Q&A: “You Are Not Alone” – Dear Evan Hansen, A story of life and its connections

Actor John Hemphill shares his experiences of the stage and why the music and story in the Tony Award-winning musical will pull you into its world
John Hemphill plays Larry Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, playing at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts from Wednesday, June 8 through Sunday, June 19, 2022. Photo Credit: Dear Evan Hansen / Broadway San Jose

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

Exploring contemporary issues like social media and the effects of it on mental health, Dear Evan Hansen is an award-winning musical which will be coming to the South Bay for the first time to San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts from Wednesday, June 8 through Sunday, June 19, 2022.

Evan Hansen is a lonely high school student with social anxiety disorder whose ambitions to have a better life become entangled with the death of a classmate who takes their own life. The story of Dear Evan Hansen might seem somewhat morbid at first, but the actual contents of the musical tell a tale that takes real life societal problems and serves it with a progressive messaging which amplifies hope and understanding in things like teen mental health and isolation.

Recently, actor John Hemphill spoke with us about his experiences with the show, and what it means to him being part of telling this evocative story. Portraying Larry Murphy, the father of the aforementioned student who commits suicide, Hemphill touches on the different aspects of the show and how they might touch people of different walks of life.

More info on the show and tickets can be found at broadwaysanjose.com.

Thanks for your time, John. To start off, I wanted to ask you if you could give me some sort of introduction to the show and what the core message of Dear Evan Hansen is?

Yeah, I think the core message kind of comes in the lyric, “You Are Not Alone”. I think we meet Evan Hansen at the beginning of this story, the very high social anxiety and challenges that he’s dealing with. And his therapist has him write a letter to himself, “Dear Evan Hansen, this is going to be a good day, and here’s why”, which he does. And that letter, at school, gets in the hands of a bully and who’s actually my son in the story.

And that kind of sets a series of events that leads to some complications. But also each character kind of gets what they think they want. And then, of course, it falls apart in the second part of the story. But I think the main thing is that the message that people seem to be left with is that there are people out there that can understand challenging times and are there for you. This story is about relationships, certainly fathers, mothers, and children, but also the subtlety of young love.

So it’s a complicated, wonderful story that really has something both for young people and for people my age, parenting age.

Could you touch on your character of Larry and what it takes to play that role? Are there any aspects of that character that you identify with?

Yeah I mean, I think the challenges with this character are, and I guess with any characters, his shortcomings as a parent and the things that he feels that a parent should be, things that he feels a child should be, or a young man in the form of Connor Murphy, who is a challenged, troubled kid who deals with his own mental health problems and unfortunately takes his own life. And so as a parent, this character has to deal with what part did he play in that? And for the first half of the story, he doesn’t see the part he played in it.

He feels he like he did everything he could, he did everything right, and it wasn’t his fault. And I think we see the unraveling of that understanding, and that, and he has to come to terms with that. So it’s a fun character to play, I’ll say that for sure. Because it is challenging, and it’s complicated. I don’t have children, but I am a child and I have a father, and I’m seeing things in this character that I have seen in my own relationship with my father or in other friends of mine’s relationship with their father.

As an actor, you draw from not only your own life, you draw from the creative life around you. And so I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful father, and so part of what I bring or what I try to bring from that is trying to live up to that as this character and falling short. It’s truly been the most favorite character I’ve ever been able to play and I can say that full heartedly without reservation, for sure.

Is there any moment, song or scenes that are your favorite, whether you’re in the scene or not?

Yeah, there are so many to be quite honest, the score is outstanding. These songs are written so incredibly well.

One of my favorites is this moment with Evan and Zoe, they are in Connor’s bedroom after he’s taken his life. And so this letter is mistaken for a note that is left by Connor after he takes his life. So this song, “If I Could Tell Her”, is Zoe trying to understand why these words were written about her? Because in the note she’s referenced in there, in a positive way, and that was not her experience with her brother. It was a very challenging, negative experience. And so she’s trying to understand that.

And so you have this wonderful scene with Evan saying, “no, he did say nice things about you. And let me tell you what they are.” And they are not coming from Connor. They’re coming from Evan, who has a massive, wonderful crush on Zoe. It’s this incredibly charming, marvelously, beautiful song, which I just love, and I end up singing it also. That’s one of the things with a great score, you end up singing all the other songs that you’re not in.

So that is one of many that I love, it certainly is one of my top favorites.

Finally, why would you recommend for people to come see Dear Evan Hansen?

First of all, just from a quality aspect. It is an incredibly well written book. It’s a story that is completely relatable not only to young people, but to parenting aged people. From a technical standpoint, the music is fantastic. The writing is great. It’s funny, but it’s incredibly touching as well. You have to bring your tissues because you’ll be moved in surprising ways. And it’s just a good show.

Every once in a while, actors get a chance to be a part of a show that is just good. And this is one of them for me. And so I just never hesitate to suggest someone come see the show. You’re going to enjoy it. You’re going to take something from it. And then from another aspect, as far as what the messaging is, I think it’s very important. I think the show is very important and this is reinforced by talk backs that we have with audience members, young and old, who thank us for telling this story because it is one of hope, it is one of connection in an age now with social media being such a big part of our lives, that connection is getting further and further away.

And so that is something that I feel everybody needs to see because we’re going to have to reckon with this age of waving through a window, looking through the glass and connecting with others who aren’t in the state, country, you know what I mean? Who are so far away and ultimately the relationships that are going to be important in your life are the ones that are right in front of you. So yeah, this show is about connection for sure.

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