After graduating Marymount Manhattan College in February 2016, Michael Lee Brown auditioned for a new Benj Pasek/Justin Paul/Steven Levenson musical that was transferring from Off-Broadway’s Second Stage to Broadway. The buzz had begun, but no one realized the show would sweep the nation once it hit the Music Box Theatre. That summer, Brown was cast as one of the understudies for the three young males roles, including Evan Hansen himself. About a year later, he became the official alternate—when Tony winner Ben Platt relinquished his eight-show-a-week schedule.
On January 30, Brown revealed the project that kept him busy when he wasn’t waving through a window: his new EP, Way It Used to Be (produced by Pippin star Matthew James Thomas), which features original songs by Brown. The Broadway actor actually found inspiration close to home for the mix of folk, indie rock, and pop. “My brother Robby Brown is an amazing musician, and growing up he opened for Avril Lavigne and P!nk and Aaron Carter,” says Brown. “I really attribute learning how to write a song from him.”
Here we caught up with the Dear Evan Hansen star about writing his own music, what he does differently from the other Evan Hansens, and how he recovers from the strenuous role.
Your new EP touches on the high-tech stress of our world and reflects on simpler times. Did that theme emerge from your Dear Evan Hansen experience and being surrounded by a show about social media or is this something you’ve always been thinking about?
Brown: It’s a mixture of the two. I think I always grew up being very nostalgic. I started songwriting when I was probably eight years old. Being part of Dear Evan Hansen opened my eyes to how prevalent this discussion is now. You see these people that are all talking about the social media discussions and how it can be isolating and it can be stressful. But being a part of the show opened my eyes to more of “Wow, so many people agree and feel this way.” It motivated me to want to start getting my music out there as a way to give my own voice and opinions about that subject. Through noticing the simple joys in life, noticing simple pleasures, it’s trying to stay grounded in this world that feels like it’s up in the air all the time. When we’re younger, we can play with a cardboard box and we’re happy, you know?
Is your version of Evan from when you were understudying Ben Platt different from being the alternate? Does that change how you play the character?
When I first started, I went on few and far between. Ben rarely missed a show. He’s amazing. I would obviously do [the role] in rehearsals and stuff, but getting to perform in front of an audience [changed it] so that you would find more and more things. Honesty, simplicity, and truth are my main things going in. I think that in anything I do, I try to apply that. Now that I go on weekly, I get to really be in the show and not worry about the technicalities. Now I get to go on weekly, I can really delve into the character and it feels a lot more comfortable.
Who is your Evan Hansen? What defines him?
His longing is to feel a connection to something and feel like he belongs. That resonates for me. He’s caught up in this whirl of all this technology and all these things going on, and he’s trying to please this family. But through that, he has such honest emotions. That’s why I think you love the character so much, even though he’s lying through all of these things.
Are there things you do, whether in song or in scene, that you have crafted to your performance?
I was definitely inspired by certain things [Ben] did. But, from the beginning, I wanted to make sure I was never copying him. I have my own unique tics and quirks that I do, that I feel expresses anxiety and came out naturally for me. It’s hard to imitate other people’s quirks because there’s a reason why they’re doing it. I do this thing with my foot that I always kind of do that just comes out if I feel nervous in life, so I bring that to the character. I also do this thing where I touch my chest sometimes—when I get stressed out I feel it in my chest. So when I feel like Evan’s getting stressed out, I naturally start to feel it and touch my chest.
How do you recover emotionally from the show?
One of my favorite acting teachers, this guy named Anthony Abeson, one of the things he said in his class: “When you act and you perform, you should always feel at the end like you’re fulfilled.” It should be a happy feeling. It should be a release. It should be freeing. You should never come off of doing a scene feeling like you’re just wrecked and it’s scarring to you, that you feel like every time you don’t want to repeat doing that scene. Even though I am upset, even though I am feeling those upsetting emotions, when I’m done, I feel invigorated. I feel like, “Wow, it was a release. It was fulfilling.” It’s more of a mental framing of it.