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Tony winner Ben Platt's L.A. high school days: He shone in different ways than Evan Hansen, teachers say

Tony winner Ben Platt's L.A. high school days: He shone in different ways than Evan Hansen, teachers say
Ben Platt portrays the title character, a high schooler floundering to find his place in the world, in "Dear Evan Hansen." (Matthew Murphy)

In "Dear Evan Hansen," newly minted Tony winner Ben Platt portrays a high schooler who's so nervous, unsure and desperately lonely that he seems to fold into himself, as though trying to make himself disappear.

None of this remotely resembles the lead-musical-actor recipient in his own high school years at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City. Instructors who worked with him until his 2011 graduation say he was confident, always ahead of the game, a natural leader.

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Teacher Ted Walch, who directed Platt in several of the actor's most prominent roles at the school — including an inventive senior-year performance as the title character in "Pippin" — recalls: "Ben was always early, always had done the work between rehearsals that needed to be done, was the first to learn his lines, to learn his music. Yes, he's wildly talented, but first and foremost he is on top of his game. He knows what it means to be prepared, to do the work you need to do so that your talent can shine through."

Michele Spears, who codirected Platt in musicals and coached him in a school improv comedy troupe, says: "He was like a sponge. He would listen and focus and learn from watching everybody else.

"We all knew this was where he was heading," she adds, "and we knew that he would get there. He was so determined. He knew at such a young age, this is what I will do, and then was doing everything he could to give himself the tools to get there."

The only surprise, Spears says, is the speed at which Platt reached this point. The year after graduating from Harvard-Westlake, Platt was in Chicago playing the pivotal role of Elder Cunningham in "The Book of Mormon," a role he then played on Broadway. That year also saw his emergence in the movie "Pitch Perfect" as the magician-singer Benji, a role he reprised in the film's follow-up.

At 23, Platt now elicits rock-concert-like roars for his performance as the "Evan Hansen" title character, somehow managing to sing through streams of soul-baring tears.

Before "Dear Evan Hansen" opened in December, he told The Times: "All I've ever really dreamed about since I was, like, 6 years old is to be in a new musical" like this one and "to tell stories that are relevant and try to show the world as it is and try to make some kind of serious or sincere statement."

He grew up among four performance-minded siblings in the musical-obsessed Westwood household of Julie and theater-film producer Marc Platt ("Wicked," "La La Land"). He'd already acted professionally by the time he reached Harvard-Westlake. He was just 11 when he portrayed the restlessly intelligent, grief-stricken Noah in the musical "Caroline, or Change" at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre in 2004, sharing the role with another young actor in a brief tour. A year later he returned to that theater to portray the rich-kid foil to the street toughs in "Dead End." He also performed small roles in a string of summer musicals at the Hollywood Bowl.

Platt brought that experience into rehearsals at Harvard-Westlake. "From the beginning, Ben Platt had all the qualities of a professional," Walch says.

Ben Platt, right, portrays Pippin in his senior year at Harvard-Westlake opposite Max Sheldon as the Leading Player.
Ben Platt, right, portrays Pippin in his senior year at Harvard-Westlake opposite Max Sheldon as the Leading Player. (Harvard-Westlake School performing arts department)

Walch regards Platt's Pippin as one of the best performances he has seen in 26 years at Harvard-Westlake, an academically rigorous private school with a revered arts program and a student roster populated with showbiz offspring.

"He just threw himself into that role with such energy," Walch says. "Ben always found a little something extra to bring to each moment. In rehearsals, when I felt that I had run dry of ideas, there was Ben with an idea.

"Dancing is not his strong suit, but he worked his butt off to be the best dancer he could possibly be, giving to the role what it needed. He just plain worked hard.

"He set the pace for the rest of the cast," Walch added. "Everybody wanted to be on their best game because they knew he was. They saw his work ethic. Any show Ben was in, that was true."

Spears observed similar qualities in Platt's contributions to the improv group: "He's the kind of person you want to be onstage and play with: He's open and genuine and present."

Ben Platt portrays the writer Stine in "City of Angels" as a junior at Harvard-Westlake.
Ben Platt portrays the writer Stine in "City of Angels" as a junior at Harvard-Westlake. (Harvard-Westlake School performing arts department)

Platt landed leading roles in musicals all three years at Harvard-Westlake, also portraying the Baker in "Into the Woods" and the writer Stine in "City of Angels," as well as appearing in non-musicals. He also sang with the school's Jazz Singers and elite Chamber Singers.

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"He was such a strong musician, first and foremost," Spears says. "In developing character, his way into things was through the musicality."

It was as a choir kid that Platt got an early taste of performing music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the lyricist-composers of "Dear Evan Hansen." For a senior showcase, Platt and three friends chose "Like Breathing," from Pasek and Paul's novice show "Edges." "We cried and had a fun, high-school-ending drama, the whole nine yards," he told The Times.

Walch, who remains close to Platt, says that in addition to talent, "he's just one of the nicest guys going. He is handling success with enormous grace and humility."

"He's a dear," Spears concurs — "so sweet, so humble, so grounded. It's exciting to know that whatever wonderful things are coming his way, and well deserved, he will embrace them and grow from them and move forward from them."

Twitter: @darylhmiller

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