Individuality and Authenticity: Ben Platt at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 23 August 2019
Image Credit: The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong sat down with Ben Platt last term after his talk at the Cambridge Union.

Ben Platt is an American singer and actor known for his acclaimed performances in Broadway productions The Book of Mormon and Dear Evan Hansen, winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in the latter role. Ben is a rare artiste who has made the transition from screen to stage and most recently, pop music — from singing a cappella covers on Pitch Perfect and its sequel, Ben recently released his debut album Sing to Me Instead, which reached the top 20 of the US Billboard 200.

While one might expect the transition across different sectors of the entertainment industry to be bumpy or unsettling, Ben found it “fairly natural and organic” as he followed his instincts on what felt like the logical next step, seeking areas that would “stretch [him] in a different way and use tools [he] hadn’t used before”. Nonetheless, he acknowledges the challenge of converting the success he enjoyed on Dear Evan Hansen into “a springboard to open new doors, instead of limiting [his] identity”. Wary of the tendency to pigeonhole his acting chops into theatrical roles, he jokes, with a wry smile, “I am a very different person from Evan Hansen!”

Ben’s run as the titular character of Dear Evan Hansen spanned nearly 3 years from 2015 to 2017, demanding a sustained level of commitment and discipline in gathering the right frame of mind to portray the emotional turbulence in Hansen’s character arc. Agreeing that the whole journey was a physically and mentally taxing one (8 shows a week!), Ben says he fastidiously adhered to a strict diet and vocal coaching to protect his vocal cords from overstraining but putting on a successful performance one after another for the audience made it worth it. He smiled as he relayed how he would introduce new challenges for himself in each performance, “I tried using different gestures, like scratching my neck to express anxiety.”

Ben’s professionalism and dedication to his craft shine as he shares his experiences in the entertainment industry. In fact, he is just one Oscar award away from joining the ranks of distinguished celebrities who have won all four major annual American entertainment awards — the Academy, Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards (also known as EGOT). In addition to his Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 2017, Dear Evan Hansen also secured Ben a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album and a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Musical Performance in a Daytime Programme. With John Legend having been the most recent artiste picking up the EGOT title at nearly 40 years of age, Ben, who turns 26 this year, is on track to being one of the youngest in the industry to attain this feat. Is he out on a hunt to complete the quartet then? “If someone awards me an Oscar, I won’t say no, of course!” Ben has several upcoming projects, including a starring role in Netflix comedy “The Politician”, which is set to premiere in September this year. I ask what kind of material excites him in particular and how he chooses what to pursue. “I gravitate towards projects that don’t feel purely like they are only about hot-button, political issues. I like pieces that have a really compelling and emotionally involving narrative, with characters you care very deeply about. And then social and political statements can be the backdrop of that story.”

The importance of emotions to Ben clearly manifests in his record Sing to Me Instead. Focusing on highly introspective themes like heartbreak and personal growth, Ben sought to “share as much of [himself] as possible, given the opportunity afforded by the record, unlike any other thus far, to state [his] own opinions, feelings and experiences”. My personal favourite is New, a song on his record about letting go of the pain of a failed relationship and turning it into self-love, backed by a catchy staccato tune on the piano. Though his album has received rave reviews, Ben expresses he would have preferred less attention being placed on his sexuality. Having never publicly announced his sexuality, many album reviews jumped on the opportunity to report his coming out. But to Ben, this was never a coming-out album; instead, it is an honest manifestation of his thoughts and psyche, and being transparent about his relationships is only natural — his lyrics use male pronouns and his music video “Ease My Mind” featured a relationship with a lover played by actor Charlie Carver. Aware that his openness about his sexuality may limit the opportunities available to him as several older leaders of the entertainment industry continue subscribing to traditional notions of heterosexuality, Ben, however, refuses to let this influence his work.

The evolving commercial music industry has become rather unpredictable and artistes are starting to adjust accordingly — Ariana Grande’s 5th album “thank u, next” followed just 6 months after “Sweetener” and there is a rise in unconventional music production, like Billie Eilish’s bold, spine-tingling sounds. “It seems like the further along we get, the more room there is for the individual, for uniqueness and strangeness, for voices that are unfamiliar.” Ben hopes to carve out a space for himself to showcase his individuality and authenticity — he has undeniably found his sound in this record, a comfortable mix of mellow ballads and uptempo jams that highlight his range and signature vibrato as he sings of love and loss. However, Ben maintains that he still has work to do in experimenting with new sounds, such as dance anthems that he enjoys but still struggles to incorporate into his music (he cites Beyoncé as one of his greatest idols).

Looking forward, we can expect to see Ben in more films, an arena in which he finds himself not as comfortable with as compared to music or the stage. A follow-up album? Definitely. “I’ll figure out the record at some point – what the next permutation in my music is”. And theatre? “Of course, that is my home base!” Before the end of the interview, I ask Ben to share a few words of inspiration to his fans, the raucous applause in the Union Chamber a solid testament to his growing popularity. “Be willing to devote yourself to your goals and sacrifice other parts of your life.” He affirms that he was only able to achieve what he has today by prioritising work, work that he loves fortunately. “Embrace your weirdness and strangeness, and focus on your wild side.”