“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.” So goes the opening line of the new in-the-works Alex Brightman/Drew Gasparini musical It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which debuted March 20 at Feinstein’s/54 Below. An adaptation of the movie by the same name, based on the novel by Ned Vezzini, that jarring start comes from the mouth of 17-year-old Craig Gilner, and—at one time—might have been considered too grim for a musical. But one glance at the theatrical landscape (one specific blockbuster this season, in particular) and you’ll see that this kind of dialogue isn’t out of place.
Just ask Colton Ryan, who’s currently pulling double duty as the standby for the titular role in the Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen, while—since January—helping to develop the role of Craig in Funny Story.
A senior at Baldwin-Wallace University (currently on leave and receiving internship credit for his Broadway work), Ryan joined Evan Hansen in December 2016, following a series of meetings with Tara Rubin Casting (“I was put on a list of people who could sing high and looked kind of weird,” he laughs). Shortly thereafter, the Funny Story casting crew sought him out to play their leading man, a character who—despite obvious differences from Evan—is, in his own way, “on the outside, always looking in.”
“Colton is a f****ing star!” shouts Gasparini. Adds Brightman: “[In his audition], he raised one eyebrow—he didn’t even have to say anything—and we knew that was our guy. He drives this show. It comes from his soul, and it’s incredible to watch.”
As for comparisons to Evan Hansen, the writing team’s not worried; in fact, they’re grateful. “Theatre helps breed new theatre,” says Brightman. “I mean, where would Dear Evan Hansen be without Next to Normal? Where would Next to Normal be without shows like Rent? You can take it to the bank that we bow at the reverence of Dear Evan Hansen.”
And to say Evan Hansen has informed Ryan’s work on Funny Story would be an understatement. He revels in the fact that, with Funny Story, he gets to explore “a different side of the spectrum and [see] how far it can go,” because while Evan deals with crippling social anxiety, Craig tackles depression “head-on” and checks into a mental hospital.
The singing actor’s true pride lies in addressing such a hot-button issue, and reaching children and teens on local and global scales. “I’ve become so much more aware of the mental health community and the outreach programs since joining Dear Evan Hansen,” he shares, detailing that production’s partnerships with such organizations as the JED Foundation and the Global Mental Health Program at Columbia University. “They do a lot of great work over there [raising awareness].”
“We talk about it very openly [in Funny Story],” notes Ryan. "It’s so important to talk about it, because every person—even those people who feel fine [on the surface]—everyone deals with their own mental issues at their own pace and the severity [may vary], but ultimately, medicine can only do so much. The only way to combat these issues is to be open about them. I think that’s what these shows can teach kids.”
The show, commissioned by Universal Theatrical Group, is still in development, but Gasparini and Brightman anticipate big things to come.
And while Ryan expresses “complete interest” in continuing with the show through its next stages, he’s happy, for now, just taking it one day—and one show—at a time. “They’re both dope,” he says, of his experiences. “At the end of the day, I’m just happy to be a part of it all. That’s that. No questions asked.”
Watch the opening number from the show at Feinstein’s/54 Below: