It was just supposed to be a story — something he could tell his friends and family back home.
After all, how many Canadian theatre artists can say they got flown to New York to perform songs by Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Golden Globe winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul in front of Pasek and Paul?
It was early December 2018. Robert Markus had just wrapped up his role as Riff Raff in the Stratford Festival’s hugely successful Rocky Horror Show and had been summoned to Manhattan to audition for the lead role in a Canadian version of Dear Evan Hansen.
He figured it would be “a fun experience just to go and not go, ‘OK, I need to book this part,’ but ‘OK, I want to share some work with people I’m not familiar with,’ ” he says.
By that point, the show’s casting directors had seen about 800 boys from all over Canada. Markus had sent in a tape, but he was considered too old and too “traditionally handsome” to play a nerdy 17-year-old with social anxiety, producer Stacey Mindich says.
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So it was a bit of a fluke that he got to audition at all. The producers were flying in another unnamed “young man” they were on the fence about and decided at the last minute to fly Markus to Manhattan too.
Looking back, Mindich recalls Markus’s audition as “one of those wonderful moments.”
“Every little thing was right and Robert’s voice was gorgeous. He left the room and all I could think of was, gosh, what took us so long?”
The lead in Dear Evan Hansen is, in Markus’s words, “a behemoth of a role.”
In fact, one pop-culture list ranked it as the second hardest role in musical theatre, just behind Mama Rose in Gypsy.
Evan sings in all but four of the show’s 16 musical numbers; and when he isn’t singing he’s talking — for all but seven minutes, by Markus’s estimation, of a two-and-a-half-hour production, six times a week.
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Add to that the show’s weighty subject matter, which includes teen suicide, depression, anxiety, loneliness, bullying and deception. Markus has to embody Evan’s pain, but he also has to make the audience laugh in the show’s lighter moments.
Is it any wonder the musical requires what Mindich calls “extraordinary range”?
“This show is hard … emotionally, vocally, physically, mentally. So much of it’s on your shoulders and that’s a lot of pressure … The part requires a lot of self-care,” Markus says.
That includes common sense things like eating well and exercising; getting back to his house in Stratford and his partner, actor Jennifer Rider-Shaw, once a week; binge-watching “funny TV” after performances (Parks and Recreation is a favourite, also 30 Rock and Veep).
Then there are more surprising remedies, like weekly laryngeal massage by a speech pathologist, since singing while crying puts unusual stress on the muscles around the vocal cords.
There are also pressures that go beyond the requirements of the show. Dear Evan Hansen has been a sensation since it debuted on Broadway in 2015 — it won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actor for its beloved original star, Ben Platt.
That was the act that Markus had to follow when Evan Hansen came to Toronto in March in its first international production.
His reviews have been excellent, but he doesn’t read them.
“I’ve heard it’s very positive and I’m very grateful for that,” Markus says, adding that he hopes the positive press encourages people to come to the show.
He’s also very clear that he doesn’t see Dear Evan Hansen as “a star vehicle or a show that’s like, ‘Oh, it’s about that guy.’ ” Every character in the show has a beautiful arc, he says, and he loves working with the rest of the cast.
“They’re giving you these gifts of themselves, as people and as artists. I just think that’s so beautiful. I have goosebumps thinking about it.”
If Markus hadn’t seen Oklahoma! at the Stratford Festival in 2007 — part of a visit to Ontario for a family wedding — would he and I even be having this conversation as we stroll around the Dundas and Ossington neighbourhood on a beautiful day in late May?
He was already interested in theatre back home in Vancouver, but seeing Dan Chameroy and Blythe Wilson on the Festival Theatre stage was his a-ha moment.
He applied to the acting program at the University of Victoria then switched to the conservatory-style program at the University of Alberta, which offers just 12 spots per class and training in acting, dance, singing, voice and even stage combat.
Markus was getting plenty of work in Edmonton after he graduated in 2010 and then, in another bit of serendipity, fellow actor Laura Mae Nason, currently one of his Dear Evan Hansen castmates, suggested he sign with an agent she knew. The second audition the agent got him was for the lead role in Tommy at the Stratford Festival in 2013.
Markus also had a supporting role in Fiddler on the Roof that same season, directed by Donna Feore, whose work on Oklahoma! six years before had so impressed him. That “was a huge thing, (to be) on that exact stage,” he says.
When he returned to Stratford in 2018, he was reunited with Feore and got to work with Chameroy in The Rocky Horror Show, as well as with Wilson in another Feore-directed production, The Music Man.
Not only did Rocky Horror become one of Markus’s favourite theatrical experiences, Feore was particularly supportive when he had to break his Stratford Festival contract to do Evan Hansen.
And there’s one more Stratford connection: his Dear Evan co-star Evan Buliung, who like Markus has worked at both the Stratford and Shaw festivals, went to the Mirvish Productions team to urge them to take another look at Markus for the role of Evan (he wasn’t the only one, according to Mindich).
“I took him for quite a few dinners to say thank you for all that,” Markus says.
Dear Evan Hansen is all about connection.
Anxious, awkward Evan gets to connect with other people in a way he never has before thanks to a lie that eventually spins out of control, amplified by social media with its illusion of connection.
The connections that Markus has made thanks to Dear Evan Hansen are very real.
He frequently expresses gratitude during our meandering (literally) chat: for the production team, for director Michael Greif, for the rest of the cast.
“To say I’ve grown very fond of everyone is an understatement,” he says.
Then there’s the connection with the audience.
When Markus cries onstage, he says, he experiences something he never had in any other show: he can hear members of the audience crying along with him.
“I think that’s such a wonderful, cathartic experience … it’s something you are genuinely sharing with up to a thousand people.”
Markus appreciates that Dear Evan Hansen is a show that people can see their own life experiences in and not just in the character of Evan, although Markus acknowledges he had his own bouts of social awkwardness in high school.
In fact, one of the things he’ll miss when the Toronto run ends on July 21 is that reminder of his high-school self.
“I’m gonna miss the people, exponentially. And I really am going to miss what we’ve created, because I genuinely believe it’s special and unique to our production.”
He’s not focusing on what comes next because he’s trying to “stay as present with the show as possible.”
Besides, he likes to be surprised in his career.
Rocky Horror, for instance, turned out to be “so meaningful and so unexpectedly beautiful.” And Markus — who never reveals his age because he doesn’t want audiences to prejudge whether he can play roles — was happy to pivot from playing the lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius to a Transylvanian alien in Rocky to a town father in The Music Man to a teenager in Evan Hansen.
“I like the contrast,” he says. “I’m always invested in what can I do that’s different, and what different aspects of my life and my career can I explore?”
Adds Mindich: “I think Robert could pretty much do anything he wanted after this. I would be very surprised if he couldn’t.”
Dear Evan Hansen is at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W., until July 21. See mirvish.com or call 416-872-1212.
Debra Yeo is a deputy entertainment editor and a contributor to the Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo