'Dear Evan Hansen' takes UM student on national tour

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

As a musical theater major at the University of Michigan, Ian Coursey expected to spend his junior year this way: in classes, chilling with friends in Ann Arbor, and taking the stage in a college production of “Rent.”

Instead, the Maryland native finds himself on the road as part of a year-long national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” the acclaimed Broadway musical that makes its debut in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre on Tuesday and continues through Oct. 9. Coursey is an alternate for Connor Murphy and Jared Kleinman, central characters in the Tony Award-winning musical.

“My (theater program) is doing “Rent” second semester and they recently performed at the Big House during the football halftime show. Those were tough events to miss but what I miss the most are my classmates and professors,” Coursey says during a telephone interview from his home in Silver Spring, outside Washington, D.C.  “We all became one big family, especially during our freshman year which was heavily affected by COVID. I was looking forward to all of the memories I would have made my junior year so while I am beyond thrilled to be out on tour, it is tough to be away from some of my closest friends and mentors.”

A scene from "Dear Evan Hansen."

Still, there’s no denying the thrill of being part of a national tour of an acclaimed Broadway musical, something he had never dreamed he’d be doing while attending college, and a role that came quite by surprise, given some extenuating circumstances. He was recovering from COVID at the end of his sophomore year when he received call backs to New York to audition for “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“I had no intention of stepping away from college for a minute this year but this fell in my lap and I couldn’t turn it down,” says Coursey, 20, who is taking online classes at both Michigan and the University of Maryland to accumulate the needed credits to graduate.

Ian Coursey

The hit musical follows the story of Evan Hansen, a high school senior with social anxiety issues who, like many teenagers, wants to fit in with his classmates. In his journey to self-confidence, Evan finds himself in an unfortunate situation because of a tragedy. The story explores relationships between parents and teenage children, as well as the issues of social anxiety and mental illness. Evan is played by Anthony Norman, a multi-instrumentalist from Chicago who was also in a national tour of “Newsies.”

The musical opened on Broadway in December 2016 after premiering at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the summer before. The Washington Post described “Dear Evan Hansen” as “one of the most remarkable shows in music history.” The show won six 2017 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical, as well as a host of other prizes.

Coursey, who first saw the musical in New York (a 16th birthday present), is an alternate for two roles -- Connor Murphy, a troubled classmate and high school senior who, like Evan, is also a social outcast. The other character, Jared Kleinman, is Evan’s droll, sarcastic friend who provides some lightness to the serious drama unfolding on stage. Connor is pivotal to events that affect Evan.

Alternating roles is a challenge, but Coursey, who began pursuing theater in high school,  finds some common ground in both.

“Connor and Jared are polar opposites on the spectrum,” Coursey says. “In many ways I find Connor easier to get into (as a character) … I never saw myself as nerdy as Jared, so that’s a bigger challenge for me. I worked with friends to find my funny, comedic side. His role is crucial to the show; he comes in and makes people laugh … he helps the audience connect with Evan.”

Some of his favorite songs in the show are Connor’s, including “Sincerely, me.” In that scene, he sings and dances with his buddies.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” he says, resonates with audiences because there is a character on stage for everyone sitting in the theater. Parents can relate to the parents on stage, who are struggling with their children; kids can latch onto the lack of connection they sometimes feel with their peers and adults, and the loneliness teenagers often feel.

“You can see yourself in all of these characters, especially after coming out of the pandemic when many of us lacked any connection,” he says. “The show really highlights that and the power of social media and the disconnect many people feel.”

So far, Coursey says been on stage a “fair amount.” “We have to be there every show in case someone calls out. There’s been a few last-minute calls but most of the time we have advance notice,” he says.

The tour began in June in Boise, Idaho, where Coursey got to perform as Connor in front of his parents, who were there for his birthday. “I lucked out with the timing on that,” he says.

In perhaps an even more heartwarming tour moment, Coursey took the stage last weekend at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the tour’s stop before Detroit. “I had advance notice, so about 200 family and friends came to the show. It was really special for me. I grew up at the Kennedy Center, seeing touring companies. I used to wait outside the stage door to meet the actors. It’s really crazy to be on the other side. It was a full circle moment for me.”

Coursey isn’t the only Michigan connection to the production. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the creative team behind the words and music, started off as classmates at the University of Michigan. The pair won a Tony Award for Best Original Score, as well as other awards, and are also known for their work on “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman.”

Despite being away from Ann Arbor, Coursey says he’s “living the dream.”

“I get to travel around the country and see cities I’ve never seen before and I’m performing a show I really love and I am passionate about,” he says, adding he hopes to find time to see friends in Ann Arbor and attend a class or two. “There’s something about live theater that will never get old to me. I love it.”

Dear Evan Hansen

8 p.m. Tues-Sat., 2 p.m. Sat-Sun, 7:30 p.m. Sun., Sept. 27 - Oct. 9

Fisher Theatre

3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit

Tickets: Start at $50