“Dear Evan Hansen” returns to The Ahmanson this week for a five week run with Anthony Norman in the lead role of Evan and Coleen Sexton in the role of his mother, Heidi Hansen. After a letter that was never meant to be seen comes to light, followed by a lie that was never meant to be told, awkward high school student, Evan Hansen, finds himself the unlikely center of a social media, viral sensation and suddenly on the brink of the life he thinks he’s always wanted.
Opening on Friday July 1 is the year four cast of the national tour that started in 2018, paused for the pandemic and re-launched in December of 2021. We spoke with Norman and Sexton just as they had stepped into the roles on their last city stop in Boise, Idaho, the week before their run here in L.A.
Sexton saw the original show on Broadway and fell in love with it. She says, “The music, the songs that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote – it’s just an amazing show and I fell in love with both of the moms and I really wanted to be a part of it.” She ended up auditioning and being cast as one of the understudies with the touring company in 2018 for both of the mother roles of Heidi Hansen and Cynthia Murphy, continued to understudy with the re-launch and is now starring as Heidi. “She’s incredible!” says Norman emphatically, “she makes my job very easy.”
For Norman, his DEH journey began as he was about to audition for the role of Evan when the Covid shutdown happened. Two years later he was called in to audition for Evan again but by that time, Norman says, “I thought ‘this isn’t my show – I’m not right for this, I’m too old for it, I won’t sound right – I just can’t do it. I truly believed that. And then I went in and I was proven wrong – in every regard.” Casting asked him to do the tour and here he is!
When I spoke to them, the two actors had only been rehearsing together for a week and had just started performing together on stage. As for bonding as mother and son, Sexton says, “we’re still working on it – I was just saying to Anthony – because he had been rehearsing for a while in New York – that I want to go out on a Sunday or Monday when we’re off and sit down to dinner and really get to know him more. But we have an amazing connection on stage already I feel.” Norman interjects, “Yes! I agree.” Sexton adds, “but I know it will just grow as I get to know him more.”
“I want to add to that,” says Norman, “the beautiful thing about social media – I will say very rarely there are good things about social media – but one of the good things is the way you can reach out to people. So when the cast was announced for the tour, a lot of the current tour members hit us up on Instagram and we started a dialogue and everyone was extremely welcoming right off the bat. And I was most excited to hear from Coleen because I knew I’d be working with her in such a close way. She was extremely welcoming and kind and just very cool and it made me feel very comforted coming into this because it’s weird replacing a cast. It’s weird,” he laughs. “Even though there’s no bad blood, nothing negative about it, but it’s a weird thing because there’s already dynamics that exist and you have to build something from scratch. So I really appreciated Coleen reaching out like that. It really meant the world.”
One night when Sexton went on as Heidi, Norman commented on her post, “Hi Mom!” And from there a conversation and a connection began online with her on the tour while Norman rehearsed in New York.
The first time they were together on stage Norman says was “thrilling – in our first scene together, when she first came on stage, I thought, ‘oh my god, this is happening!’.” Sexton agrees, “it’s all new (there are several new cast members) – new people, new energy, new delivery of lines. It was fabulous. I felt such a great energy in the show last night, it felt so smooth, and the audiences have been amazing. It’s such a good show for families to see together – because it is a show about connection.”
In the show, Evan Hansen is a young man who feels very isolated and seems to suffer from social anxiety. To approach this aspect of the character Norman says he feels very lucky to have worked closely with (director) Michael Greif during the entire process to help him find who his Evan is. “He did not try to re-create anything and didn’t try to steer me in a way that he might have been used to,” explains Norman. “He took all of my quirks and characteristics about me personally that I brought to the character – he amplified them even more to make them more in tune with who the character is. It was really, really refreshing. The show is like a machine, pretty much, and there are certain expectations but I did not expect to find my Evan the way I did and I owe a lot of that to Michael Greif.” Most important to Norman was that he didn’t want to make Evan a caricature of someone with social anxiety because he knows it’s a very real thing for so many people. “It was very important to me to make it as authentic and real as possible and not play for laughs, not comment on it, because he speaks for a lot of people and he speaks for a lot of people who can’t represent themselves,” he says. “While it’s such an honor to play this part, it’s also a huge responsibility because he represents so many people – and also, if one person in the audience goes, “I had no idea anyone else felt like that” just makes this the coolest job in the world.”
Vocally the show is extremely challenging for both actors with the added feat of, in some cases, singing through some extraordinary emotions. Norman says “it’s a mountain to climb but I could not have done it without my vocal coach, Richard Lissemore. He and I started working together about a year ago over Zoom and he changed my life. He is a big reason as to why I can maintain this and why I can sing it the way I do.”
Sexton also gives high praise to her coach telling us, “I’ve been working on it for a long time with my vocal coach, Matthew Farnsworth, and I was struggling for the first couple years with part of the song where she basically says, ‘and I know I come up short a million different ways’ – that high note, which I tend to belt, but you just can’t because you’re overcome with emotion and you have to find a placement that you’re able to hit the note and then continue and do it eight shows a week. So I really thank my vocal coach. I definitely let loose with my crying after I get through that but sometimes I’m crying through the whole song and you just have to know where to put that placement, which took me a very long time, but I finally feel like I found it and it’s all due to my vocal coach – who also coaches some of our other cast members. I’ve been with him for thirteen years.”
Her favorite part of the show to sing is her rock song, “Good For You” – being a Jersey girl at heart, she says she loves rock. “When those lights start comin’ and I get to strut downstage – it’s the closest thing this Jersey girl is ever going to get to being a rockstar. I live it up every strut step!”
Norman, who is a singer/songwriter himself has always liked Evan’s song, “If I Could Tell Her.” He says, “it’s very much in the vein of music that I really like to sing so to be able to do it six times a week in the actual show? I can’t get over it.”
The Heidi/Evan relationship is at the core of the show and Sexton explains it from Heidi’s point of view; “she’s the single mom and it’s her just trying to make it work – having the job and the classes at night, trying to do everything to provide for this kid. I think they have a very strong relationship that you realize in the end but it’s that teenage time that can be really difficult and she’s trying to figure it out. It’s about their communication and connection and that’s what the show is based on – all these relationships and how we connect. She just wants him to talk to her.”
From Evan’s point of view Norman says, “He really so badly wants to have a person in his life that he can lean on, a partner in some regard, and a parent should be that someone for you, especially at 17 years old. But because of the circumstances he doesn’t have that, but so desperately wants that, and so if there’s anything negative between them in the show it’s not because Evan thinks ‘oh I hate you’ – Evan puts it on himself and he knows how hard Heidi works to keep their lives together. He’s aware but the sacrifice is, unfortunately most of the time, their relationship. It’s very hard for him.”
The show has gained an almost cult-like following. People love it and people are very moved by it – more often than not, there are a lot of tears in the audience as well as on stage. Sexton says, “there is a character or relationship that everyone can relate to in all facets from parents that are struggling, to young people that are finding their way, and people who are grieving who have lost someone. And the audience, I think, is really blown away by how much they see themselves in the story.”
Norman chimes in, “also the score. Pasek and Paul, with the help of orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, have composed this score and written these lyrics that are so moving and it’s literally scientific! I don’t know if you’ve heard about this but it’s scientifically proven that certain chords and chord structure evoke emotion – and certain frequencies evoke emotion. So in some of our songs in the show there’s a drone sound effect that literally evokes some sort of emotion from most people. It’s science, baby! It’s not just pretty music, it’s not just good lyrics – it’s like its own character. Everything is inspired by something and moves the story.” As you can tell, Norman is very passionate about the score! With good reason. The show won 7 Tony awards including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Orchestrations and the 2018 Grammy® Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
But it’s not all tears I promise! It is also very funny, incredibly entertaining and, as we’ve been discussing, the score is gorgeous and truly special. I can’t wait to see Coleen Sexton and Anthony Norman in this profound “show that connects us all”.
The cast includes Lili Thomas as Cynthia Murphy, Pablo Laucerica as Jared Kleinman, Micaela Lamas as Alana Beck, John Hemphill as Larry Murphy, Nikhil Saboo as Connor Murphy, and Alaina Anderson as Zoe Murphy. The cast also includes Jeffrey Cornelius (as the Evan alternate) and understudies Valeria Ceballos, Ian Coursey, Reese Sebastian Diaz, Gillian Jackson Han, Isabel Santiago, Daniel Robert Sulivan, Kelsey Venter and Pierce Wheeler.
“Dear Evan Hansen” opens July 1 and runs through July 31, 2022 at the Ahmanson Theater at The Music Center downtown. 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, 90012. Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets available at CenterTheatreGroup.org or by calling (213) 972-4400 or at the Music Center Box Office.