From Dear Evan Hansen to Be More Chill, Will Roland has played a major role in two of the biggest hits on Broadway, both focused on teenage characters and relevant themes that appeal to a new generation of theatergoers. A native New Yorker and graduate of New York University’s Steinhardt School, the wildly popular and super-talented actor, in addition to garnering phenomenal success and well-deserved respect for his work on the stage (including a 2017 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album with the company of Dear Evan Hansen), has also expanded into film (One Penny, 2017) and serial TV (most recently, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in 2018, and Billions in 2018-19), since first coming onto the scene in 2011.
Starring as the “loser geek whatever” Jeremy Heere in Be More Chill’s sold-out Off-Broadway engagement in 2018, and again in its current open-ended run at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, Roland, now 30, empathetically embodies all the teen angst and growing pains of his character, making him relatable to the students of today, to adults who remember suffering through the politics and cliques of high school, and to everyone who was ever made to feel like an outsider. Add to that his expressive vocals and quirky humor, and it’s no wonder that he, and the show, have become the sensations they are.
With a regular schedule of eight performances a week, a busy calendar of special events and appearances, and Ghostlight Records’ original Broadway cast recording of Be More Chill (with the music and lyrics of Joe Iconis) soon to be released, Will graciously took the time to share his personal views on the show and on the trajectory of his booming career.
You just turned 30 last month, but you’re renowned for your convincing portrayals of high-school students. What qualities in your characters from Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill do you find most challenging as an adult?
Will: It’s not like I totally rework everything in the story because it’s about a sixteen-year-old; I just have to forget what I’ve experienced since then. An adult would respond differently to those encounters than a teen would. For teenagers, it’s all new and interesting, because they’re experiencing it for the first time. And I slouch more. The slouching is key!
Which song or line in Be More Chill holds the most personal meaning for you?
There are a lot, but there’s a line in “Loser Geek Whatever” that I relate to as being the leading man and getting to carry so much of the show. The song wasn’t in the original 2015 production in New Jersey, but was written for the Off-Broadway premiere, so while it’s about Jeremy Heere, it’s also about Will Roland and Joe Iconis and the other members of the cast – a group of smart weirdos finding as much truth as they can about what roles we all play and who we can become – so there’s a lot of me in it every night. I have also been “Will in the Bathroom” very recently, so “Michael in the Bathroom” is important, because it’s about friendship.
Do you think Broadway is changing, to appeal to a younger generation?
I do, and I’m sooooooo grateful for that! I’m seeing an interesting generational shift in audiences, as well as in the demographics of the creators. There are Millennials making the shows that we – people in their 30s – would like to see. We want shows that are messy and complicated and optimistic, with cable porn and video games and digital tech, and also with joy that lifts your heart. There’s still a lot of old school that’s honored in these new shows, but there’s also that radical joy and smart escapism.
Are there any roles or musicals from Broadway’s history that you would like to perform?
My two biggest “Oh, God!” roles are Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors – not a big stretch – and I’m dying to play John Adams in 1776; it’s so interesting and weird. I did it in my college recital and would like to play it again on a professional stage. But as much as I love the classics, I love new work, so I want to work on the play that hasn’t been written yet, and to help develop it from the beginning, as part of a team.
What’s your first creative memory – the one that stays with you as your earliest realization that you would love a life in the theater?
When I was around four to six years old, I used to do a killer impression of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, which is still my all-time favorite film. “I want to live again . . .” [Will delivers the line from the movie, and, of course, nails it!]. All the adults were laughing their asses off, and from there on, my love of performing just continued to grow. The realization that I could do this professionally came later, when I started doing shows in school.
How do you keep that level of enthusiasm up after so many performances and special events for Be More Chill?
It stays easy. The only hard part is taking care of my body and my voice. The show itself is healing, and it’s a joy. I’ve known these people for years, so to go out every night with them live on stage is my dream; it heals me and brings me joy . . . as long as I drink enough water! The spirit is willing but the flesh is not always able.
You and the company of Be More Chill just completed the original Broadway cast recording with Ghostlight Records. How different is it to do a vocal performance in a studio session after having the visual element be such a significant part of your on-stage portrayal?
I love the album; it’s the same thing, but totally different. In the intimate space of the studio, you cram things into your voice so that the listeners can feel the emotions and get the performance without seeing it. I like to think that if this album is as successful as the first recording of Be More Chill [which went viral on social media, resulting in the show’s new life Off-Broadway and on], it will be THE most successful Broadway cast recording ever!
Fans around the world, not all of whom can get to New York to see the show live, are also hoping for a film version of Be More Chill. Do you have any updates on that, and would you like to be involved in it?
I know very little about it, and, yes, I’d LOVE to be in it!
How important is it to you to be such an integral member of the Joe Iconis Family?
I met Joe in 2007, six weeks into my freshman year at NYU, and instantly fell in love with everything he was doing. I’ve done his Christmas show for the past ten years, and was in his musical The Black Suits in 2013, and have worked with this amazing family of artists; they’ve become my creative home. I’m not very religious, but I will say that I’m blessed to have these people in my life. Whether I’m in a big Broadway show or not, they care, and it’s the greatest.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Oh, man, if you’d asked me that five years ago, what would I have said? I never would have expected any of this! In April 2014, I had just gotten back to New York from doing The Black Suits in LA, and I had nothing. We thought it would be a huge hit, but it wasn’t, so I was just auditioning and had no idea of what was to come. There was no way I could have known or anticipated what happened over the last five years, with Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill. So I hope that in five years I’ll be somewhere equally unimaginable! I’d like to continue making new work with great collaborators, and hope that the Be More Chill fans will enjoy it.
Many thanks, Will, for a fabulous conversation, for your joyous enthusiasm, and for your stellar work – past, present, and future!