As ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ tackles modern themes, the musical becomes a powerful experience

Broadway sensation and critically acclaimed musical “Dear Evan Hansen” comes to the Durham Performing Arts Center this week, and its arrival represents a homecoming for stage and screen actor Aaron Lazar.

Lazar, a Duke University graduate, plays the role of Larry Murphy in the musical that won six Tony Awards in 2017, including Best Musical.

“Dear Evan Hansen” has struck a powerful chord worldwide with its tale of teen suicide, technology, and the perils of adolescence in the modern world. Lazar’s character is father to the teenager whose fate precipitates the events of the tragic story.

Lazar says he feels lucky to be experiencing life on the road with the touring production, which opened on Broadway in December 2016. The show comes to Durham March 12-17.

“This is a show that’s as commercially successful and it is artistically transformative, and that really is a rare breed of musical,” Lazar said. “Sometimes you have one and sometimes you have another. When you have both, it really is theater as its best.”

Lazar, who graduated from Duke in 1998, is now a busy working actor with a long list of credits on both stage and TV and movie screens. But 20 years ago, he was a music major at Duke with an ambitious plan to study opera and keep up with the demands of a pre-med curriculum.

“The music program there was pretty intense in terms of musicology and history” Lazar said. “Along with amazing voice lessons, I was building a really solid operatic foundation. Only to realize I wasn’t really that jazzed by opera.”

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Aaron Lazar plays the role of Larry Murphy, father to the teenager in “Dear Evan Hansen.” He is a graduate of Duke University.

Lazar had performed in plays and musicals in high school, and he realized his love of musical theater was eclipsing his interest in the more specific disciplines of opera and musicology – or those pre-med classes, for that matter. He began drifting into the busy theater scene in Durham.

“I started getting cast in more plays and musicals,” he said. “It was becoming a bigger part of my life, but I was still trying do pre-med. I didn’t know at the time that it was going to change the direction of my life.”

Lazar credits that change of trajectory to the moment when Duke professor and Durham theater pioneer Jeff Storer cast Lazar in a production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel.”

“Performing in that reminded me of how much I loved musical theater, which I had done in high school,” Lazar said. “Jeff was one of those teachers who changes your life.”

Lazar pivoted to a full-time theater curriculum and hasn’t looked back. Now the veteran of more than 10 Broadway productions, he also has worked in film roles in “The Wolf of Wall Street” and on TV’s “The Blacklist” and “Quantico.”

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Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Matthew Murphy

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ opportunity

The complex themes and contemporary resonance of the musical are a large part of the show’s appeal, he said. Lazar, who has two children, said “Dear Evan Hansen” has given him new empathy and insights toward the world of the 21st century teenager.

“The show does a brilliant job of showing the double-edged sword that is technology and social media and these devices,” he said. “These things can bring people together, but the show also reveals how it can rip people apart. Navigating the pitfalls of all this, as a teenager, it’s got to be so tough.”

Lazar said that audiences should feel free, even encouraged, to bring children to the show. The themes are probably most appropriate for teenagers, Lazar said, but he’s also seen younger kids at previous performances.

“It’s certainly satisfying theater for adults, but it’s incredibly powerful for kids,” he said. “In a way, the other side of the coin in regard to technology and social media. Theater can be such a powerful experience, and I think there is a real desire and a need for this kind of communion right now.”

During his return to North Carolina, Lazar said he’s hoping to spend some time reconnecting with Duke and Durham friends.

“I’m super grateful for the training I had at Duke, which I didn’t know at the time would lead to this life’s path,” Laza said. “And that comes from the mentors and the teachers that were there who guided me. It’s a special place for me.

“It’ll be really nice to come back there with this show, which is a very important piece of theater, and bring it to that community in Durham.”


What: “Dear Evan Hansen”

When: March 12-17. Eight shows at varying times.

Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham

Tickets: Tickets are extremely limited for all performances, and prices are subject to change. DPAC is offering a limited number of $25 tickets for each performance through a digital lottery program starting Sunday, March 10 at 9 a.m. The lottery will happen two days before each performance. Seat locations may vary. For details, go to dpacnc.com/events/detail/dear-evan-hansen or lottery.broadwaydirect.com/show/deh-durham/.

Info: 919-680-2787 or dpacnc.com