Ben Platt, up for a Tony for his performance in 'Parade,' gets by with a little help from his friends
Playing outsiders comes naturally to Ben Platt, a gay, Jewish theater geek born and raised in Los Angeles.
He won a Tony Award for his star-making performance in the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” creating an authentic stage portrait of a high school adolescent with crippling social anxiety who’s thrust into the social media spotlight under false pretenses. And he may win another Tony for his performance in the musical “Parade," in which he plays Leo Frank, a true-life character whose alienation as a Jewish businessman in the Deep South contributed to a tragic miscarriage of justice.
But Platt is hardly a loner. Speaking in his pink cave of a dressing room at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where "Parade" is being revived in a brilliant production directed by Michael Arden, he may not immediately come across as a people person. But all it takes is a few minutes of conversation to understand that this is an artist who gets by — and inspired — with a little help from his friends.
Platt's BFF, as every sentient theater buff knows by now, is Beanie Feldstein, his former classmate and fellow musical theater obsessive at Harvard-Westlake. Disciples of the school's late, great drama teacher Ted Walch, Platt and Feldstein realized their adolescent dreams of becoming Broadway stars while maintaining a bond that continues to creatively fuel them.
The two are cast, along with Paul Mescal, in a long-term film project of director Richard Linklater that will bring Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's "Merrily We Roll Along" to the screen in a unique way. The musical, which unfolds over a span of 20 years, is being shot over a period of years to reflect the changing ages of the characters — three artists whose triangular friendship is tested by commercial success.
"Theater Camp," another film that Platt made with friends, is already completed and coming out this summer. The creative team includes Molly Gordon, who happens to be a childhood friend; filmmaker Nick Lieberman, a Harvard-Westlake theater chum; and Noah Galvin, who replaced Platt on Broadway in "Dear Evan Hansen" and is now his fiancé.
Platt and Galvin met years ago on a web series filmed in Galvin's mother's apartment. "We were like musical theater kids that loved comedy," Platt said. The question of will they or won't they date was hanging in the air, but Platt said that he finally came to his senses and now they've been together for more than three years.
A more recent friendship, the one Platt has formed with his "Parade" co-star Micaela Diamond, has lightened the load of performing in this harrowing show. Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown's 1998 musical tells the story of the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a factory manager in Atlanta who was accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old employee. To convince the jury of his guilt, evidence was manipulated and prejudices were played on. After the Georgia governor commuted his sentence to life in prison, Frank was lynched by an antisemitic mob.
The show is freighted with a painful and all-too-resonant history of white supremacy and murderous hate in America. At the first preview, a small group of neo-Nazis demonstrated outside the theater, passing out antisemitic material and telling theatergoers that they were about to "worship a pedophile."
How did these right-wing wackos even hear about "Parade"? Surely they're not scrolling through Broadway chat rooms while listening to original cast albums.
"There's a neo-Nazi sect that I think is constantly following this particular story," Platt said. "But it's emblematic of this crazy moment in history. These accusations of 'grooming' and the language about Frank being a pedophile and rapist are old tropes, and we're seeing them in a lot of places right now, with all the antisemitic and anti-trans scapegoating that's going on."
Platt was seated in his home away from home, a cramped, windowless dressing room. No diva, he chose this modest one because it's nearest to the wing where he makes a lot of entrances and also convenient to the bathroom. ("I drink so much water.") To combat the mousetrap feeling, he had the room painted nail-polish pink and added a Star of David in blue neon.
"There's a real heaviness to the show," he said. "And I knew I'd be coming here every day, eight times a week, for months, so I thought, 'What's the opposite of that energy?'"
This is the first Broadway show that Platt has done since "Dear Evan Hansen," and it's been in the works for a while. He has long wanted to work with Arden, who directed the Deaf West revival of "Spring Awakening" that came to Broadway in 2015, and jumped at the chance of doing a reading of "Parade" with him in 2018.
The role of Leo Frank had already been on Platt's wish list. He said that male parts in musical theater are plentiful for young people, but then there's a gap that "skips to fathers." At 29, Platt is the same age as Frank when he was arrested in 1913.
"There aren't that many roles that are particular to my age," he said. "My No. 1 dream is to play George Seurat in 'Sunday in the Park With George,' but that one isn't hugely age-specific, so there's no rush on that front."
Playing Leo has allowed him to incorporate other elements of his identity. His Judaism first and foremost, he said, but also his sense of "discomfort and anxiety." Leo, a Brooklynite by sensibility if not birth, feels completely out of place among Southerners. In his early number "How Can I Call This Home?" Platt conveys with humor and pathos the disdain that Lucille, Leo's stalwart wife, a Southern Jew from a prosperous family, doesn't share but can, in her capacious sympathy, understand.
Platt can seem cautious when speaking to the media. His filter was humming during the interview, but there's a sociability to his demeanor — a wary gregariousness.
"I've tended to play outsiders — Elder Cunningham in 'The Book of Mormon,' Evan Hansen and the 'Pitch Perfect' magician," Platt said. "That is just how the lot has fallen. But in this instance, if Leo were among his own people in New York, he would have community and not really be an outsider. I've played characters who would feel isolated wherever they were. With Leo, there's a bit of indignation and the frustration of 'It's not me, it's them,' which is an aggression that I've not gotten to play before."
Platt was a teenager when he saw the scaled-down Donmar Warehouse revival of "Parade" at the Mark Taper Forum in 2009. But it was the original cast recording that was not only his entry point but also a shared touchstone with Diamond, who was also in the 2018 reading.
"We love Carolee Carmello and Brent Carver so much," he said, referencing the show's original Broadway leads. "They're very iconic performances to both of us. We grew up listening to them nonstop."
The pandemic put any talk of a revival on hold until Arden returned with the possibility of doing a gala production at New York City Center. "I was like, as long as it's me and Micaela, I'd still love to do it,” Platt recalled.
The weeklong staging at City Center was rapturously received, leading to the musical's first Broadway revival. For a show that was more respected than loved when it was first done, this production is sweet redemption.
"Whenever you're reviving something, you always want to feel like there's a reason to bring it back," Platt said. "And that was so clear, politically, obviously. And also just in terms of the piece not getting its due. But I think when Micaela and I really clicked into place in the roles, it felt like that's another reason to do this. At that reading, it was great to hear the show and to remember why it's so great. But what was most memorable to me was my connection with Micaela."
Platt attributed the chemistry to more than Diamond's talent. "She is such a smart actor and her instrument is fantastic," he said. "But on top of that, I think we are just cut from the same cloth. Not only are we both Jewish, but we have a similar passion for what we're doing in musical theater. It comes from a similar place, so there's so much unspoken understanding and trust."
The note of gratitude in Platt's voice when he spoke of "Parade" was unmistakable. All the elements of the production have come together — the acting, the directing and, crucially important, the timeliness of the story. This was not the experience of the movie version of "Dear Evan Hansen," in which Platt, reprising the performance onscreen that made him a stage star, was subjected (quite unfairly, in my opinion) to a public flogging.
The memory of this still smarts. "I've tried hard to move forward from it and shape myself as a person separate from it, because it was a very heartbreaking thing to happen," Platt said. "It was a different time when the film came out and the story wasn't landing. I sort of took the heat given my age and people not wanting to accept me in the role, which is fine. I don't really know what to say except that I'm happy the film exists and I hope time will be kind to it."
It wasn't that long ago when Broadway stars were almost precluded from big Hollywood careers. Those days are over, but there are still tricky waters to navigate, even when you're the son of theater, film and television producer Marc Platt, who produced the "Dear Evan Hansen" film. (Ben Platt was one of the faces on the cover of New York magazine's spotlight on "Hollywood's nepo-baby boom.")
Musical talent, however, can't be counterfeited. Either you have it or you don't, and Platt not only won a Tony for his performance in "Dear Evan Hansen" but also earned a Grammy for the Broadway cast recording and a Daytime Emmy for his performance on “The Today Show” of “You Will Be Found," a rousing number from the musical. As a singer he has both impressive vocal range and stylistic versatility, but it’s his ability to inhabit the emotion of a song, to elucidate the psychology lyrically and musically, that distinguishes his gift.
Platt, who starred in two seasons of the Ryan Murphy Netflix drama "The Politician," enjoys commuting between stage and screen, but live performance is where he feels most alive. His career as a singer-songwriter emerged organically from his musical theater work. He said he initially found his voice as a recording artist playing characters and engaging with audiences. Musical theater, which he said he's been doing since he was 4, is more in his "gut," but showing up onstage as himself is helping him to be more present and vulnerable as a performer.
He's working on a third album and has another film shoot coming up for "Merrily We Roll Along," but he said he’s still looking for his next big acting project. When asked about his role models, he offered a not surprisingly eclectic list of names. He pointed to Nathan Lane as one of his "huge idols" and said that when he was "coming of age" Gavin Creel was the "coolest" person in his book for the way he mixed contemporary singing with musical theater performance.
Platt also named Norbert Leo Butz, Mandy Patinkin and Joel Grey as Broadway inspirations and James Taylor, Carole King and Stevie Wonder as musical influences. Cynthia Erivo, whose star-making performance in the Broadway revival of "The Color Purple" left an indelible impression on him, has become an invaluable mentor and friend.
"I was like an empty vessel that got filled with musical theater," he said, reflecting on his youth in Los Angeles, where he experienced the best of the local theater scene with family and friends. He said his high school buddies from Harvard-Westlake are still among the closest people in his life — personally and professionally.
That line for Platt is thin, and he likes it that way. "Every time you do a project, you make a family,” he said. “You don't necessarily stay close with all 30 cast members from each individual project, but the people who are meant to stay in your life find their way in."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.