Interview: The cast of Dear Evan Hansen gets ready to bring the tears to Detroit

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), John Hemphill (Larry Murphy), Lili Thomas (Cynthia Murphy), Alaina Anderson (Zoe Murphy), in the 2022-2023 North American tour of Dear Evan Hansen. (Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

DETROIT – The Tony Award-winning Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen is finally making its way to Detroit. Originally scheduled to play as part of Broadway in Detroit’s 2020 season, the pandemic had other plans. Now they’re ready to perform an extended two-week run at the Fisher Theatre.

We got to the chance to speak with Alaina Anderson, who plays Zoe Murphy, Evan’s romantic interest, and Ian Coursey, a current University of Michigan student who is the understudy for both Connor and Jared.

Alaina, you’re a Yale graduate with a degree in Cognitive Science. How did you get into professional musical theater?

ANDERSON: I’ve loved doing theater since elementary school. I did a lot of school theater and choir, through college I did acapella. I just happened to audition for this my junior year of college and booked it. Then the pandemic happened two weeks after, so I went back to school which ended up being a silver lining that with all the pandemic insanity I got to finish up my degree. After I finished, I came back to the tour full-time.

Do you think anything you learned in your cognitive science degree or Yale brought anything to this role?

ANDERSON: Absolutely. So when I was applying for the major, a lot of my background and extracurriculars were in theater and I was like I love cognitive science for the same reasons I love theater. I think they’re both really about figuring out what makes people tick and what makes us humans, how humans behave. I think that’s really special. But also, I really am from the school of thinking that any real world experience that actors can get outside of the theater world is very valuable. At the end of the day, you’re bringing your lived experiences to your character. So the fuller your worldview is the fuller of a character you’re able to create, you know?

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), Alaina Anderson (Zoe Murphy) in the 2022-2023 North American Tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN. (MurphyMade)

Ian, you’re getting your musical theater degree at the University of Michigan, right? How’s that going?

COURSEY: This year, when I’m doing online school, I’m getting all my academic credits out of the way so that when I go back to school, I’ll be doing all of my musical credits and hopefully graduate on time. It was tough doing freshman year on Zoom. But last year was incredible. It was so fulfilling to be back in-person and with the faculty. I absolutely love being on tour, but I do miss my friends and my teachers. There’s pros and cons to both.

Alaina, you were understudying Zoe and Alana before you became Zoe full-time. What was it like having to play two completely different characters?

ANDERSON: Oh, I loved it. It really keeps you on your toes having to know two opposite roles. I’m sure Ian knows because he covers multiple tracks right now. If Zoe and Alana are opposites, then Connor and Jared are definite opposites. I think I’m more like Alana in real life, which makes it kind of silly because I don’t play her anymore. One of the fun things about getting to play two characters was exploring the similarities between myself and each character in both directions, it expanded my understanding of myself a bit more.

Like Alaina said, Connor and Jared are so opposite of each other. Do you think playing both characters helps you understand each character you play better?

COURSEY: Absolutely. My older brother’s name is Connor, so whenever I go on as Jared, I get to write his name on Evan’s cast. Before I got the job, I never thought of myself as a Jared. I’m kind of a bigger guy, I didn’t really play nerdy, geeky guys. But when I got the audition material, I just loved it. Like Alaina said, it’s so much fun going back and forth because they’re such polar opposites which is a great acting challenge. I do think I find my way into Connor a little easier, so when I get to go on as Jared, I’m always so excited. I never know what’s going to happen. And just being able to go out there and make people laugh during a show where they’re crying for most of it is really rewarding.

For the both of you, what was your first interaction with Dear Evan Hansen?

ANDERSON: My crazy story about booking the job was that my boyfriend at the time loved Dear Evan Hansen. We were dating for two years and we broke up, I was devastated. A month later, I booked this and so that was kind of like my revenge story. We’re on fine terms now, but that was my introduction: being in love with someone who really loved the show and then kind of snatched that away.

COURSEY: They performed at the Arena Stage, that was their first production (pre-Broadway) in Washington, D.C. I remember walking around Bethesda where it was really close to my house and I was seeing these posters of a kid with a cast on and Ben Platt (the original Evan Hansen). Unfortunately, I never got to see it at Arena, which I always kick myself about, because it was very different from what ended up on Broadway. In 2018 or 2019, for my birthday, I’d never seen the show, so my mom and I took the bus up to New York. She couldn’t get a seat. She only got one seat: front row tickets. It was partial view; I was on house left. I was watching Taylor Trensch and it was the coolest thing I have ever seen. So every time I walk in the theater, I’m like, “oh my god. I’m in the show now.”

So your mom didn’t get to see it?

COURSEY: No, the first time she ever saw it was when I made my debut in Boise, Idaho. It was actually my birthday. She got to come with my dad and aunt, and they loved it. Oh my gosh, it was a very emotional day. I was playing Connor and there were a few surprises in there that hit my family hard.

The show is a bit on the heavy side emotionally. How do you separate what’s going on in the show with what’s happening in your real life?

ANDERSON: We have a sit down in D.C. and we’re going to have a sit down in Detroit, but a lot of times we have one-week stops. For the first seven months of the tour, we were doing exclusively one-weeks. The only constant that you have are the people and I think we’ve ben really lucky the both years I’ve been on the tour to have such incredible people that we’re with and really make an effort to take care of each other on-and-off-stage.

COURSEY: The understudies, we have a blast. Last night, me and three of the other male covers locked ourselves away in a room and started writing a musical. We play board games all the time. I think the show does a really good job at keeping the show over here and then our personal lives and emotions off-stage. It’s extremely helpful to have such a supporting and loving cast and everyone cares for each other so much. It really is like a family. Not only the on-stage cast but everyone, everyone is so connected and loved.

Why do you think the show is still so poignant for audiences today, especially younger teens watching the show?

ANDERSON: The driving force in this show is this desire for human connection. It’s such a universal theme, but I think it’s even more salient now. With the wake of the pandemic and the physical barriers that put up in the face of human connection. Theater as a medium is really intense. The stakes are high, the emotions are really heightened. I think that it’s a really good analogy for the teenage experience. Everything feels like life or death. Every bad thing that happens to you as a teenager feels like the worst thing in the world because you don’t have the life experience to deal with it. Taking the teenage experience and putting it in the medium of theater is a really great way to open up those discussions because it’s something so honest.

A critical character in Dear Evan Hansen is social media. How do you think your relationship with social media has changed or affected you, especially being in a show like this?

COURSEY: During the pandemic, I made a TikTok account, and I started getting a bit of a following. I think people realize that, just like Evan social media can be an amazing thing. It can also be a very dangerous thing. What’s beautiful about this show is that there’s a character for everyone. Parents connect with the parents, there’s the funny guy, Jared, there’s a lot of Evans. They all have their different arcs, but they all, in one way or another, fall in the trap of social media. It’s interesting that as the years go on, kids are exposed to social media at a younger age. But I think the show can teach a lot of valuable lessons about what can happen if you use social media to your advantage and that you have to be careful.

What’s your favorite song to sing in the show?

COURSEY: I’d have to say “Sincerely, Me.” I have the best time doing the song with whoever is playing Evan and Jared, when I’m Connor. I love doing it as Jared too, but if I’m Connor, I get to sing a few high notes and have fun and dance with my buddies. It’s the best time ever.

ANDERSON: It’s hard. It’s always a tossup. But I’m going to say “Only Us,” which is the romantic duet between Evan and Zoey. It’s a very simple, beautiful moment, but the only time that Zoey gets to be happy. I love getting to be happy because it doesn’t happen very often in the show.

What should we expect when Dear Evan Hansen finally makes its debut here in Detroit?

ANDERSON: Bring tissues. It’s so cliché but expect to laugh and expect to cry. Hopefully you feel moved in some way and maybe feeling like you can have conversations with your family or your friends that you didn’t feel equipped or inspired to have before.

COURSEY: I just saw a post yesterday about a mother and son who left the show in New York and the mom was so grateful that she got to see this because she could connect with her son on a new level and have these very important conversations.

Dear Evan Hansen plays at the Fisher Theatre from September 27 to October 9, 2022. For show schedule and tickets, visit BroadwayinDetroit.com.


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