On a cold night in late January, Ben Platt stepped behind the microphone in a plush private space at New York’s Bowery Hotel. Atlantic Records chairman/COO Julie Greenwald had just gushingly introduced him to the crowd, a mix of industry types and Broadway stans there to hear Platt perform songs from his upcoming solo debut, Sing to Me Instead. Up to the moment he hit the stage, the Broadway star turned pop singer looked like he might rather bolt instead.
But when Platt opened his mouth to sing, the crowd’s eyes widened and mouths silently formed “wows.” Playing an anxiety-ridden teenager in Dear Evan Hansen, Platt, 25, won a Tony for performing anthem after anthem each night, often while crying, spitting, contorting his body -- or some combination of all three. At the Bowery, freed of the role’s constraints, he stood mostly still but sang in that same voice, with unadulterated emotion that came from Ben Platt alone. “Usually performing live is my comfort zone,” says Platt two months later. “This is a much newer experience than I ever realized -- presenting my own work, my own words and thoughts.”
Platt wrote or co-wrote every song on Sing to Me Instead, which Atlantic will release March 29. For the label, investing in Platt is both a leap of faith -- that his combination of talent and authenticity will resonate way beyond his core Evan Hansen fan base -- and a test: Pop crossovers are historically difficult for even the most beloved Broadway performers.
But at a moment when the pop and musical theater worlds share more than ever, Atlantic is betting that Platt is, in the words of president of A&R Pete Ganbarg, a “unicorn” who will not only find success but also longevity -- perhaps taking his place one day alongside the patron saint of musical theater crossover, Barbra Streisand. But Platt’s music manager, Adam Mersel, and the Atlantic team tout a more contemporary comparison: Childish Gambino, a boundary-pushing artist who can also act. Platt appeared in the first two Pitch Perfect films as a magic-loving outcast, and his first major TV role will be in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix comedy, The Politician, slated for Sept. 27.
The idea of Ben Platt, Solo Artist was born two years ago, when Atlantic Records chairman/CEO Craig Kallman and Ganbarg went to see him in Dear Evan Hansen. “After Act 1, Craig looked at me like, ‘Why are you not backstage signing Ben Platt to a solo deal right now?’ ” recalls Ganbarg. It wasn’t until Atlantic was working on the show’s Broadway cast recording -- which debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200 and won a Grammy -- that Platt had time to seriously mull the idea.
He wasn’t interested in a Great American Songbook album or theater covers. Instead, he wanted to step outside of his Broadway past (at least for now). He had written before -- parodies of theater songs for family events like bar mitzvahs and weddings, and improv sketches in high school. Immediately after moving into a New York apartment with its own piano, he started working on stripped-down songs with close guidance from Atlantic senior director A&R Jeff Levin. A fan of Platt’s performance in Dear Evan Hansen, Levin initially saw him as a risk. “It’s an unlikely scenario to take someone from a theater background and find their own voice,” he says. “They’ve been trained their whole lives to be someone else. It’s a scary thing.” At his first meeting with Platt, “I sat there and said, ‘I think you’re the best singer in the world -- but it’s important for me to know who you are.’ ”
One deep hang later, during which they discussed everything from breakups to the music they loved most, they were convinced they could make an album. Levin introduced Platt to songwriters who matched his soulful storytelling sensibility, including Ben Abraham (who co-wrote Kesha’s “Praying”) and Jenn Decilveo (who co-wrote Andra Day’s “Rise Up”). That same raw, emotional honesty is what Platt aims to bring on every song off the album, even when it comes to addressing, for the first time publicly, his experience as a gay man. “I found, as I was writing, it was very naturally becoming about the men I’ve been with and have loved,” says Platt. “I never thought about editing that in any way.”
To Platt and his team, the album is paramount, and success won’t mean singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Even so, he has a built-in fan base. Starting in early May, he’ll play 12 concert dates at venues like New York’s Beacon Theatre, which, according to the team, moved all of its tickets in presale. Those audiences will hear the Platt who eventually revealed himself that night at the Bowery: a consummate live performer who embraces vulnerability. “The pop stars I love the most, like Adele and Sam Smith, are the ones who, when you spend an evening with them or listen to the album, you feel like you know them in a way that others don’t,” says Platt. “I have no interest in the untouchable stuff.”
Put Me In, Coach
Vocal coach Liz Caplan has four decades of experience helping actors on Broadway, TV and in movies develop and protect their pipes. For five years she worked with Ben Platt on Dear Evan Hansen, from its inception through its Broadway run. Now, the woman Platt calls “part magician, part therapist” is helping him learn to sing as himself.
Did shifting from Broadway to recorded music require a big change to vocal approach for Platt?
With a lot of people who try to transition from Broadway, at least for a time, it’s hard to find who you are as a person -- what voice comes out of you when you’re not playing a character. The work Ben and I did was to first rid him of all the manifestations of the character that he had developed for so many years: being hunched over, shoulders being dropped, the sternum being collapsed, head craned forward and out. There’s an adjustment period still happening in the live performances, but every time he sings, it changes.
Has anything surprised you as you work together on this new career step?
Funnily enough, because Dear Evan Hansen was so emotional, so much mucus came flying out of him throughout the show, over and over and over again. Now he doesn’t have that worked-up state to get into. I always ask people to let me hear their sinuses before we start, and he has been really clear since the show. He’s way less mucus-y since he has become Ben Platt.
Platt notoriously kept a monklike existence during Dear Evan Hansen to preserve his voice. Has that changed?
The most important thing for Ben when he’s in the midst of a big project -- this whole record and its release, and the tour that’s coming up -- is rest. During Evan Hansen, you could count on half a hand how many times he went out with the cast. When he was recording, he was able to live a little bit more of a normal life, occasionally have a drink and go out at night. But he knows his voice is his livelihood.