It would be easy to look at Will Roland’s trajectory from mega-hit musical Dear Evan Hansen to current fan favorite Be More Chill and assume the actor jumped to “just another teen musical.” But you know what they say about assuming. The fact is, the new musical by Joe Tracz and Joe Iconis thrusts Roland—who originated the role of Evan Hansen’s nebbishy, hypersexual “best friend” Jared—into unfamiliar and challenging territory: that of leading man.
“The first time that they asked me to come in for Jeremy, I was surprised,” says Roland, who originated the role Off-Broadway before bringing it to Broadway this past February. “I think that I hadn’t allowed myself to consider that option. I had this idea: ‘I’m a best friend.’ That is a very safe space place that I like to occupy. Stepping into the Jeremy role is entertaining the part of myself that I’m less comfortable accessing.”
But with that discomfort comes the chance to stretch himself as an actor—and create a more interesting Jeremy.
“People think of me, ‘Oh, he’s this bombastic, over-the-top, very confident guy, very extroverted,” Roland says. “Jeremy… he’s so cut off. He wants to be this big, effusive guy, but he’s just so self-censoring and so self-limiting.
“The exciting challenge of this role for me is to sort of stifle all of that [outwardly] but keep it flowing under the surface somehow,” he says.
Perhaps because Roland isn’t “a Jeremy” in real life, he’s able to bring a fresh and layered take on the misfit teenager who just wants to be cool. He wants Jeremy to be likeable, yet flawed—an adolescent tinged with self-preoccupation, but also someone to root for.
“My biggest fear is that we view Jeremy as this selfish white boy, which the world is frankly rife with,” Roland says, “but if he doesn’t start with a bit of that in him, then he can’t grow and become a better person that we want to see in the world.”
Much of that observed evolution manifests in Jeremy’s relationship with his crush Christine Canigula—an unapologetically zany girl who loves play rehearsal, neon dresses, and bowling alley performance art.
“It was always about tracking how comfortable Jeremy was around Christine at various moments in the story,” he says. “In the first scene, he encounters her and can barely speak. He’s unable to speak to her because he sees her as this perfect creature on a pedestal.
“Part of what he learns over the course of the story is, ‘Wait a second, this is another human being just like me.’ That helps him to communicate with her and listen to her,” Roland continues. As co-star Stephanie Hsu and Roland explored that dynamic as a way of tracking Jeremy’s maturation, they worked with the creative team to amend the script and be more exacting.
“My favorite adjustment that we made is, for Broadway, the way that Jeremy asks Christine out at the play; he asks her if she wants to do ‘bowling alley performance art,’ as opposed to before he said ‘lunch,’” Roland explains. “This says Jeremy has listened and learned and wants to speak to her in her language.
“For me, that’s the ultimate journey to becoming a good man: listening.”
But it’s also the ultimate journey to becoming a good actor.
Roland takes into account “every single note I’ve ever been given.” He’s attuned to all of the energies spinning onstage—whether he’s in the scene or not.
At the top of the call sheet, Roland certainly feels accountable to ensure the show realizes its potential and satisfies the droves of shrieking fans flocking to the Lyceum Theatre. “I feel an enormous burden,” he confesses. “I’m just conscious of how many hours and hours and hours of conversation have gone into calibrating this role and this performance,” he says. “It’s not just me. It’s the work of [director] Stephen Brackett and the Joes and [choreographer] Chase [Brock] and all the other actors onstage.”
Those hours have led Roland to craft a specific portrait of Jeremy—down to his laugh. “I’ve spent a lot of time teaching, and I’ve worked with kids who don’t realize that they have, for example, a really strident laugh,” says Roland. “It’s a thing I try to pepper into the performance, this idea that Jeremy has this uncontrollable laugh he’s probably been ridiculed for in the past and it sneaks out in moments of great anxiety or great joy.”
Details make all the difference—especially in a theatrical landscape more and more populated with stories about the teen experience.
“I hate when our story gets boiled down to ‘It’s about being yourself,’” he says. “It is about being yourself, but it’s really about saving the soul of the youth.” And if you look past the obvious when it comes to Roland, his performance as Jeremy can’t be boiled down to one thing either—and that’s music to every fan’s ears.