ONLY ONCE in my twenty years of moonlighting as a music critic have I felt compelled to come out as not entirely impartial when it comes to a musician under review. At the start, I should go “open kimono” about my obsessive enthusiasm for singer Ben Platt. Though Platt first appeared on screen as the geeky magician in the first two “Pitch Perfect” films, I really only took notice of him after I saw the national tour of Dear Evan Hansen last year in Denver. Platt was not in the cast, but he originated the role of the neurotic teenager Evan Hansen and, joining the show’s cultish fan-base, I followed the production to L.A. The show never fails to captivate audience members, some of whom see Dear Evan Hansen as a way to let their freak-flags fly. For example, a transman in one of my college classes proudly displayed his novelization of the musical on his desk all semester long.
Dear Evan Hansen tells the tale of an adolescent introvert who lives behind his laptop screen but soon finds himself in a web of deceit. Evan tells the family of Connor Murphy (a classmate who killed himself) that he was Connor’s best friend, falls in love with the dead boy’s sister, and creates a giant mess for the Murphys and for himself. On full display is the perverse paradox that teenagers today know too well—the more selfies they post, the more they self-stylize via social media, the more detached they feel from others. Dear Evan Hansen is probably the most important American musical since Hamilton and, before that, The Book of Mormon. When Platt appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the host confessed: “I started crying in the first song and I did not stop … you know immediately who this kid is.”
Platt’s debut album, Sing to Me Instead, offered a glimpse into who the adult Platt is. It’s a welcoming viewpoint imbued with the same emotional vulnerability that made his performance as Evan so indelible. Before now, fans had to do some Internet-digging to discover that the artist himself is openly gay. Now 25, Platt came out at the age of twelve and, like many of his contemporaries, hid his love away—in the parlance of the Beatles—to grow his fan base. He states as much on the soaring “Temporary Love” when he sings: “We don’t have to hide our love away/ Both of us are gonna’ make mistakes.” Platt told People that his debut is the “first opportunity to represent my relationships and the men that I’ve loved. … I only wanted to take this leap if I was going to present every part of myself.” The song “New” straightforwardly addresses an ex-boyfriend, and “Share Your Address,” which borders on a Michael Bublé B-side, is driven by the ebullient hope of moving in with a new beau.
If the vocals on Sing to Me Instead don’t give you the chills, you should see a doctor. On a twelve-track album that details numerous relationships, old and new, the strongest of the songs are “Ease My Mind” and “Grow As We Go.” The former, which dabbles in gospel music, allows Platt to channel his inner Whitney Houston, as he admits: “There are pieces I usually hide. … I make sense of the madness when I listen to your voice. … Darling, only you can ease my mind.” Queer people are good at keeping secrets—it’s a survival skill in a straight world—and Platt hits on, and hints at, the secret of any successful relationship with this lyric: “When you collect me with your steady hand/ With a language that I understand/ I feel put back together inside.” “Grow As We Go” is a more stripped-down affair with just an acoustic guitar and Platt’s soothing falsetto: “You can ebb and I can flow/ We’ll take it slow and grow as we go.”
If it’s heart-wrenching balladry that you are after, you can’t do much better than “Older.” Here again, backing vocalists, with choir-like intensity, are used effectively. “Will I get to know myself in the place I am?” he asks, and “get to fall in love with another man?” This album is his first batch of new music since “Found/ Tonight,” a duet with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Additional ways to supplement Platt’s new record can be found on YouTube: Platt performing at the Tonys, on Today, even a campy duet and spoof of the omnipresent song from last year, Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” from A Star is Born in which Platt accompanies actor Max Sheldon on piano. “They should do A Star Is Born with two dudes,” says Sheldon, to which Platt retorts: “Will you be my Gaga?” But the real jaw-dropper is his cover of “Somewhere” (at the Grammy Awards in 2018) and his trademark vibrato that brought Madison Square Garden to its feet.
For a second time, Ben Platt will emcee the Jimmy Awards (aka the National High School Theater Awards) later this year and will appear, along with Jessica Lange and Gwyneth Paltrow, in the forthcoming series from Ryan Murphy, The Politician (Netflix), on which he also served as executive producer. Platt is just one step away from becoming the rarity that is an EGOT winner, receiving all four major accolades: the Emmy, the Grammy, the Oscar, and the Tony (he still needs an Oscar). There are only fifteen in history, including Audrey Hepburn, Mel Brooks, John Legend, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Perhaps Steven Spielberg, who is reportedly re-making West Side Story, will come to the rescue.
Colin Carman, Ph.D., is the author of The Radical Ecology of the Shelleys: Eros and Environment(Routledge).