Nik Dodani has officially queered Dear Evan Hansen.
In a major departure from the acclaimed musical’s storyline — which centers on a straight teen, Evan (Ben Platt), coping with mental health issues in the wake of a classmate’s suicide — in the film version, Dodani (Atypical) portrays Evan’s family friend Jared as gay.
This change is significant. Dear Evan Hansen has long resonated with LGBTQ+ fans. After all, a “young person who is struggling with their identity and their place in the world…feels very queer to me,” Dodani attests. But they have never seen themselves reflected until the film adaptation from director and screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
Queer representation isn’t the only boon. “Jared being gay makes a lot of sense” in Dear Evan Hansen’s world, Dodani believes. In addition to providing needed comic relief, the character’s reoriented identity makes potentially problematic lines in “Sincerely, Me” “less homophobic.” In this number, Jared types fake emails from Evan to the deceased classmate, often sexualizing them for laughs. One line: “I rub my nipples and start moaning with delight.” “It feels right. It feels like this kind of smarmy openly gay teenager in 2021 would do something like this,” says Dodani, himself a gay comedian.
The role required the sharpening of new skills for Dodani, known for portraying the straight, sex-obsessed Zahid in Netflix’s Atypical. “I’m not a singer. I’m not a dancer. This was absolutely a new terrifying experience,” he says. Dodani recalls meeting the Tony-winning Platt during an early session with a music director, who proposed they perform “Sincerely, Me” together on the spot.
“My heart stopped beating. I was so nervous,” says Dodani, who in the moment ended up “whispering it so no one could actually hear.” A month-long “boot camp” eventually whipped him into singing shape.
Acting alongside Platt helped. “It was a bit of a master class,” Dodani attests. That Platt, castmate Amandla Stenberg, and songwriter Benj Pasek are all members of the LGBTQ+ community also enriched the experience. “There’s just a comfort that comes with working with other queer people and the language that we speak that doesn’t need explanation, which is really nice. And Ben is just so unapologetically gay that it’s just a delight,” he says.
Dodani hopes this representation — along with the film’s message from “You Will Be Found” — gives solace to LGBTQ+ young people like himself who experienced isolation and depression during the pandemic. “This past year and a half really messed us all up,” Dodani says. “It’s gonna take some time to heal from it. And the only way to heal from it is if we talk about it.”
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2021 Film and TV issue, which is out on newsstands October 5, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.