Ben Levi Ross wakes up most mornings saddled with an “emotional hangover,” an affliction he typically shakes through meditation and a good stretch. Physically, he recuperates with the help of a personal steamer, plus a soothing ginger and manuka honey beverage of his own making.
Then, after a few hours of resting in solitude, the 21-year-old steps back onstage as the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” taxing his mind and body with a 2½-hour binge of anxiety, panic, grief and guilt.
“It has been really hard,” Ross says. “Your body doesn’t know the difference, in terms of the emotional turmoil you’re experiencing on a night-to-night basis. And your outlook on the world may be a little bit affected by the experience that you had the night before.”
“Dear Evan Hansen,” the 2017 Tony winner for best musical, focuses on a high school senior with a broken arm who’s yearning for connection. Since September, Ross has shed his upbeat persona night after night while introducing audiences to the troubled teen on the show’s North American tour.
“He has this remarkable ability to step into this role and lose himself in the most beautiful and raw ways,” says Jessica Phillips, who plays Evan’s overworked single mother, Heidi. “He’s not thinking — he’s feeling.”
The darkly comic musical returns to D.C. on Tuesday for a monthlong stint at the Kennedy Center, having launched with a pre-Broadway run at Arena Stage in 2015. With a book by Steven Levenson (TV’s “Fosse/Verdon”) and a pop-rock-infused score from Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land”), “Dear Evan Hansen” follows Ross’ character as he gets tangled in a well-meaning lie following a classmate’s suicide. The show poses challenging moral questions and, with the help of towering screens that illuminate the set with social media feeds, taps into the sense of loneliness that can still permeate in an age of hyperconnectivity.
Ross had just completed his freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh when, while auditioning for a different play, he caught the eye of “Dear Evan Hansen” director Michael Greif. Ross booked a gig in the summer of 2017 as a Broadway understudy for three roles: Evan, plus the character’s classmates Jared and Connor. He spent the better part of a year waiting in the wings on Broadway, filling in sporadically, before stepping into the spotlight for the hit show’s first tour.
The role of Evan, originated in a Tony-winning performance from Ben Platt, is famously grueling. The character carries imperfect posture and nervous ticks while rarely leaving the stage, stretching his voice on 11 of the show’s 14 full-length musical numbers.
“When I heard Ben Platt talking about how hard the role was, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I bet it’s hard, but does he really have to sit quietly every day alone leading up to the show?’ ” Ross says. “And the answer is yes, you do. There’s literally no way to get through the week if you’re living your life like a normal person.”
And while four actors have now played the role full time on Broadway, Ross notes that “no one had toured as Evan Hansen — that was my own personal battle to fight.”
“His stamina has to be, I think, far beyond what any of the Evans did on Broadway,” Phillips says. “He has had to factor in the changing environments and the traveling and reestablishing a routine at every theater.”
In an attempt to preserve his health, Ross decided early on that less is more, performance-wise. By toning down Evan’s restlessness, he saved energy while also developing his character into a more “fully real human being.”
“I can definitely think back to things early on where I hate what I was doing,” Ross says. “I was leaving the stage every night and feeling completely wrecked from my head to my toes, in terms of all of the tension that I was carrying — I thought that’s who Evan was, I thought that’s how his anxiety was manifesting. That wasn’t sustainable, so I learned to just strip back.”
Although Ross never dissected the script with the Evan actors before him, preferring to learn by observing their performances, he has spoken to one of them about the toll: his boyfriend, Taylor Trensch, who left the Broadway company in January after a year in the lead role.
“He did say, the month after he finished the show, that he didn’t realize how much the darkness of the show was weighing down on him until he experienced life without it,” Ross says.
Ross will soon experience that existence himself: Following the Kennedy Center run and a brief trip to Nashville, he will say goodbye to Evan in mid-September. At that point, Ross will pass Evan’s arm cast and blue polo to Stephen Christopher Anthony, who currently performs matinees as the role’s alternate.
Ross won’t miss the baggage that comes with unpacking Evan’s complexities six times a week, but he already finds himself lamenting the end of his journey with a show that changed his life.
“As an artist, I have never been pushed to the limits that I’ve been pushed to over this past year, just physically and mentally,” Ross says. “I feel like it’s really prepared me to take on anything that comes my way after this.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Tue. through Sept. 8, $79-$175.