content warning: mentions of suicide and mental illness. Spoilers for Dear Evan Hansen.
On 18 May 2021, the first trailer for the film adaptation of acclaimed Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen dropped. Like many fans of the show, I was excited to see what new developments director Steven Chbosky (of The Perks of Being a Wallflower fame) would bring to the story. And like many other people, I was dismayed at the casting choice for the titular character, as portrayed by Ben Platt, who originated the role onstage.
My thoughts were summarised in a text I sent to my friend later that day: “The cast is good. Ben Platt’s wig is not.”
Clearly, I wasn’t the only one. I logged onto Twitter (which I always do when I want my beliefs validated) and found thousands of tweets criticising Platt’s role, comparing him to the actors from Grease and wondering who thought Ben Platt could pass as a high schooler!
In response, Platt stressed to Vanity Fair the urgency of his casting, allowing him to “remain teen-adjacent”. More recently, Platt has been under fire for his comments that “were [he] not to do the movie”, the adaptation would have never been made. Perhaps he has a point; Platt’s father Marc is the movie’s producer.
Now before I go any further, I would like to set a disclaimer: I have no problem with Platt as a performer or a person. His portrayal as Evan on Broadway was nothing short of incredible. However, there is a clear issue with his casting and how this will impact Evan’s character.
Anyone familiar with Dear Evan Hansen is aware that it is an emotional show. Suicide and mental health are primary themes, and during the show we witness Evan soaring to euphoric highs and crashing to rock bottom. Evan remains a morally grey character. He inadvertently leads the family of a recently deceased classmate to believe he was his friend, partly by accident, and partly to get closer to the boy’s sister whom he has a crush on.
To suggest that a younger actor could not accurately portray the complexities of such a character is incredibly dismissive of how talented young artists can be. When I visited New York at the end of 2019, and saw Dear Evan Hansen, I had the pleasure of witnessing Andrew Barth Feldman, who was 17, the exact same age as Evan, embody the role. Evan’s verbal tics, insecurities and anxieties were elevated, as Barth Feldman’s age only helped Evan become more relatable to the audience. Evan’s social anxiety and extreme awkwardness are emphasised to the point that some scenes are genuinely uncomfortable to watch. When Evan breaks, the audience breaks with him. When he inadvertently deceives the Murphy family, his actions come across as genuinely mistaken rather than malicious.
On screen, young actors have proven time and time again that they maintain the ability to truly embody difficult characters who make questionable choices. In Joe Wright’s 2007 Oscar Winner Atonement, Saoirse Ronan earned a (highly deserved) Oscar nomination for her turn as Briony Tallis, a character who still inspires vitriol today. More recently, young actors such as Alan Kim, Quvenzhané Wallis and Millie Bobby Brown have demonstrated that age is not a factor when creating riveting and complex performances.
This age gap brings about an additional romantic imbalance. Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Evan’s love interest Zoe Murphy, is also not a teenager. However, at 24, she passes much better for a high schooler than Platt does. While we are yet to see the pair in action, initial scenes from the trailer make Platt look like her teacher rather than her boyfriend. The effect is unsettling. Scenes between Evan and Zoe are at risk of appearing awkward at best and unbalanced at worst. Even in a movie where the majority of young characters are played by adults, Ben Platt reads as far older than his co-stars. Simply, Platt does not LOOK 17. He doesn’t even look 20. It is safe to say that most teens will never look like Ben Platt. But a lot of teens have the talent and deep empathy needed to play the character of Evan well, with all his complexities.
I believe if an older actor embodies this character, there is much less room for the suspension of disbelief. Onstage there is a lack of realism, allowing older actors to portray younger characters. Onscreen, realism is often key to a good story. If Evan is portrayed by an older actor, it’s likely that Evan’s actions and choices will be perceived as far creepier and more manipulative than the screenwriters intended.
What I (and many other fans of the show) want from this film is a realistic and faithful adaptation of the musical that will honestly speak to teenagers and those who identify with Evan’s struggle to be accepted for who he truly is.
Ben Platt’s Broadway performance as Evan was incredible. However, I feel that this casting decision is misguided. As recounted in Vanity Fair, the goal of this film was to immortalise Platt’s portrayal as Evan. If this truly is the case, why not instead create a proshot musical, featuring the original cast, and instead have actual teenagers in the film adaptation? The magic of theatre is the lack of realism and a suspension of disbelief–it just doesn’t have the same effect as film. Moreover, this casting decision inadvertently positioned Platt to become a figure of ridicule. As a result of this, his performance will be overlooked in favour of criticisms about his appearance. As one YouTube commenter put it, “No one cares that Ben is 27. We care that he doesn’t look 17.” And that makes all the difference.