We certainly don’t need another reason to wish the coronavirus gone and Broadway back in business, but here’s one anyway: Ben Platt wants to return to the stage. “Hankering,” is the word he uses. “I’m looking at film offers and scripts, but once it’s possible,” Platt says, “I’m certainly looking to get back on stage.”
There’s even reason to hope that sometime down the road the original (and Tony-winning) Evan Hansen will hit the Broadway stage in a concert production a la Bruce Springsteen and David Byrne.
But first, Platt is busy remote-promoting his recent Netflix double-punch: His concert special Ben Platt Live From Radio City Music Hall, and Season 2 of Ryan Murphy’s must-binge The Politician, both streaming now. Like everyone else, he’s more or less sidelined from performing by the COVID-19 pandemic and industry shutdown. He’s living with his boyfriend, actor Noah Galvin (ABC’s The Real O’Neals, and also a former Evan Hansen), in the Los Angeles home of his parents, mother Julie and film, theater and TV producer dad Marc Platt. Deadline reached him there, at his childhood home, and spoke to the Book of Mormon and Pitch Perfect alum about pending projects (including an Evan Hansen movie and the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s infamously tricky-to-get-right, told-in-reverse musical Merrily We Roll Along).
Platt also talks about being an ally to Black theater workers, how Broadway needs to change, his stage dreams, and why he chose to cover a 50-year-old Elton John song in his show.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
DEADLINE: With The Politician, Season 2 out now and your Netflix concert special, it seems like you’re really busy, but what is your life like right now?
BEN PLATT: It’s just as strange as everyone else’s, I think. The weird thing is that I had so much space time-wise before this all happened – both the special and the season of The Politician were ready to go, finished, and so it was just a matter of waiting for them to come out. So for the beginning of quarantine, much like everybody else, I sort of spent a lot of time watching content and just keeping myself calm and, you know, focusing on kind of self-care and adjusting. And in the last couple of months, as we kind of reached this new equilibrium, I’ve gotten a bit more used to trying to be productive. I’ve obviously been promoting the things that have been coming out, but I’ve also spent a lot of time writing music for the second album that I’m trying to put together over Zoom with my cowriters.
DEADLINE: Are you able to plan anything yet, career-wise? It must be particularly difficult if you’re interested in live performance.
PLATT: I really try to take each project that comes my way at face value, regardless of the medium, and just look at, is the character something that I’ve never played before, something that’s interesting to me, something that’s going to challenge me, or is it with collaborators that I’ve been admiring, wanting to work with? Just something that is kind of uncharted territory for me.
But in terms of right at this moment, I’m definitely hankering – I think we’re all hankering – to have live experiences. I’m certainly hankering to be back on stage and in the theater. I’m looking at film offers and scripts, but once it’s possible, I’m certainly looking to get back on stage.
DEADLINE: Were there any stage projects in the works when COVID hit?
PLATT: There were a couple. I was really excited about the prospect of doing some sort of classic dramatic piece, a straight play, and sort of experiment with the experience of getting to have the live Broadway lifestyle without all of the stress of maintaining my vocal ability and all that. So we were looking at some titles, and I was talking to some producers, but nothing concrete. And then, obviously, once this hit, everything hit pause.
DEADLINE: You’re involved in Richard Linklater’s planned film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, which maybe combines the best of both the film and Broadway worlds. And it’s like the director’s Boyhood, being done over a period of years?
PLATT: Yes. Exactly. The musical takes place over, I think, 18 years, and the plan is to follow that as accurately as possible. I believe it starts in 1957 or 1958, and just follows the map of the years through the show. I think it’s about nine sequences over the course of 18 years, and however much time is given between those sequences and the show is how much time we’ll wait to shoot. But of course, with that project, like all the others, there’s been a lot of challenges because of COVID. It was already going to be such a difficult and long, arduous task to commit to, and we’re all very passionate about still trying to make it work, but we’re going to have to start at square one as soon as COVID allows.
DEADLINE: I thought at least one sequence had already been filmed.
PLATT: We have to reshoot that, the small amount that was filmed. So it’s really like we’re starting over.
DEADLINE: Are you actually going to wait nine years between sequences? That’s some commitment.
PLATT: Yeah. I know that Rick’s plan is to really do the full course, but we’ll see once we get past COVID what the plan is.
DEADLINE: And I have to ask you about the Dear Evan Hansen movie. Any updates?
PLATT: Yes and no. If COVID allows it, it’s on the docket for everyone and something that I think everyone is really looking to make. We think this is obviously a story that would be really effective to tell on film. But it’s a matter of can we make it happen in time for me to be conceivably young [enough for the role]. If the [COVID] guidelines prove that it’s possible over the next few months, I think it’s definitely a possibility.
DEADLINE: And there will be a third season of The Politician, though I think that’s not happening for a while.
PLATT: Yes. The plan, from Ryan’s mouth, which is where I take my information from, is that there will be a third installment in the triptych. You know that the next step involves the White House and so, hopefully, we’ll see where Payton ends up. Ryan has expressed a desire to give the cast a year or two to age a bit before we start back.
DEADLINE: I binged the second season before this interview. I was wondering if you choose the songs you sing? Last season you sang Joni Mitchell’s “River”, which fit with the plot because of a character named River, but this season there was a song from Pippin [“Corner Of The Sky”] that I think you have a personal connection to…
PLATT: It’s a combination of Ryan and myself. There have actually only been four musical moments because Ryan and I are both very careful about not trying to wedge too many in. We want to make them count and be emotionally earned in the story and come at a time when you really want them. But the first two, “River” and “Unworthy of Your Love” from [Sondheim’s] Assassins, were both written into the script. I had nothing to do with those choices. They were just really obviously brilliantly relevant to the plot.
And then in the finale of Season 1, Ryan gave me a few song ideas, about the type of song he was thinking for in that last scene in the bar, the finale of the first season. Together, we landed on [Billy Joel’s] “Vienna.” And then for the musical moment where we’re back in the bar and I sing a song that sways Dede (Judith Light) and Hadassah (Bette Midler) and allows them to see a side of Payton they’ve never seen. And Ryan said, are there any senior songs you sang that are along those lines? And of course, you know, I played in Pippin senior year of high school, so that was one of the first things that I thought of. So we landed on that. It’s always a nice kind of team effort.
DEADLINE: I saw one of your tweets that said, “About the Dear Evan Hansen movie” or something like, and when people clicked it actually was for links to causes that you support. Any humorless slapback from that?
PLATT: Not at all, and if there was there’s simply no time for it at this juncture. I’m just interested in getting as many people involved as possible. I definitely stole that idea though. I saw some really funny uses of that, particularly around the whole Lea Michele drama that’s going on. I saw a thread that began with a tweet that said, Here’s the real story behind the whole Lea Michele issue, and then it was a number of petitions. And I just thought that was so brilliant, because obviously you’ve got the faction of your following that is going to always be active and that you would like to believe will always be activated regardless of your leadership or your platform. But there are those that are less inclined or that are younger or that are there for different reasons, and so to think that I could catch a larger group of eyes with that gimmick and then actually get them to look into the Okra Project or things like that. It was exciting to me. Plus I got to make a joke, so that’s always fun too.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about some of those issues. In the Broadway world right now, Black artists are speaking out about change in a unified and exciting way. I know you’re a supporter of Black Lives Matter, but how do you personally take this momentum to Broadway?
PLATT: So many of my friends and so many of the people that I admire in the theater community are very gifted Black artists, and you know, so much of the inspiration for my being able to take on the Evan Hansen experience and give that performance eight times a week was because I got to see Cynthia Erivo do her performance in The Color Purple eight times a week. I watched her bring herself through that emotional journey of a lifetime every single day. And seeing that someone was able to do that and with such grace was kind of what allowed me to feel like I could maybe do it.
I think that Black Theatre United, which is the organization that LaChanze and Audra McDonald and so many spectacular Black actors have put together, it’s so fantastic not only because of the resources that it offers to Black actors, but also the platform that it can offer people who are interested in being active allies and preaching active allyship as its own kind of concept. And I think there are a lot of people similar to me who feel that they want to be helpful and supportive and help change the culture from the ground up, but don’t know the steps to do that or the understanding of how to do that. Things like Black Theatre United, I think, are really good steps in helping us figure out what are the actual steps we need to take and learning what those steps are from the people that we should be learning them from, the Black actors and artists.
And I think there’s only so much I can do as an actor in terms of the inclusion, so I want to choose projects that are representing as many voices as possible. Ultimately it’s going to be a matter of making sure we are getting more people in on the ground level – Black stage managers, Black crew members, Black producers, Black writers and composers, and Black directors – until we can create a landscape in which that’s as common as a white creative team.
DEADLINE: For your Netflix concert special Ben Platt Live From Radio City Music Hall – how did you decide to do the old Elton John number “Take Me To The Pilot?”
PLATT: I wanted the focus to definitely be on my record and sharing my own music and my own perspective, and kind of creating an evening that was structured around that particular album [2019’s Sing to Me]. There is so much narrative content in the album, and I wanted to really lean into that. My collaborator, Alex Timbers, really helped me to hone that. And I knew I wanted to do a few covers, and I had to be very judicious about which ones I did. So it was a matter of what are the songs that I love to sing, and then to narrow that down to what are types of energy are missing from this evening, songs that might require skills that I didn’t get to highlight already.
Also, I wanted to make sure to sing songs by queer artists, and of course Brandi Carlile is a queer artist, and “The Joke” is a song that I’ve always really loved. On a superficial level, I get to show off what I can do vocally, but in terms of the content, it really fits beautifully into my album at large.
As for the Elton John, obviously he’s a queer artist too, and I really wanted a sort of gospel-centric showstopper moment where I could really let loose, and that was “Take Me To The Pilot.” That song also let the incredible vocalists who were on tour with me let loose as well – Crystal Monee Hall, Kojo Littles and Allen Louis.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Alex Timbers. He also worked with David Byrne on Broadway, with the hit David Byrne’s American Utopia. Would you consider taking a show like the one you did at Radio City to Broadway in that sort of production? When Broadway opens up of course. And you already know Alex Timbers…
PLATT: Absolutely. Absolutely. You’re actually the first person that’s ever asked me about that, but that’s always been on my bucket list. One of the things I want to do is direct some sort of theater, and then the other is to do something in the vein of Springsteen on Broadway or David Byrne’s show. Just to craft some sort of one-man show that highlights both my own music and my own songwriting and my love of performing. That is certainly something I’d like to do.