Few Broadway debuts are as triumphant as Will Roland’s. His involvement, influence, and impact on Dear Evan Hansen has helped make the show what it is today: a huge hit. Roland has been with the musical from the very beginning. Through readings, workshops, and tryouts, he collaborated with the cast and creative team to bring Jared to life. Originating a role is an incredibly personal process where one must examine their strengths and weaknesses as a performer, then work to adapt with the project accordingly. Roland faced the opportunity head on, finding a wrenching balance of humor and heart in this kid, who at the end of the day, is just seeking friendship. Roland’s performance as Jared provides the comic relief required for this heavy piece of theater. But throughout the course of the night, Roland masterfully shows the audience the truth underneath Jared’s jokes. In this interview, Roland discusses his journey to Jared: his beginnings in the theater, his pre-Evan Hansen career, and how he’s worked to create the character we now all know and love.
MC: When did you catch the theater bug?
WR: For me, I started acting and became interested in the theater in 6th grade. I went to a Quaker School out on Long Island called Friends Academy. They had a really swell theater program. The first show I was in was actually Once on this Island.
Who did you play?
As what often happens, I played an added character for a middle schooler. I was one of the children of the island.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?
It started for me, like a lot of people, as a hobby. It was more about the community and the people I was doing it with—the way working with those people made me feel. As it came time to apply to college, I was like, “I think I’m good enough and drawn enough to this that I should study it.” I hadn’t really made a hardcore decision at that point to pursue it professionally.
You studied Musical Theater at NYU Steinhardt. How did that help set you up for success?
I was lucky enough to realize that I was in no way ready to pursue anything professional when I was 18. I was a hugely unformed performer. I was making all the wrong choices—very passionate, but didn’t have a lot of formal training. What’s great about Steinhardt is that it’s a place where you break bad habits you may have formed. It gets you back to a neutral place to begin [acting] from. I walked in there thinking like, “Oh I’m a real basso profundo kind of singer.” I was singing “Le nozze di Figaro,” I sang “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific in my audition, which was ridiculous because I’m a quirky tenor. So Steinhardt gave me the opportunity to screw up all throughout college and figure out what I was best at and most suited for. When I graduated, I had a firm footing of the landscape of musical theater and how I could fit into it.
What was your experience like trying to get work when first starting out? Were you one of the many who waited tables?
This is a business where anybody you talk to will say, “I worked really hard and then I also happened to get really lucky.” For me, that took the shape of two things. I had a couple of day jobs, which were all specialized and allowed me to work on a freelance schedule. I never had to tend a bar until four in the morning before an audition, which was hugely advantageous for me. I worked as an electrician, hanging and focusing lights in theaters. That was one half of it.
I’ve been out of school for six years. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have auditioned for strangers and it led to a job. Dear Evan Hansen is like the third time that’s ever happened for me in my whole life. When I got out of school I had the great fortune of teachers and directors I’d worked with in school and writers I’d worked with in school who had their own professional projects. They’d call me and say, “Hey, I’m doing a show at the New Orleans Fringe Festival. Do you want to come in and audition for it?” or “I’m doing a play at 59E59. Do you want to come in and audition for it?” I had my foot in a couple of doors that really helped me get some professional experience early on and get a little bit of validation: “I can do this. This is going to be all right.” Every experience has led to the next one for me. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been multiple months where nothing has happened. But multiple months is a great track record [Will laughs]. I’ve been very, very fortunate that I hit the ground running out of college.
You’ve been with Dear Evan Hansen pretty much since the beginning. How did you help shape Jared and how has he changed since the beginning of the show?
What’s really fun is that as an actor you inevitably do a lot of readings and workshops. You do productions as well. I think it’s very rare to get to do readings, and workshops, and multiple productions of the same show over the course of years. Often times you’ll get replaced, or the role will get cut, or you’ll be the guy who replaces the other actor. It’s very rare to have this opportunity. What’s been great about it is that when I came in there was just an incredible amount of material. Steven Levinson, our book writer, he can just churn, and churn, and churn out really quality stuff. He’s very facile. He’s able to say, “This is the old purpose of the scene, but we’re going to shift what the scene is about.” He can just totally tweak lines and modify lines and sequences to make it about something totally different. So when I came in, there was tons of material for Jared. A lot of what stayed in was a lot of the stuff that worked on me, which is a really crazy wonderful opportunity to experience.
If you’re a comedic actor, you get handed a script and it’s your job to figure out how to make it funny and alive. In my case, Steven would write a joke and I’d read the joke and say, “This is funny!” and Steven would think the joke was funny. Then I’d do it in front of an audience and it would not be funny [Will laughs]. In those instances, the jokes just went away. I didn’t have to struggle to figure out how to fix those kinds of things. We all knew it was funny and knew it was a good line, but if I couldn’t land it, it just left the script. Stuff was added that played to my strengths as drafts went on. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing and fortunate that experience was. It’s not commonplace.
It’s pretty wild to think about how many people will play Jared in the future and how the character exists as a role written for who you are as a performer. The show is obviously going to have an incredibly long run, but if you leave the show or they start doing high school productions of Dear Evan Hansen, people who play Jared will be playing an extension of you.
Well, musical theater is a hugely collaborative process. For a Broadway show, the first production puts a lot of focus on the actors. A lot of the spotlight ends up on us for what the audience is reacting to immediately. What I think is forgotten sometimes is when you’re doing Fiddler on the Roof at your high school, you’re doing the things Zero Mostel could do when you’re playing Tevye. Everything about these roles—the actors who played them initially—the stuff that makes them gets put into the role. I imagine that most productions of Dear Evan Hansen in the future will slap a pair of thick-rimmed glasses on the kid whether or not he can see. But like I really can’t see [Will laughs]. Things like that. Musical theater is an incredibly collaborative art form—more than most. Everyone has an impact in what goes into it. Enormous teams of people make musicals happen. It’s not like the writers say, “Here’s our musical! It’s done!” It’s so much more collaborative than that.
You guys got to collaborate with today’s hottest songwriting-composing duo, Pasek and Paul, who’ve really become great champions in contemporary musical theater. What’s your favorite thing about singing their songs?
My first exposure to Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul’s] music was actually my freshman year of college. They’d just written Edges. I don’t know even know if they were licensing it yet. We had a new student cabaret with the 20 new students in my program and we sang—I don’t even think it’s in Edges anymore—a song called “Become.” We all split what was written for four voices into 20 little solos for all the freshman. That was my first experience with their music. What I think they do so incredibly is manage to write really universal songs. A lot of the songs in the show and a lot of the songs they’ve written can be really elegantly plucked from the show and be about anything. To write with the specificity you need for musical theater while keeping the vagueness that you have in a pop song is a tough tightrope to walk.
It’s interesting to think about it that way.
If you think about any song from a Sondheim musical, there are a couple you can pluck out. Like, especially in Into the woods, you could not play any of the songs on the radio. That’s obviously not a detriment. I love Into the Woods. But with Dear Evan Hansen, you could take them and go, “Here you go Sam Smith. Here you go Adele. Sing this song.” And people would go, “Ugh I love this new Adele song!” That, I think, is atypical in musical theater. You end up with very specific lyrics that tell very specific stories. There’s universality to what Benj and Justin are writing.
I think the show explores vulnerability in a really relatable, multifaceted way. We don’t really ever get to see Jared feel his loneliness but it’s definitely there. Conversely, we see Evan all consumed by the loneliness he feels. They’re both having those feelings but dealing with them in totally different ways. What was your approach to playing that dynamic?
Anyone who’s taking an acting class right now I’m sure is going to be like, “Ugh he’s saying exactly what my teacher says!” But it’s a very academic approach. I try to always focus on, “What does Jared want?” and “What are the tactics he’s taking to get what he wants?” At the beginning of the show, it’s all about him puffing himself up on his first day of school and then as the first act goes on, it’s all about seeing this opportunity to have a real connection with Evan. He offers what I think is terrible advice that I think comes from a terrible place: “I can help Evan with this mess he’s gotten himself into and it will make me feel really validated, needed, and wanted.” As that goes on in the first act, Jared starts to realize he doesn’t have a real relationship with Evan; he’s just a proxy for Evan’s imaginary friendship with Conner. In the second act, I think that all I’m trying to do is get back to where we were on page 35: “I want to hang out with my friend. I want to sit down and write more of those emails. This will be fun!” Evan has moved on and doesn’t need Jared anymore. At that point, I think Jared is very bitter. At first he tries to get Evan back. But when that doesn’t happen, he tries to make Evan see the horror of what he has done. That’s sort of my arc throughout the show.
What’s your pre-show routine?
I like to get some carbs in me. I think I eat more carbs than any Broadway actor. I like to get some ramen or maybe a sandwich. I like pasta before a show because I like to feel grounded. Probably if I were dancing a lot I wouldn’t want to eat such heavy food, but I’m not. So I eat a lot of carbs. Then I show up and usually Ben Platt will lead us in a dance party around half-hour or 25 minutes before places. For me, it’s really just about being with the other people in the show. At this point it’s not a lot about prepping and centering, especially because I have the first few minutes to get into character, as it were. The pre-show stuff is really about being with the other people onstage. A lot of what we do is be really nasty to each other onstage—or at least we don’t hear each other. I think that we as humans in this cast try to reinforce how rich our real world connections are with one another.
Do you do a vocal warm up?
I tend to warm up much earlier in the day and then not warm up again before the show. I have a set bunch or warm-ups that I’ll do. I tend to wake up around 10am, which is really nice. I don’t have to be here until an hour before. I’ll get up in the morning and take a shower and warm up in the shower. That way, if I’m speaking a lot during the day, it puts me in a healthier place for the evening.
What’s your advice for aspiring Broadway performers?
It’s sort of a three-fold thing. One is you should get and listen to as much advice as you possibly can, but while doing that, take every bit of advice with a grain of salt. Everyone you ask will definitely have an opinion for you, but you shouldn’t necessarily value all the opinions—though you should listen to them. The other thing you should do is be really, really nice to everyone. You should be as prepared as possible for everything. If it’s an audition and you have time, memorize the lines for the audition. Just know the lines. You will not be worse because you know the lines. ♦