BWW Interview: Debut of the Month - DEAR EVAN HANSEN's Will Roland
Will Roland makes his Broadway debut as Jared Kleinman in the new, contemporary American musical Dear Evan Hansen. In the show, socially awkward high schooler Evan Hansen writes a letter that is never meant to be seen and tells a lie that was never meant to be told, all in the hopes of having the life he always dreamed of and the chance to finally fit in.
Today, Roland speaks exclusively with BWW and explains the ways in which making his Broadway debut in DEAR EVAN HANSEN is "cosmically amazing."
[NOTE: BroadwayWorld's fabulous photographer Walter McBride captures images of the Broadway stars profiled in our monthly column in a special photo shoot. Check out the pics of Will Roland throughout the feature!]
When did you first realize you wanted to become an actor?
Well, let's see, when did I catch the bug? You know I enjoyed music and singing from a very, very young age and I can recall being very active and enthusiastic about singing in choir when I was in third grade, and then I really started acting in middle school. I went to a lovely high school called Friends Academy out in Long Island and they had a spectacular theater program there and that was where a deep love of acting was instilled in me.
You have now been a part of several incarnations of DEAR EVAN HANSEN. How did you first become involved with the show?
Well I auditioned for the show in the summer of 2014, and at that point, all that was out there were some audition sides and it was known as 'The Untitled PPL Musical' by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson, and Michael Greif was directing. But besides that, I had no idea what I was auditioning for, nor did anyone else in the hallway for that matter. We were all like, 'What is this? It's all very secretive!' But I booked that reading in July of 2014, which led to another reading in September of 2014 and then a workshop in March of 2015, and then finally our first production down in Arena in the summer of 2015.
How exciting to be there from the onset.
It's really been a gift. I love new stuff. Don't get me wrong, I would love to be in a production of 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers' somewhere but there's definitely a lot more that speaks to me about new musicals and new plays and new music and art in general. I think developing and being a part of the development process is an incredibly fulfilling experience. And so I am unbelievably grateful to be able to be on this show from the very, very beginning. So much of it has been collaborative and I have had so much input on it, and that's really an absolute joy.
Has much changed since those earlier versions of the show?
Well I'll tell you that not much has changed from the off-Broadway run to the Broadway run, very, very minor script adjustments here and there and it's mostly things like different harmonies and new orchestrations in certain places. For the most part, they are very minor changes. When we were down in DC however, we were making huge, out-of-town preview changes, the likes of which are legendary in the history of musical theater! We would finish on a Sunday evening performance and Michael Greif would come around with just stacks of pages and entire songs were getting cut and rearranged, re-written. Entire scenes were coming in and going out and moving around, and it was so alive, so much was changing. And the same was true before that.
My favorite example that I love to give is that in an early incarnation of the show, I had this huge number, which right now is like a 25-second scene. It's the scene where Connor Murphy takes Evan's letter and Evan is very worried that he is going to ruin his life, and like I said, it's now a 25-second scene. But at the time, it was this six-minute punk rock musical Fantasia where I sang about how Connor was going to post his letter to Twitter and Facebook and he was going to be a viral sensation and people would be making parodies of this pathetic letter. It was fun, but I really think the show is okay without it.
It must be hard for the creatives to make those kinds of edits.
Well yes, it's always hard to see your material go, but its one of those cases where I have no doubt in my heart that the show was made better in its current form.
Let's talk about the colorful character you play in the show. Have you found there are similarities between yourself and Jared?
You know I think that you can only do so much acting, and I'm making air quotes as I say the word 'acting', because you can only go so far away from who you are. And so I think there are a lot of elements to this character that sort of exist within me. I love to sometimes make crude and crass jokes, and I like to feel quick-witted and I like making people laugh, but I don't think I'm quite as callous or insensitive as maybe Jared is in the play. So a lot of it is drawn from things that I think sort of come from me, which I also think is why I initially got the part. There was so little information out there about Jared when I originally auditioned and I think I came in and it wasn't about one actor being better than another, it was more about, 'Oh, that guy's got the right sort of default position for this role.' And I think that's what it came down to initially. And since then, a lot of it has been re-written around my sentiments, what I can deliver well and all those types of things.
One of the things I love about Jared is the way he brings the comic relief during some of the heaviest moments of the show.
Absolutely! And I really cherish that job because I think in a show like this that is so heavy and so emotionally full at times, people are hungry to laugh, they're hungry for a little bit of levity. And so when I come out, there's always a warm and strong reaction from the audience just because I think people are very, very ready to laugh and feel light at that moment. So yes, the comedy is welcomed with such open arms. And I also get to do a lot of truth-telling in that capacity. I get to point out the ridiculousness of what is happening sometimes and sort of say what we are all thinking about what Evan is doing, or not doing for that matter. And that's also a great pleasure.
At the same time, Jared himself goes through a transformation as the story progresses.
I hope so, yes. I think ultimately what the creative team has done so successfully here is to show you four teenagers, Evan, Connor, Jared and Alana, all of whom are ultimately very similar. They feel isolated, they feel like they're not seen and they're not heard and they all have different ways of trying to fix their lives and be heard and seen by those around them. And they're all kind of ineffective at it ultimately, which is kind of sad, but that's I think what they all share.
Another unique aspect of the show is the way it spotlights the role that social media now plays in our culture and how it's affecting our lives.
Yes, and the dangers of social media as well. For me personally, Facebook was just coming on the scene when I was in high school. I remember when I was a Junior they allowed students to have a Facebook account and that was a big transition in my life. And what I have learned since then is that it is very easy to put a certain version of yourself, an edited, filtered, air-brushed version of yourself out on social media. And it's very easy to look at other people's information they are putting out there and think that it is totally candid and totally unedited and think, 'wow that person is actually that beautiful and that funny and that happy. Why aren't I like them?' And I think that is a huge hazard, not just for young people but for everyone.
What do you hope will be the message that audiences take away from the story?
I think ultimately, there are two big themes of the show. Number one is that we need to think hard about the way in which we communicate with one another. Facebook and Twitter and all those other things are the way young people are communicating with each other. It's also the way that parents and children now communicate, it's the way that families talk to one another. And what we see in this play is that everyone now has a hard time saying what they need to say and asking for what they need from those around them. And the other thing the play does is ask an important moral question. Evan tells this lie and everything that happens because of this lie, for the most part, is good and it's healing and it sort of begs the question, if we do something that we know is wrong, that we've been told is wrong, that we see as wrong, but everything that comes out of it is right, is it as wrong as we're told? So it's important to examine that and the sort of grayness that exists in morality all the time and what we think is right is often more complicated than just simply right or wrong.
What has it been like to work with this cast and creative team?
I'm very lucky. This is a team of world-class artists. Michael Greif is truly one of the most spectacular directors I have ever met or worked with. He has such focus and such ability to continually watch the show with fresh eyes and make it clearer and clearer for audiences. And in some ways he's relentless. We get a lot of notes from him and a lot of really minor adjustments that make big differences when you're out front seeing the show for the first time. And of course the writers are all spectacular. Benj and Justin obviously are in a huge moment in their careers right now. I probably have the closest artistic collaboration with Steven Levenson in this process because the way my part is structured, I'm usually just talking out into the dark, and so the book is my closest scene partner throughout the play. So I am so grateful for Steven's words. He is unbelievable in his ability to use an economy of language. I think there are a relatively small number of words in this play for what is being said and I think he's spectacular in that way. It's a beautiful show and I think it looks and sounds different than what we are used to hearing and that is because scenic and lighting and projection, all act as one big unit and sound and orchestrations and the band, also act as one big unit, and it's creating this very cohesive world. And again, I think it comes back to Michael Greif and his ability to really focus and be clear and ask for incredible clarity from these designers.
And finally, what has it been like to make your Broadway debut in DEAR EVAN HANSEN?
I mean it's a dream true. It's really a dream come true and I keep coming back to how lucky I am because there are tons and tons of talented people working so incredibly hard and there are tons and tons of ways to make your Broadway debut, so I just feel so fortunate that I get to do it in this way, in a show that I've worked on for so long. The fact that it has been so well-received so far, the fact that it is such a great group of people, that the show is entirely original, I mean the ways in which it is cosmically amazing just keep stacking up!
DEAR EVAN HANSEN is now officially open at New York's Music Box Theater (239 W 45th St, New York, NY).
Will Roland is a Brooklyn-based actor and singer. He recently stared in Dear Evan Hansen at New York's Second Stage and Arena Stage. Other theater credits include The Black Suits (CTG & Barrington), The Bus (59E59), LoserSongs (Don't Tell Mama), and Academia Nuts! (NYMF).
Will frequently collaborates with Joe Iconis & Family. Passionate about new work, he's helped develop plays and musicals with 2nd Stage, La Jolla, Arena, CAP21, Don't Tell Mama, and various Fringe festivals.
Follow Caryn Robbins @CarynRobbins