Queer Evan Hansen

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday December 11, 2018
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Ben Levi Ross (center) as Evan Hansen, and the Company of the first North American tour of "Dear Evan Hansen," now at the Curran. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Ben Levi Ross (center) as Evan Hansen, and the Company of the first North American tour of "Dear Evan Hansen," now at the Curran. Photo: Matthew Murphy

"The past few weeks, I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed by social media," admits Ben Levi Ross, entirely aware of the irony in his situation. The openly gay Los Angeles native is playing the title role in the first national tour of "Dear Evan Hansen," in which the creation of embellished online personae and the spread of misinformation via social networks are essential plot elements. That's part of why, since its off-Broadway debut in 2016, "Hansen" has become the zeitgeist musical of Ross' own post-Millennial generation.

Unlike many older Broadway actors who have cultivated social accounts primarily as a tool to build connections with fans, Ross is a digital-native leading man. "I've had Instagram since seventh grade," he acknowledges. "My brain is completely conditioned to clicking and scrolling. But from the time it was announced that I'd be playing Evan on tour, swarms more people have started following me on Instagram." (While he's dabbled with Twitter, Instagram is currently the only social platform where Ross has a presence.)

"I've taken down all the posts from before I was 18, because a lot of that stuff is just embarrassing," Ross says. "But it's my same account that I've had all along. I just have the one."

Now, though, as young people see Ross on stage, then seek him out online, he feels a new sense of responsibility attached to his presence. "After seeing the show, people reach out, saying they've been hurting or depressed. It happens all the time. Daily."

Ross, like all of the "Hansen" company, has been trained to explain that he is not a therapist and can't offer personal advice. But, with his digital correspondents' permission, he can connect them with the show's social media team, who can direct them to mental health care and support resources that the show has partnered with.

"So many of the 'Fansens' are LGBTQ," he says. "I wasn't really familiar with 'Dear Evan Hansen' when I first auditioned for the show. But I was totally attracted to it. I think we're drawn to the show because our community is disproportionately affected by mental health issues and suicide, which the show deals with. Evan Hansen isn't necessarily queer, but he feels like he doesn't fit in, that he's an outsider. The show's messages couldn't be more appropriate for us: We've all had the experience of living a lie, of not being seen, of not feeling understood."

Ross, who turns 21 next month, stumbled into his big break after his freshman year studying theater at Carnegie Mellon University in 2017. Spending his summer in New York, Ross auditioned for another project being put together by "Hansen" director Michael Greif. While he didn't get a part in that show, Greif encouraged him to audition to be a "Hansen" understudy.

Not only was Ross cast in the musical — a major professional coup — but the show has provided an unexpected boon to his personal life as well: He's now in his own first significant romantic relationship — with Taylor Trensch, Broadway's current Evan Hansen. You'll find occasional pictures of the twosome on Ross' Instagram feed.

"But I don't post anything really personal," says Ross. "We're both pretty private. But we're happy. And we're not hiding. People seem to appreciate seeing that."