An illustration of the titular character from Dear Evan Hansen in an article about the musical's upcoming film adaptation. (Illustration by Sonja Vasiljeva, San Jose State University)

Hollywood’s Age-Old Dilemma Meets ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

Ben Platt’s reprisal of his Broadway role in the upcoming film adaptation raises some heads as it continues the surprisingly common occurrence of adults playing high school students.
June 26, 2021
8 mins read

In the past few weeks, the release of the trailer for the musical-turned-movie “Dear Evan Hansen” has stirred quite a controversy among audiences. The Hollywood age-casting phenomenon has struck again, holding the beloved musical in its sharp claws. Hollywood’s pattern of casting adults in the roles of middle schoolers and high school students has become apparent once more with the announcement of 27-year-old Ben Platt’s reprisal of his Tony-award-winning role as 17-year-old Evan Hansen. It’s a standard that has been around for ages and has brought forth both questions and criticisms — sparking the debate of whether Platt’s casting was appropriate.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is so remarkably close to many people’s hearts that it’s troubling to see it take a shape other than what it was imagined to be. The musical’s beauty is in its simplicity: The story of a teen who didn’t really belong anywhere and who found his optimistic outlook through the most unlikely of interactions. It’s a tale that tackles social anxiety, acceptance and an endless pursuit of love at an age where love is difficult to find.

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One of the leading songs, “Waving Through a Window,” is the greatest example of the story’s foundation: searching for a chance to be heard. “Dear Evan Hansen” isn’t just entertainment to most of its viewers, it’s personal. So to see its very essence — an exploration of the struggles of adolescence — be tainted by an avoidable casting decision did not sit well with the majority of fans.

The Twitter world, filled with society’s most outspoken critics, did not hesitate to rain comedic hellfire on the “Dear Evan Hansen” trailer. Tweets referenced everything from Will Ferrell as an overgrown child in “Elf” to an adult Adam Sandler sitting in a kindergarten classroom in “Billy Madison.” One user even went as far as to edit a photo of former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as Evan Hansen. The consensus was clear: People were not thrilled to see an adult, way-past-puberty Ben Platt play an awkward, gangly teenager.

But more than outrage, audiences showed unbound confusion as to why this casting decision was necessary. The collection of “Dear Evan Hansen” actors is not small, with several theater stars claiming the role long after Platt’s last Broadway performance. One fan on Twitter suggested 19-year-old Andrew Barth Feldman, who played Evan Hansen in one of the Broadway productions, as a much more digestible, understandable alternative. The age impropriety of the film’s casting was proving to be a deal-breaker for a multitude of fans. That being said, the age discrepancy isn’t the only reason viewers are distressed.

Audiences have pointed out the nepotistic manner through which Platt may have gotten his role — being that his father, Marc Platt, is one of the film’s producers. This has brought up the question of whether Platt was the most suitable, inevitable casting choice for this role or if his familial connection to the financial backing of the film caused a shift in the directors’ decision.

Suspicions are raised even more when one considers that Marc Platt has produced nearly everything that his son has been in. Nepotism isn’t new in Hollywood and it would be no surprise if this were actually the case. In Platt’s defense, he was the first person to bring the character of Evan Hansen to life, long before the idea of a film or its production was in the works. This fact, however, did not stop the internet from ripping Platt to shreds.

The sudden flood of criticisms challenged Platt to respond — and he did … sort of. He defended himself in a now-deleted tweet, which said, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the outpouring of trailer love yesterday. The film required me to revisit areas of personal pain, so seeing people excited & moved makes it so deeply worth it. PS to the randos being jerks about age, read this great article and/or watch Grease.”

It’s a valid argument, to be sure, referencing actresses such as Olivia Newton-John, who was 29 when she claimed her role as 17-year-old Sandy in the 1978 musical. Although, to be frank, he could have also referenced the 16-year-old “Mean Girls” character Regina George, played by 26-year-old Rachel McAdams, or himself playing 17-year-old Payton in “The Politician,” or any other show or movie about teenagers.

The point is that this standard has existed for decades and Hollywood has not left him wanting for examples. Whether casting directors make these decisions for aesthetic purposes (see: Hollywood hates puberty) or simply to avoid work restrictions for minors, the phenomenon is frequent and remains a source of discomfort for many viewers. But there is a lot more complexity that goes into casting and, although audience discomfort is an issue, there are some positives to Platt taking this role.

For one, Platt knows this character inside and out: He’s both the one who cultivated the role when the musical first hit Broadway in 2016 and the person who gave the character all of his little quirks and awkward smiles. In all the ways that matter, Platt is Evan Hansen. It’s difficult to let go of a character that one has essentially created, which could be why Platt is so insistent on reprising this role.

He’s defended his dedication further in an interview with Vanity Fair, where he said, “I’d lost about 15 pounds and did a very specific diet, grew my hair out, and was shaving to make sure that I didn’t look like I had five o’clock shadow all the time … I was just stripping myself into being a teenager for the last time. For what is hopefully the last time.” Despite his efforts not doing much to hide his age, in some ironic way, Platt’s cognizance of the oddness of his reprisal helps to somewhat mitigate it.

At the end of the day, Platt’s role in “Dear Evan Hansen” is no more offbeat than the premise of the musical itself and is no more concerning than the story’s glamorization of mental illness (although that’s a discussion for another time). He is not the first actor to fall victim to Hollywood’s casting peculiarity and he certainly won’t be the last. Besides, if there is anyone that can be exempt from that rule, it’s Platt — what with his incredible talent and endearing charm.

This is not to say that this casting decision wasn’t in bad taste. But if the public can move past years of watching 31-year-old Michael Tucci play 18-year-old Sonny in “Grease” and ignore the nepotism that created Gwenyth Paltrow, they can move past Platt’s role in “Dear Evan Hansen.” Until Hollywood can abandon their “anti-teen” work policy, these casting decisions seem to be inevitable.

What people should turn their attention and concern to, however, is Platt’s atrocious perm. If anything will be a source of distraction in the film, it’s that.

Mariam Nasief, Columbia University

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Mariam Nasief

Columbia University
Biomedical Engineering

Mariam Nasief, originally from New Jersey, is currently a rising sophomore and self-proclaimed pop-culture connoisseur. Although she’s studying engineering, she loves to stimulate her creative side in whatever way that she can.

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