Parsing Nerds :: Will Roland on 'Dear Evan Hansen' and His One-Man Show

  • by Jim Gadstone
  • Sunday February 4, 2018
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Will Roland
Will Roland

"If I was 6' 3" and muscular, I'd have to make peace with playing romantic leads," wisecracks toothy-grinned, Cyranosed actor/singer Will Roland. "We are all stuck within our types a little bit."

For most of his own career, Roland- who will make his San Francisco debut with his cabaret show, Loser Songs, at the Venetian Room on February 11, has been associated with a particular type: Socially outcast, brainy, sarcastic, sexually awkward, and ultimately adorable.

"I idolize Steve Buscemi," says the 5' 7" 28-year-old. "At the beginning of his career, he was always cast in a certain sort of quirky, geeky role, but eventually people started to realize, 'Oh, he's really a good actor,' and give him a chance to do different things."

Of course, Roland, 28, has spent nearly half of that career developing and playing a single character: Jared Kleinman, best frenemy of the title character in the phenomenally successful musical "Dear Evan Hansen."

In 2015, five years after graduating from the music theater department at NYU - and shortly after the only prior performances of "Loser Songs" - Roland was cast in the first production of "Hansen," at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

"It's so great being a part of new work. I love table readings and rehearsals where a piece is evolving and coming together," Roland says. "With 'Dear Evan Hansen,' it was really something special to have had a writer create something around me, with my input."

The Hansen script describes Jared - who peppers Evan with sophomoric homophobic putdowns - as behaving with "the kind of practiced swagger only the deeply insecure can truly pull off."

Though Roland comes off as genuine and confident in conversation, it's not hard see how he's leveraged his own quirky, hyper-verbal charm in crafting Jared's persona.

After the DC run of Hansen, Roland has remained with the show through additional development, a buzz-building Off-Broadway engagement and the Broadway production which opened in late 2016, going on to win multiple Tony awards, including best musical, score (Pasek & Paul), book (Steven Levenson), and lead actor (Ben Platt).

Roland will continue to geek out as Jared for eight performance a week in New York through sometime this summer; his San Francisco performance marks the last day of a week's vacation from the show.

"I love doing this," he says. "It's not like I'm cutting my vacation short to work."

Roland developed "Loser Songs" with his friend Max Friedman, who runs the programming at Don't Tell Mama. "He's all about creating a new generation of cabaret. Loser Songs isn't like most of the cabarets I've seen Broadway actors do," Roland says. "I don't think my life is so interesting that I can tell autobiographical anecdotes and do songs from shows I've been."

He and Friedman winnowed through dozens of songs Roland loved, developing a set that could be stitched together with interstitial spoken passages.

"This is a lyrically driven narrative show with a book that tells the story of an Every-nerd," says Roland. "Its bones are theater more than cabaret."

The songs are an intriguingly odd lot, including recontextualized compositions by Weezer, David Bowie, and Styx. There are also a pair of original tunes written specifically for the show by up-and-coming theater composers.

Roland has described Loser Songs as being about "a guy who just can't seem to get anything right...his relationships are best described as cringe-worthy...he tries (and mostly fails) to be "normal" and find acceptance among his peers."

Sounds like another pea from the Jared Kleinman pod. So, is Roland typecasting himself?

"These characters couldn't be further apart," he harrumphs in mock horror. "It's like night and day!"

"Sure, there are things that Jared and Loser would have in common with each other -and with me: They love space and videogames and they're late bloomers.

"And there's a quick wittedness," he continues, inadvertently eliding his characters and himself. "They love words. I think words are the greatest thing ever. I loved writing the monologues for Loser Songs, I don't like to vamp. I always want to have a script and to be playing a character. But the words need to stream by and seem natural even though each one is painstakingly chosen."

That said, Roland doesn't see himself shifting his career focus away from acting toward writing. "I'm a little bit too much of a coward. When you're an actor and audiences don't like a play you're in, you can step away in your mind. If you're a writer, director or producer, it's more difficult to distance yourself."

So, for the time being, Roland will happily continue to seek acting roles, even if casting directors, particularly in film and television, initially look at him through a relatively narrow lens.

"'You can't run away from what people see at first glance," he reflects. "Sometimes I may end up as 'Barista' or 'Hacker at Police Station.' Hopefully, I'll come to be seen as someone who portrays any character three-dimensionally."

Roland adds a personal anecdote of second-hand approval.

"After a performance of Dear Evan Hansen one night, my mother came to me all excited because during intermission she'd overheard an audience member saying: 'Oh, I looove The Nerd. Theater people realize that there's more to what I'm doing. I put a little stink on it."

Will Roland performs at the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room, Sunday February 11 at 5pm. 950 Mason St. $55. After-show Q&A.