When Andrew Barth Feldman puts on his striped polo, the lights in his Music Box Theatre dressing room glow blue and the separation between actor and character is blurred. The 16-year-old literally becomes Evan Hansen.
"I couldn’t tell you what it is that makes me understand him so deeply," Feldman says, shifting on the large green couch in his dressing room. "I’m able to fully surround myself in his world."
Feldman, a high school junior, first appeared in "Dear Evan Hansen" on Jan. 30. On April 25, the show, which depicts how teen suicide impacts students, will celebrate its milestone 1,000th show with him in the leading role.
Feldman already appears at ease in his stage persona, unfazed by this seemingly intimidating fact: He makes his Broadway debut in a Tony-winning musical previously fronted by fan-favorite Ben Platt, and he’s the youngest to ever appear in this production’s leading role.
"A lot of people ask me what makes my Evan different, and that’s almost like asking someone: What defines you?" Feldman says. "To me, Evan is a real person and he’s separate from what the other actors have done."
There’s a sense of sincerity when Feldman talks about "Dear Evan Hansen." He doesn’t believe he’s trying to be anything, or anyone, he’s not, which just may have helped him overcome the daunting task of shadowing Platt, who’s one award shy of an EGOT.
He first saw "Dear Evan Hansen" as an audience member in 2016, and said he had left with an "obsession" that one day he would be able to command the stage as powerfully as Platt.
"I wanted the knowledge that I could, one day, perform some semblance of the magnificence Ben Platt was putting on the stage," he said. "I worked so hard mastering every take of what he did, but it wasn’t true and it wasn’t real."
The actor secured the role himself after a casting producer from the show saw him win the high school musical theater Jimmy Award for his performance in his school’s "Catch Me If You Can" production last July.
"I’ve been performing since I was 8 years old. At the beginning, I was always trying to be something that I wasn’t, but I think Evan is really something that I am," he says.
Feldman assures you his Evan is unique, but he doesn’t tire of the comparisons to his Tony-winning predecessor. "I love talking about Ben!" Feldman admits.
One of his fondest memories, aside from seeing the actor perform for the first time in 2016, was getting to know him on a personal level over lunch and tickets to "Waitress."
"He was very much more a guide into the world of ‘Evan Hansen’ in terms of the people I’d be interacting with," Feldman says. "But, less so a guide into Evan, because he wanted me to find my own Evan."
Platt, while promoting his debut recording album on a separate occasion, tells us by telephone that he didn’t direct Feldman’s performance in any way.
"I tried to impart any wisdom I could articulate even though it’s sort of a weirdly, inarticulable experience playing that character," he says. "That experience was very emotional and a life-changing one for me. It was obviously a very difficult thing to leave behind and it’s not always the easiest thing emotionally to return to unless it’s for a very special reason, like a film or something like that. I very much want to live and let live as far as the future Evans are concerned."
Finding the new
As a high schooler himself, Feldman says it was painless to slip into the relatable role of an anxious, at times isolated, teen.
"I didn’t have to be perfect," says Feldman, who went to Lawrence Woodmere Academy. "I’m just going to do the best that I can on any given night. I feel like a lot of people are really scared of the whole Broadway thing, but it’s really not that scary."
That sense of comfort translates to being well prepared. The teen started his own Long Island-based theater company, Zneefrock Productions, at age 12, and had been juggling up to five shows at once at Lynbrook’s Plaza Theatrical Productions, the Rockaway Theater Company and Manhattan’s St. Gregory’s Theater Group before moving to Broadway.
Of course, the confident actor isn’t immune to natural anxieties.
"There’s a new thing for me to be anxious about every day as a teen," he says. "I love Evan so much, and I love his mind as dangerous and messy as it is. I love it and I love him. When I’m not doing the show, I miss him. Whatever concerns I may have are nothing compared to that."
All of Evan’s nervous tics, he says, like patting his leg and clenching a fist, come to him in the moment. They’re not written into the script, and something he wanted to work out on his own.
"The show talks about mental health as something that should not be stigmatized. It puts it there so that if you’re going through that and feeling alone, we can say look at me. I’m going through this, too."
Currently, Feldman’s days are packed between home schooling and three shows a week, which leaves little time for his other favorite activities, like annual trips to Disney. But, he doesn’t mind.
"I’m very early in the run. I don’t know long they’ll want me and I don’t know if a year from now I’ll be an old man and my hair will be going gray, but as far as I can say right now," he says, "with the understanding that this could change a year from now, but I don’t want to ever see giving Evan up."