When Ben Levi Ross was immersed in his musical theater studies as a freshman at Carnegie Mellon, the blockbuster "Dear Evan Hansen" was a musical he didn't know a lot about. That changed dramatically the summer after his freshman year in 2017, when a fateful, unrelated audition led to what is now a skyrocketing career for the 21-year-old.

Ross, who now plays the title character in the national tour of "Dear Evan Hansen," flew from his hometown of Los Angeles that summer to audition for director Michael Greif for the play “The Low Road” at New York’s Public Theater. Greif, who also just happened to be the director of “Dear Evan Hansen," didn't cast Ross in that play. But he told him he wanted him as an understudy for "Dear Evan Hansen" on Broadway.

Fast forward to Oct. 31, 2017, and Ross was making his Broadway debut, covering the young male roles of Evan Hansen, Jared Kleinman and Connor Murphy in the musical. Now he's been on the road as the title character since the tour started in October. The tour lands at Playhouse Square's Connor Palace in Cleveland on Tuesday and runs through June 30.

"It's really been a game-changer. It's like my first professional job," Ross said by phone from the tour in Pittsburgh. "This is maybe one of the hardest roles and jobs I'll ever have in my life."

As Evan, actor Ross is on stage 97 percent of the time in a very physically and emotionally taxing role.

"I feel like I can take on any job after this," he said.

Ross was excited to return to Pittsburgh, where his college musical theater studies started, on the "Dear Evan Hansen" tour.

"My voice teacher was in the audience on Tuesday, and last night one of my acting professors was there with a couple other people and I actually have professors coming for the next two nights as well, so it's been really nice to see them," he said.

The show tells the story of Evan, a lonely, socially isolated high school boy, and the elaborate ruse he perpetuates in an effort to fit in. It's about a letter that was never meant to be seen, a lie that was never meant to be told, and a relationship with a disturbed classmate that never existed.

Rolling Stone calls the show "a game-changer that hits you like a shot in the heart," and the Washington Post calls it "one of the most remarkable shows in musical theater history." The contemporary musical is a smaller, chamber-like work that tackles the serious topic of youth mental health, including debilitating anxiety.

Ross said he sees parallels between how Evan and the character Connor deal with anxiety and depression in this story.

"I believe that both of them deal with both of those things. The difference really comes from the way that Connor lashes out and becomes violent and angry with his issues, and Evan goes inward with it all" and shuts down, Ross said.

"He [Evan] ponders in 'Waving through a Window' why no one's waving back at him, and ... when you're falling in the forest and there's nobody around, do you make a sound?" the actor said. "The answer to a lot of those questions is he doesn't have the ability to be social like the extroverted people around him."

The character has an emptiness at the beginning of the show but he later begins to become hopeful about life, said Ross, who explores nightly what makes Evan's anxiety peak and wane. In this story, which runs 2 hours and 30 minutes, Evan's single, overworked mother isn't present much, so he's drawn to the Murphys, parents of the troubled Connor who has taken his own life.

Evan finds himself unwillingly giving a public speech in honor of Connor ("You Will Be Found"), and his life begins to change.

"He finds he's getting a lot of attention for this confusion/mix up/lie that paints him as Connor's best friend" via the aforementioned letter, Ross said.

The lyrics to the inspirational song include the words, "If you only look around, you will be found."

"You have to reach out a hand," Ross said of the show's most important message.

 

Positive feedback

After every performance, the actor receives 20 to 30 Instagram messages from audience members of all ages who say they've gone through something similar to young characters Evan, Connor or Jared, or even the older parental characters.

"Especially with the kids, it's a lot of people thanking me and thanking the cast for doing this show and portraying it truthfully because it's helped them feel a little bit less alone and understand that there are people like them that are going through the same things," Ross said.

From the stage, Ross sees a lot of audience members in tears with puffy faces at the end of the show.

"It just feels sort of like a group catharsis sometimes within the audiences," he said.

Playing all three young male roles on Broadway has helped the actor understand both Evan and the other characters better.

"I feel like I now understand where everyone's coming from," he said.

The musical also explores both how social media can cause a devastating lie to explode and how social media can connect people for good. 

"It's basically like you're drenched in a world of screen," Ross said of the futuristic-looking projections by Peter Nigrini that bring the story's social media element to life.

"Dear Evan Hansen," which opened in December 2016, is a cultural phenomenon. It won six 2017 Tony Awards, including best musical and best lead actor in a musical (Ben Platt, the original Evan), as well as the 2018 Grammy for best musical theater album. Its Toronto production will run until July 21, and a London production will begin previews Oct. 27.

The Broadway production, which celebrated its second anniversary in December, made a special donation of character Evan's iconic blue polo and arm cast to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. There has also been a special synergy between the Broadway and tour casts, which came together to record the music video "You Will Be Found" last summer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMZZTrjWxt0/).

On Valentine's Day, "Dear Evan Hansen" also released a special new music video of "Only Us," featuring real-life couple Ross and his boyfriend, Taylor Trensch, who played the title character on Broadway from February 2018 until late January. In the show, Evan and Zoe sing the song. In the new video, the two men sing a new arrangement of the love ballad by Alex Lacamoire. See it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJkwjrFbmIs/.

"How often do you get the leads of a Broadway company and a touring company like 'Dear Evan Hansen' who are dating, playing the same role?" Ross asked.

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.