Coronavirus

Ben Platt Talks Challenges of Zoom Writing Sessions From Quarantine, Working With Finneas & New Netflix Special

Ben Platt
Eric Michael Roy

Ben Platt photographed on March 14, 2019 at Big Foot West in Los Angeles.

Get an exclusive first look at the trailer for 'Ben Platt Live From Radio City Music Hall.'

When Ben Platt released his debut solo album Sing to Me Instead in April of last year, he’d already won a Tony, a Grammy and a Daytime Emmy for his work in the Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen. Still, success in the pop sphere wasn’t a guarantee for a performer known best from theater and the Pitch Perfect movies. 

But Platt dispelled any skepticism, quickly selling out a multi-city tour including New York’s Beacon Theater, and scoring a No. 18 debut on the Billboard 200 and a No. 3 spot on the Top Album Sales chart. His whirlwind past year culminated in a sold-out night at Radio City Music Hall -- now preserved for all Platt fanatics in a Netflix special out May 20.

In the days before the special’s release, Platt has been at home in Los Angeles, quarantining with his family (though he lives in New York), and prepping for the release of “So Will I,” a (socially-distanced) collaboration with Finneas that dropped Friday (May 8).

He chatted with Billboard about staying creative during a pandemic, his preferred stagewear, and channeling his inner Maggie Rogers for the Radio City stage. 

Get an exclusive first look at the trailer for Ben Platt Live From Radio City Music Hall below, and check out the Q&A after the jump.


Where are you, and how are you spending your days?

It’s a weird moment, but I have a lot of things that make my situation more fortunate than most people. I’m in L.A. with my family, in my childhood home and in my childhood room which is always fun. I spend most of my time doing Zoom writing sessions, writing on my own at the piano, running around my block, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, eating. Trying to keep calm, and enjoying being with my family, since I’m usually in New York. There’s some puppies and babies around too, which always makes everyone feel better. 

Has it been easier to keep your voice in shape and to do creative things without the usual distractions? 

Voicewise, it’s staying pretty healthy, cause I’m not really going out anywhere, I’m getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of water. [But creating], in a lot of ways it’s harder. Making music is so much about the energy in the room, being able to hear the way people are saying or playing or singing things and a lot of that is lost over Zoom. I’ve had sessions with newer people, and it’s hard to start from scratch over a screen. But if I’m writing with people I have an established dynamic with, if we have the right idea it’s fairly easy to write something great. 

Before the Radio City show, you’d just finished a tour around the country. What was the biggest venue you’d played -- and what did the difference feel like when you got to that huge stage?

I think the closest house-wise was the Dolby Theatre in L.A. I kind of saw it as prep for the Radio City moment. It’s such an iconic place, and I’ve always dreamed of playing my own music there. It’s a space that really demands you step up and deliver, and I knew it would live in perpetuity. The only time I’d been on the stage was the Tony Awards [in 2017], so it was wild to return in this kind of way. 

I guess it’s proved to be a good space for me!. We kept [the show] very focused and tried to make it feel somewhat intimate even in such a cavernous space. My music is generally meant to be person to person. I think we accomplished that, capturing that intimacy for Netflix, the one on one storytelling that I think is particular to me. But yes -- it’s very large.

The concert special is directed by Alex Timbers, one of the most inventive directors on Broadway, who has a lot of experience directing non-traditional theatrical shows, like John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, and David Byrne’s American Utopia. How did the two of you sit down to conceive of what this show would feel like?

I knew right away he was the perfect fit, he was really my only choice. He’s so good at, as you said, these slightly non-traditional theatrical experiences, especially the David Byrne piece in the way it existed as both a concert and a story of an evening, and that was the feeling I wanted it to have, like it had a narrative. 

And he’s very collaborative -- he really wanted to lean on what I envisioned, the things about the tour that had worked, just trying to elevate it slightly for that space and to work on camera. I wanted it to be as much like you’re in my living room, hanging with me and hearing me sing as it could in that big of a space. Like certain songs can lift off and get slightly more fantastical but always come back to a more intimate connection.

You seem to do a lot of dancing onstage in this special. Tell me about your dancing journey: how did you become comfortable letting loose in front of so many people? I’d imagine it’s very different from doing theater.

Yeah, that was definitely scary at the beginning. I didn’t want to have any choreography, but I wanted to allow myself to move the way I like to move. Honestly, seeing Maggie Rogers at Hammerstein Ballroom before I went on tour was really influential. She dances in a way that you can tell it’s how she really moves when she’s out and being herself. It draws you in so much as an audience member, you feel like you’re really getting to see and know her. 

As soon as I realized I didn’t need to adjust the way I danced for this, I think the audience responds to that authenticity, leaning into what’s natural. It’s really liberating. If we went out dancing together, this is what you’d get! 

How would you describe the Ben Platt dancing style?

I would say I’m like, not painfully white, which is good, I think I have a bit of rhythm, but I’d say my favorite thing is like a modified Mashed Potato, a little retro influence maybe. But I’d say I’m a mover, not a dancer. 

We also need to discuss your stage pants, the blue ones. They’re quite festive.

I love high-waisted pants. They have really changed my life. When you’re singing, you want to overextend your gut in a way, and it takes away all the vanity of that, if the pants cover everything. It’s so freeing, like you’re just in one long leg! In every city, I wore high waisted, and I wanted something that would pop for RC, and Jason Rembert brought in that bright blue and the flowery top. We were like bam bam, that’s it, we knew they would pop on camera.

You worked on your new single “So Will I” with your longtime collaborator Michael Pollack and, for the first time, Finneas. How did that come together?

When I came home to L.A. when this whole thing started, I isolated for two weeks away from my family, and during those two weeks I had this idea for a song -- essentially a love song that could bring people comfort now but could live on its own long after this is gone. I thought of this structure of this person asking the singer all these what ifs, all these fears and worries, and the singer having a response for everything -- and when he runs out of responses he falls back on this hook of the constants there are when everything feels a bit out of control. That felt like a really beautiful way to shape the song.

I knew right away I wanted to go to Michael Pollack on it -- he’s my favorite collaborator and he has a great way of making something pop-accessible, but maintaining the emotionality, so we did a Zoom writing session and luckily we landed on the same page. I then started to think of who would i love to [produce this] under any circumstances, who could also put it out totally on their own with their own instruments, and who could keep the emotional honesty of the song but also allow it to be big and anthemic.

I knew Finneas had all those abilities and more and would work his magic on it even alone in his room -- which he did. I called him up and said it was my dream for him to produce it, but no hard feelings if you don’t feel it’s your jam right now, and shortly after he said “I love it, give me the weekend.” And after the weekend I had a beautiful produced version of it. He’s totally a unicorn. 

After the special airs, what will be next for you? You’re set to film the musical Merrily We Roll Along over the next several years with Richard Linklater -- how has that been affected?

Just everything is stopped right now obviously and Merrily is no exception. The plan is certainly still to make it, we just have to wait and see what the world is like when we come out of this. When the special comes out we’re doing a deluxe version of the album too. I have my episode of Songland coming up in June, and there will be a song with that as well. Other than that, I’m just trying to write music. The only thing I can really do without other people is try to get another album together!

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