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Interview: Sam Primack and Jessica E. Sherman of DEAR EVAN HANSEN

The cast members of the National Tour talk about the show, their backgrounds, and more!

Dear Evan Hansen

This morning, I had the opportunity to speak with Sam Primack (currently playing the alternate Evan Hansen going on twice a week) and Jessica E. Sherman (playing Heidi Hansen, Evan's mother) in the popular musical Dear Evan Hansen. The show is the story of an anxious high schooler named Evan who, in order to be liked, lies about his friendship with a fellow student. I reached them in the middle of their run in Baltimore prior to their arrival to the Capital Region area.

BWW: Hello! Sam and Jessica, you're both on the line.

Jessica [to Sam]: Good morning, love!

Sam: Good morning, Jess!

Sam: We did a show last night. We're in Baltimore.

Jessica: Good morning, Baltimore!

BWW: Where are each of you from?

Sam: Well, I am from Phoenix, Arizona. I grew up there doing theater all around the Valley. And I moved to New York in 2019 to do this show [DEAR EVAN HANSEN].

Jessica: And I am a Toronto gal. Canadian, although I am dual citizen from my father's side. I moved to England after [getting] a singing degree in Canada, and I stayed in England for a while - 13 years. Then I went back to Canada, and was very lucky to be found for the Dear Evan Hansen first international production in Toronto. It was an interesting process. Because I was so new back to Toronto, I did some fringe stuff and was getting to know people. But I was very much on the outside of the theater world...starting to make some traction, but [DEAR EVAN HANSEN] was such a huge deal in Toronto. We were so proud to have this show there, and then to be found for it was amazing.

BWW: What first inspired both of you to perform?

Sam: For me, my grandma took me to see this community theater show when I was four years old. I remember pointing at one of the characters and being like, "I want to do that! Whatever those kids are doing, I want to do that." Luckily, there were three or four theaters in my area that would cast kids that young, and there were summer camps. I went and auditioned - and didn't get into the shows for a bit. There was a time where I was on the way to another audition, and I told my mom, "I don't want to do this. This is not for me." And she said, "Let's just do one more." And that's the one that I got. And I've really just been hooked ever since. It's been an integral part of growing up, of my life. My first show was INTO THE WOODS, JR. I played the Hen that Laid the Golden Egg - and I fell off the stage during bows. I ran up to the edge of the stage and just completely fell off because I was so excited to be there.

Jessica: I've never heard that story! It makes me so happy, I might actually cry.

Sam: Knowing me, that makes a lot of sense.

Jessica: I didn't do a lot of theater in Toronto. I wanted to be...I don't know what I wanted to be. Maybe a singing math teacher for handicapped dogs, at one point, to combine all my interests. Not sure how I would make that work. That didn't pan out so well. I have always enjoyed singing. Church choirs. I was the one who was like, "Can I just double check? Are we cutting off on the 'and' of 4, or ON 4? I'm doing it differently from everybody else. I just want to be sure." I really cared! I wasn't trying to be a jerk about it. I just really cared. And I really loved it, and I was good at it, and it bothered me that other people were just doing it in their spare time. So, I never really got the sense that this was a job somebody could have; it was just this hobby that nobody cared about as much as me because it always felt very casual. [But], I [ended up] doing a classical music degree. I probably thought I'd be a teacher at some point, although I was in the Performance program: it was clear that I was not going to be the next big opera star. And I started doing musical theater on the side. I did BLOOD BROTHERS, directed by Michael Rubinoff - [the producer] who came up with idea for COME FROM AWAY [as a musical]. Belting sat well with me. It was a wonderful role to play. I've never had that feeling, I guess, of "feeling your feels" in a public setting and making everybody feel them with you, bringing people on that journey and giving them that visceral feeling that good musical theater can do. I was just addicted! This is it. This is what it means to find a calling.

BWW: 6 years into Dear Evan Hansen, the show has continued to run on Broadway, has toured almost continuously and inspired a movie. How does it feel to be part of something so iconic?

Sam: It's hard to think of it as iconic when you're right in the middle of it, truthfully. We have this grueling schedule where we travel every week, which means we have no day off. It's really hard to think about anything other than getting to the next place, sitting On Your Marks, and saying your lines. But, then, after the show, when I meet a fan who tells me that the show has changed their opinion - or people have told me that the show has changed their life - it puts a lot of things into perspective about how trivial all of the rest of the things are. For me, the biggest joy of it all is being able to give that gift to the audience every night.

Jessica: [Sam and I] had different experiences of how we got to build our shows originally, but because I started with the Toronto cast, we had a full, isolated rehearsal process. I hadn't seen the show when I started. [I mean], the first night of rehearsal, Stacey [the producer of Dear Evan Hansen] invited us all to the show - but then you're like a deer in headlights: franticly watching for entrances and exits because you have one rehearsal. So, I didn't pay much attention to [the show that night]. I actually didn't see and experience the show for myself until the Toronto first understudy put in [a rehearsal for the understudy to run through their show for the first time] and it was just magical.

That's really when it dropped in that this was a big deal. The show is phenomenal. It's such an intimate show, for all of its grandeur. So, it doesn't feel like I'm part of this juggernaut. It can be jarring when you realize you're a small cog in a very large wheel, because it's me and him [Evan], a very intimate relationship and people can watch it or not, but that's what we're having - we're having this journey together. Also, it's a huge honor: we know what [the show] means to everybody, so there's definitely a weight of responsibility for it. But the weight of the responsibility - I can only speak for myself - doesn't feel like "because I'm part of this iconic show." The responsibility is because, due to the fact that it's an iconic show, kids from all over, troubled teens, mothers who are struggling with their kids need something from us. It's so important to them. So, that weight I feel very keenly.

BWW: Dear Evan Hansen is about family, and a couple times a week, you two get to play mother/son. How does that inform your relationship offstage?

Jessica: [Jokingly] I can't bear him. He's the worst. *laughs*

Sam: As you can tell, we're not close at all.

Jessica: We have to STRUGGLE onstage.

Sam: It's really hard. They have to separate us backstage.

Jessica: You kind of disassociate, you know? You just put your mind somewhere else. *lots of laughter*

Sam: I will say, our relationship is not easy in the show. I think Evan and Heidi have one of the most troubling relationships and arcs to deal with. We have to take a lot of care of each other onstage - but also offstage in the touring environment, we really only have each other. We only have the 40-50 of us that travel. The moms become my moms. The other kids in the show become my friends and brothers and sisters. We all take care of each other because we have nobody else to. There's an extra level of protection and family that you can't get from doing the show in another home.

Jessica: Yeah, I agree. And we're so lucky with this particular group. I mean, there's not a dud amongst us. It's just a wonderful, wonderful team. It really is remarkable. Sam and I, we're colleagues on the stage. We're equal partners. (I mean, he's obviously the lead.) But, I'm playing with an equal out there. He's so talented and so wonderful and we have this equal professional relationship - and that can't [help but] breed a good friendship. He's a wonderful guy, and he looks out for me as much as I look out for him. I feel very taken care of by the company, by my "boys." We're always checking in with each other, and chat before the show or after. We've never gone onstage without a big old hug.

BWW: To that point, this show is, in a word, intense for both of your characters. How do you deal with the rollercoaster of emotions night after night?

Sam: It's such a tricky question because my real answer would be, "I just do it." But, it's more complicated than that. There's a lot of prep pre-show and post-show to make sure that I come into the show in a certain headspace and I leave the show in a certain headspace. Thankfully, the show ends on a really hopeful and gratifying note. There are several intense and emotional scenes. But, when it ends, there is a lot of hope and a lot of looking to the future. I can't speak for all the Evans, but when it ends, I have to get out of it because, if I don't, I'll stay in that headspace for a while. So, during the last music right when I get offstage, [I start] thinking about what I'm going to eat for dinner and every other little thing outside of being sad on the stage, which I've had to think about for the last two hours.

Jessica: I echo that about wanting to arrive in a certain headspace and just be open. I try to be as relaxed as I can be - and then just step on the conveyor belt. The lucky part about Heidi's journey is that it is very much set off of what the boys are giving me. So, I just have to show up open to receive whatever they throw at me and then do the thing.

BWW: What is your favorite moment in the show?

Sam: [There are] two moments that I really like. I love singing the song "For Forever." It's truly one of my favorite songs that I get to sing: it's a story song; the melody fits well in my voice; there's this huge climax at the end. You get to flex all the skills in that song, which is really fun. And then, I love listening to and doing the scene for "So Big, So Small." It's a challenge for both of us. I feel so disconnected from Heidi/Jess throughout the whole show, but it's our one chance to connect finally after this whole long process of not being able to. I really love that part.

Jessica: I love Act II. I'm going to go with three [favorite moments]. One is just the [end of "So Big, So Small" when I say,] "You'll see, I promise." It is the only time we're just looking in each other's eyes and being with whatever emotion the show has brought us to; we're just there in it. And there's no pressure. You're not trying to put anything on it. It's just a promise. I love that moment. The second is in the orchard at the very end: it's the only time when we're all onstage together. I'm just very aware that it's this company of eight that has made this journey possible and we're all there supporting Evan and then he looks out into the orchard with a view to the future for the first time. It's very lovely. And then, the third is a cheesy one: listening to the tail end of "Disappear" from backstage. It is musically my favorite part of the show. It's not on the album. And it's everybody else singing and the orchestra is beautiful. The orchestrations are beautiful. The harmonies are wonderful. And I know what's happening onstage and I love knowing that it's happening and that I'm a part of that.

BWW: If you could give your characters some advice, what would you tell them?

Sam: Stop lying!! *laughs* No.

Jessica: Take the money! *laughs* I don't know, because I'm not far from her in my real life - and I wish I knew what to tell her. I would take the advice that she gave me, for sure. I wonder what that would be.

Sam: It's an interesting question for our show specifically because the characters are made to fail, and made to mess up, and are human in that way. Every little bit of information that we get about them leads to where they end up. I'm not sure I'd want to tell Evan anything during the whole process of "the lie" during the show, because that would mess up what he learns at the end. If I could tell him something at the end, I'd probably say something like, "There is hope for the future. Maybe someday this will feel like something so small." I think he does understand that after a year. But, I don't know if telling him to stop lying during the course of the show would have him stop. And I'm not sure if I would want it to because it would change how hard he crumbles after it falls apart and how much he has to build himself back up. We got played a quote from Stephen Levenson [book writer for Dear Evan Hansen] about a month ago that I really liked: [it was something like] "Evan loses everything that he gains throughout the show. He loses the girl and the family. The only thing that he gains at the end of the show is the hope to keep living." And I wouldn't want to interfere with that.

Jessica: In a similar vein, I think any "advice" I'd give to Heidi implies that she is doing things wrong. I don't judge her for how she plays the cards she's dealt; she really is doing her best. Like everybody. And I take that very much onboard that that's what I'm representing: the people with just too hard of a hand, that are just trying to figure it out. Advice? I don't know. But, I sure want to be beside her, holding her hand through it. I sure want to be her friend and say, "You're not in this by yourself," because I think she does feel that way. She is carrying it on her own. I'd give her no advice, but I'd stand beside her - and give her a hug once in a while. Hug your mother!

BWW: Jessica, as the actor playing Heidi for every show, how do you adapt your performance opposite different actors playing Evan?

Jessica: There are some technical things, like some Evans look at me on this line, or stay upstage a little more on this line. Technically adjusting blocking...boring. But - this is going to sound awful - but I don't feel like I DO anything. I did in creating her, in figuring it out. But now that I'm here, I'm always ready. I'm open. And then I just get on the conveyor belt. I know these boys well. I am always in to rehearse with new Evans or understudies that I haven't gotten to know as well. I try to take every opportunity I can to work with them so there's a familiarity of who this kid is. But, once I'm on that train, I'm just taking what they give me. And they do give me different things! We have slightly different relationships - but I have slightly different relationships with them offstage, too.

So, I love it. I would not change that for anything. It keeps it fresh. It keeps it interesting. And it reminds you to listen. You just kind of take what you get. I love the process of exploring and getting to know the different kids. But, it can be jarring! When we first started rehearsing for this tour after Toronto and Sam was rehearsing with us, I was like, "Who is this kid?? This isn't my son. I don't know you! Who are you?" It's a weird feeling. But, I love both [my Evans] and I care for them both. And it is heartbreaking when they are broken. So, in any case, all you have to do is care about these people and then your heart breaks for them when they are hurting - and then you're there. I don't do anything. I just show up and then I see people I love be upset and then I feel that.

Sam: That's been one of the biggest things that I've learned in the couple of years I've been doing this: just showing up and listening is the best acting that I've done. Not having a preconceived "I'm going to say this line this way," which is what I'd learned in school and class. But, just showing up and listening and responding. It's that simple, but effective. That's all we need from the moms and from Jess.

Jessica: And we're lucky with [this show]. I think with some musical theater, you do kind of have to have consistency. There's a rhythm to it and it's choreographed. Not to say that the heart isn't in those shows, too. [But], this is such an actor's gift of a musical. It really is a play that just happens to be sung a bunch.

BWW: Sam, you were just announced to take over the role of Evan on Broadway starting in September. What was it like to receive that news?

Sam: Yes! It was crazy. I was with my whole family on vacation. It was a Monday and we were at a Starbucks, and there were lots of tears. There was lots of excitement. I'll be doing it for a year, which is also exciting. I have been waiting and watching and trying to understand what it's like to do this show six times a week, and that had always been the hope and the goal. But, to do it in New York was something I didn't even think was a possibility and, when they said that it was, it was just very affirming. I've been doing the show and auditioning for a really long time. So, to have it [happen]...I'm really grateful.

Jessica: We are very proud of him! My little boy!

DEAR EVAN HANSEN arrives in Schenectady at Proctors on March 22, 2022 and runs through Sunday, March 27th, 2022. Tickets and more information may be found at www.proctors.org.

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This morning, I had the opportunity to speak with Sam Primack (currently playing the alternate Evan Hansen going on twice a week) and Jessica E. Sherman (playing Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mother) in the popular musical DEAR EVAN HANSEN. The show is the story of an anxious high schooler named Evan who, in order to be liked, lies about his friendship with a fellow student. I reached them in the middle of their run in Baltimore prior to their arrival to the Capital Region area.