with the general public.”

He will, however, allow this much: When Dear Evan Hansen arrives in Tampa, Trensch will be coming in, too.

“I’m so excited to see all of the things that I’ve heard so much about for so many months,” Ross said. “I’m really close to his family, and his parents are going to come to the show. I’m really just so excited to see his hometown.”

Two Evan Hansens, out on the town around Tampa. For a few days at least, it’ll be them and only them, waving through windows together.

Someone grab a camera. It might be time to make another video.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

IF YOU GO

Dear Evan Hansen

7:30 p.m. April 9 through April 11, 8 p.m. April 12, 2 and 8 p.m. April 13, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 14. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $178.75 and up. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org. There will be a daily $25 ticket lottery for each performance; see luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen to enter.

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