When Ben Platt was a kid, listening to show tunes in the family car, he developed a fondness for “This Is Not Over Yet,” an optimistic and upbeat Jason Robert Brown song from the short-lived musical “Parade.”
It was only years later, as Platt grew up, that he encountered the rest of the show, and realized what it was actually about — the 20th-century lynching of a Jewish Southerner, fueled by antisemitism.
Now Platt is starring in a seven-performance revival of the 1998 musical at New York City Center, and says the timing is sadly perfect, given the antisemitism once again coursing through the nation’s culture. “It’s felt urgent,” he said, “in a way that is shocking to all of us.”
The musical, which won Tony Awards both for Brown’s score and Alfred Uhry’s book, tells the story of Leo Frank, an Atlanta factory manager who was convicted in 1913 of murdering a 13-year-old girl. A public outcry over whether Frank was actually guilty prompted the Georgia governor to commute Frank’s death sentence, at which point Frank was lynched by a mob.
The City Center revival, directed by Michael Arden, begins performances Tuesday and runs through Sunday; there is already talk of a possible Broadway transfer, but no firm plans.
Platt, 29, vaulted to fame, and won a Tony, playing the title character in the 2016 musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” In the years since, he has been working onscreen, starring in “The Politician” for Netflix and a film adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen,” as well as the forthcoming “The People We Hate at the Wedding” for Amazon Prime Video and a movie called “Theater Camp,” which he wrote with a group of friends. He also created a new lane for himself as a performer: writing songs, recording albums and touring.
In an interview, he talked about “Parade,” the ups and downs of “Dear Evan Hansen” (the stage version was a hit; the film adaptation was panned), and his decision to drop off Twitter. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Tell me why you wanted to do “Parade.”
This was a character I related to. I recognized this guy. And I realized how much modern application there is for it. It’s a lot harder to distance from than I was hoping it would be. This show is all about not only antisemitism, but the failure of the country to protect lots of marginalized groups, and we’re all feeling that really intensely right now.
How do you connect to your character?
The very obvious thing is that we’re both Jewish. He’s also, similar to other characters that I’ve played, not the best at expressing his emotions. Leo learns during his journey that vulnerability does not mean you’re any less strong, and I definitely relate to that journey. Being wrongly convicted of murder, I fortunately cannot relate to. I hope I never learn that.
What does this show tell us about antisemitism?
I don’t necessarily want to dictate what people feel when they come away from the show. There’s a lot of gray in the show. It doesn’t make any decisions for you. Hopefully, most of all, it shows how hatred is learned. With every character, you see how they got to where they are.
What’s it like being back onstage after five years away?
It’s just the best. I spent my whole life doing it, pretty much nonstop, from 6 years old to 24. It just feels like a homecoming.
I never fully understand why actors want to do these short-run shows. You put in all this time for a few nights.
Two reasons. One is the unselfish reason, which is it’s just a story worth telling, especially right now. The selfish reason is that I carry ulterior hopes that maybe we’ll have a longer opportunity in the future.
You spent so many years working on “Dear Evan Hansen.” How are you feeling about that experience?
I’m feeling really grateful for it. It was my ultimate dream come true, to originate something, and it inspired me to start looking inward and writing my own music. It will always be a piece of me. I feel a simultaneous constant pride and desire to keep it in my heart at all times, but also a real readiness and excitement at having moved forward and embracing my adulthood and playing characters that live in different worlds than that. I got to live in that world for a very long time, and it was not the easiest world to live in. So I look at it fondly but I’m also happy to be moving ahead.
Your boyfriend is your successor in the role, Noah Galvin. Is that weird?
I don’t think about him in that way, because I knew him for three or four years before we even had that experience. There’s this lore that that’s how we met, but it’s not. But it’s nice to have that detail of him understanding deeply what that experience was. And I feel very lucky to be with him — he’s changed my perspective, and made things, in a very positive way, feel a bit smaller and more manageable.
You’ve been working on a film version of “Merrily We Roll Along,” to be shot over 20 years. What’s that like?
There are so many variables. The only way I’ve found to approach it is that you have to treat [each shoot] like short films, let it go, and move on and live your life, and as the next one rolls around, find your way back into it. If I constantly have it in the back of my head, it just feels so unimaginable to get to the end, that I get scared about it in a way that’s not productive. So I’m just taking each of the little gifts along the way and hoping we make it to the end of the road.
One of your closest friends, Beanie Feldstein, who is also starring with you in “Merrily,” had a bumpy ride with “Funny Girl” on Broadway. I wonder what you make of how her experience went.
I know more than anything, she just wants everybody to move on. So I’ll just say that I love her and I admire her strength.
You had your own rough ride with the film version of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
It was definitely a disappointing experience, and difficult, and it definitely opened my eyes to the internet and how horrific it can be. You’d think, after doing “Dear Evan Hansen” onstage for four years, I would have already known that. I try my best to focus on people who tell me it was moving to them and they really felt seen by it. It is very easy for the good to get drowned out by the bad.
I don’t know if this is connected, but I noticed that you’re no longer on Twitter. What’s that about?
I find that Twitter is almost exclusively for tearing people down. I wasn’t getting anything positive, and it’s been really nice to be away.
Since “Evan Hansen” you’ve become a pop performer, recording and touring.
It’s a whole different animal because it’s been the only avenue in which to express my perspective. I find that in everything else — film and TV and especially theater — as much as you’re giving of yourself, you’re also doing your best to disappear, to serve somebody else’s mission or tell somebody else’s story. I love that experience, being a cog in a larger wheel. But I also think that being afforded the opportunity to do the opposite is a very liberating and freeing experience. One makes me really appreciate the other.
Do you see yourself back on Broadway?
I would love to, yes. I’m very much so hoping, whether it’s this or something else, to get back there as soon as I can.