The audiences of “Dear Evan Hansen” often leave Broadway’s Music Box Theatre with soaked tissues and reddened eyes. Then a crowd usually gathers outside the stage door. They're not there to nab a selfie or a signature from the cast of the six-time Tony-winner; instead they want to share a personal struggle with loneliness, depression or suicide. The actors who have just performed the 2 1/2-hour musical absorb these anecdotes of anguish with a smile.
The popular production, about an anxious adolescent and his runaway lie, has been playing to standing-room-only crowds since its December 2016 opening and captures the innocence, fragility and narcissism of adolescence.
"These characters really feel like 17-year-olds who haven't figured it out yet," says “Dear Evan Hansen” director Michael Greif. "They're fascinating and flawed, and they express themselves through extraordinarily good music. Young people see themselves onstage, and we parents see our younger selves onstage too."
"Dear Evan Hansen" recently kicked off its inaugural 60-city U.S. tour and will stop by Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre from Oct. 17 to Nov. 25. It’s a homecoming for Ben Levi Ross, the L.A. native who heads the tour as its titular teen.
Ross first joined the emotionally-demanding production when he understudied the three major young male roles on Broadway. "I saw how all of the actors took care of themselves," he recalls of sharing the stage with Ben Platt, Noah Galvin and current Broadway lead Taylor Trensch, who is also Ross' beau. "As with any tour, you have to make your space wherever you are, without your significant other or your pets or your kids. It's like going away to college for the first time, and then moving again and again every month."
The tour began last month in Denver, in a theater that's more than double the seating capacity of the Music Box. And because the setting of the story is intentionally vague, its characters might seem directly pulled out of any city the tour visits. "These fans have been as passionate and intense as in New York, if not more," says Ross. "A lot of them have been listening to the cast recording for over a year and have yet to see it, and I think people are just so excited to have it come to their hometown."
Just as social media is a fundamental part of the musical's plot, the "Dear Evan Hansen" enthusiasm thrives online. Fans upload covers of its songs to YouTube, pen character fan fiction on the website Archive of Our Own and post illustrations of standout lyrics and scenes on Tumblr.
Maggie McKenna plays Evan's love interest, Zoe Murphy, in the tour, but before she joined the production she tracked the success of "Dear Evan Hansen" through social media since its debut run in Washington, D.C. She listened to the cast recording religiously, but because she was based in Australia she couldn't stream any of the secretly-recorded clips of its Broadway performances. "Back in the day, I was very annoyed, but I'm glad now, because when I finally saw it, I was blown away," McKenna says with a laugh. "Whenever I watch 'Waving Through a Window' from side of stage, it feels so surreal because, just two years ago, I was screaming this song in my bedroom."
The fandom expands to include parents as they come to relate to Heidi Hansen, Evan's tenacious single mother who attends night school after her workday. "She reflects that universal feeling parents have every night when they go to bed: they didn't do a good job, they're left out of their kids' lives, they're not gonna [raise] good human beings because of their own failures," says Jessica Phillips, who plays Heidi and has two teenage sons of her own. "Even though Heidi is often stumbling and saying all the wrong things, that doesn't dissuade her from plowing forward, because the love she feels for her son and the desire to give him a good life is ultimately what connects them."
After performances, Phillips frequently finds herself surrounded by fellow parents. "These moms grab my sleeve and say, 'I'm here because my daughter loves this show, but I feel like it was written for me. These women are seeing themselves reflected in Heidi: I'm not always getting it right, but I'm here for you and I'm not going anywhere."
While the tour's cast appreciates meeting fans who are particularly moved by their storytelling, they remain careful with their more delicate stage-door conversations. "People come to the stage door and say, 'Evan was me,' and they'll open up and I'm so touched by that; I say, 'I'm so sorry and proud of you that you're here now,'" says Ross. "This show truly opens up a dialogue, and I hope these people who are touched in an honest and real way have family members or friends they can discuss it with.”
Like the Broadway cast, the entire company on the road was trained by a psychologist in New York on best practices for discussing mental health. They’re versed in resources like the Born This Way Foundation and the National Suicide Hotline, for anyone who might need to speak to a trained professional.
“Mental health in this country is an epidemic, and 'Dear Evan Hansen' coming out and unapologetically portraying these struggles, and how we connect with one another, is important,” Ross says. “Bringing the show around this country, it's really going to touch a lot of people."
“Dear Evan Hansen”
Where: Ahmanson Theater, 601 W. Temple St., Los Angeles
When: Oct. 17-Nov. 25 (also at Segerstrom Center, Jan. 1-13)
Info: centertheatregroup.org, (213) 972-7376