Gracie Hays talks to Jessica Phillips (who plays Heidi Hansen) and Christiane Noll (who plays Cynthia Murphy) about bringing Dear Evan Hansen’s mothers to life.
Everyone has their own ways of working up an emotion - I’ve seen lots of actors play parents on stage, and it’s usually pretty easy to tell who the real parents are. There’s that extra bit of dread that you can’t teach someone. You can’t direct someone to do that.
GRACIE HAYS: Christiane, has your daughter been able to see you perform in Dear Evan Hansen?
CHRISTIANE NOLL: She saw opening night in Denver. Right now I’m on the subway in LA with my husband and daughter, so she’s right here saying “Yup.” She’s going to be 10 in February. When I talked about the show with her beforehand, she said, “I don’t like seeing you upset.” And I said, “Well, there’s gonna be a lot of that.” We talked through every single moment before she saw it, so she could get all her questions out of the way. It was really special to have her there. Anytime my husband and I bring her to a new show I’m always so fascinated to see what she responds to. She’ll ask questions about the story and the way the show chose to tell it. She sees the concepts, the bigger picture.
GH: Have you been able to use your own experiences as a parent in some way, in your role?
CN: Oh, gosh, well, I have to cry for three hours, basically. It was so funny—at the stage door the other night, a woman said, “I had my binoculars, and you’re actually crying! Those were real tears!” I was like, yup, it’s exhausting. [laughs] Everyone has their own ways of working up an emotion - I’ve seen lots of actors play parents on stage, and it’s usually pretty easy to tell who the real parents are. There’s that extra bit of dread that you can’t teach someone. [laughs] You can’t direct someone to do that.
GH: Has this role made you reflect on how you see yourself, as a mom?
CN: I’m on the beginning side of parenting, since my daughter’s just becoming a tween now, which she’s very excited about. I keep hoping that if we lay the right foundation, she’ll make the right choices when she’s inevitably in circumstances outside of my control. We’ve tried to arm her with the right information and with cushions that she can fall back on, so that if we aren’t there to help her choose what to do and when to do it, we’re still with her somehow. It’s not uncommon to hear reallife stories just like Dear Evan Hansen—you see these families that seem to have everything, and everyone says, Oh, the parents are just great, it’s a wonderful family, blah blah blah—and then, they lose the kid in one way or another. That’s terrifying.
GH: Is there a part of Cynthia’s personality you identify with?
CN: Oh, I don’t think there is. My husband reminded me of that early on. He’s like, She’s pretty far from you, honey. Cynthia always acts from a place of kindness; this is gonna make me sound bad, but I’ve been known to not suffer fools lightly. She can also hold her feelings in, whereas I find it difficult to keep a nice placid expression when things are not going the way I’d like. I speak up and I get angry and I don’t mind expressing myself. I think, at least in terms of my behavior, I’m definitely more like Heidi.
GH: What do you think it is about this show that has made so many people connect to it so deeply?
CN: I think it speaks to a wide range of audiences. You come out the stage door and, yes, there are a lot of young, teenage, early-20s fans, but then there’s also parents, or older couples. It’s an audience that’s filled with all different kinds of people, and by the end of it they’re all sobbing together. I think this show is reminding people that everyone feels less-than at times, everyone feels like what they say doesn’t matter, everyone doesn’t always understand why they’re feeling the way they are. The show deals with that and shows us that the best way to help yourself is to connect with other people, and do something for somebody else—that’s how I described it to my daughter. I think people really need to be reminded that they’re not alone.
GH: What advice would you give to an aspiring actor?
CN: Don’t be afraid to be an idiot. I’ve taught a bunch of master classes and the whole point is to get the students off balance, and create a situation where they do something unexpected for themselves. When you’re not afraid to fall on your face, that opens up a whole new level of understanding. I think the thing that holds people back is fear of failure and fear of judgment. In this business, that’s all there is, so you have to be ready, willing, and able to just put yourself out there and not worry about people laughing or thinking that what you’re doing is silly.
GH: What do you hope that San Francisco audiences take away from Dear Evan Hansen?
CN: A lot of soppy tissues! [laughs] I hope that they walk away with a better understanding of themselves, or their parents, or their children, or not just a better understanding, but a softer eye, and compassion for someone else’s journey. Which is kind of like what Cynthia does—she sees someone else’s journey, and that lets her be less consumed with her own.
These characters are written so well, and they’re accessible to people from all walks of life. People see themselves reflected on stage. What I’m hearing pretty consistently is that families are able to go home afterward and start to talk about difficult, painful things. I think that makes our show so special—we’re opening a door for families to address things that they might not have, otherwise.
GH: Jessica, you have two teenage sons in real life. Have they been able to see you in Dear Evan Hansen yet?
JESSICA PHILLIPS: Yeah, they’ve come to see it twice. The first time, they both apparently kept turning to each other and saying, “That’s totally something mom would say!” I have all these lines that just completely resonate with them. Of course, they’re very proud of me just because I’m their mom, but they were really blown away by the show, too—I think they can relate to the characters in a lot of ways. Evan is a senior in high school and so is my older son, and both of my boys are dealing with growing up on social media.
GH: Do you feel like you’re drawing from your own experiences as a parent, when you’re in character?
JP: I definitely draw on very real conversations I’ve had with my own children, but I’m far enough into the process of figuring out who Heidi is that I’m able to distinguish the pieces of her that are different from me, and that’s important. I can’t just have the emotional experience myself—I have to kind of drive up to the edge and help the audience see inside of this woman and then let them have their own response to her. One of the reasons that I became an actor was that I love studying people, and doing character work is a part of that—it’s still a fun and exciting experience to turn a role like Heidi inside out and try to figure out what makes her tick and why she says the things she says and makes the choices that she does.
GH: Are there parts of her that you identify with?
JP: Her total goofball nature. [laughs] When Heidi gets uncomfortable, she starts tap dancing, figuratively speaking. She just starts acting silly, cracking jokes, being a little bit of a performer. I do the same thing—over the years I’ve sort of adopted this way of dealing with crises
and conflict in my house by saying, Okay, we’re all human here, let’s just crack a joke and know that the world isn’t coming to an end, we just need to solve this problem. I’m a total goober, sometimes. I love that about Heidi, and I love that about myself.
GH: What do you most admire about her?
JP: Oh, probably her scrappiness. Like many single parents, she’s trying to keep all the plates spinning, and she doesn’t always do it gracefully. Her motivation is there, though, and it comes through in everything she does and says. I think more than anything, she has this deep desire to make a better life for her child, to protect him, and to give him a good launch into his adulthood. I have so much admiration for
all parents who are able to accomplish that.
GH: Why do you think so many audiences have been able to connect so deeply to this show?
JP: It’s just constructed so beautifully. These characters are written so well, and they’re accessible to people from all walks of life. People see themselves reflected on stage. What I’m hearing pretty consistently is that families are able to go home afterward and start to talk about difficult, painful things. I think that makes our show so special—we’re opening a door for families to address things that they might not have, otherwise. That’s one of the most rewarding things we can do.