Sam Tutty was a fan of the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen before he had even seen it. “I listened to the entire soundtrack when it came out and loved it,” the 21-year-old remembers. “Then, when I was in my first year of drama school, we did a summer show and I sang Waving Through a Window.”
Indeed, a quick YouTube search pulls up a video of Tutty putting his all into the show’s trademark number about its titular teen who is “on the outside, always looking in”. One commenter reckoned he was the “future Evan Hansen”. It was a prophetic thought, as Tutty is now playing the lead in the much-anticipated transfer of the show to London, having been through a glut of auditions, even flying to the US for the final round.
“Good lord,” says Tutty when I tell him someone on a fan forum guessed the entire cast a week before it was announced. Director Michael Greif, who has been involved with the show since its original incarnation in Washington DC in 2015, laughs, before adding in heavy Brooklyn tones: “Yes, but you still sang the song illegally!”
Tutty, smiley and thoughtful with side-slicked strawberry blond hair, describes his dressing room as “a bit big”. He’d better get used to it, since he’s about to become one of the West End’s shiniest new stars. Tickets for Dear Evan Hansen are swiftly selling out, the show having already been a smash on Broadway, where it has scooped Tonys and Grammys since opening in 2016.
The story of Evan – who tells a white lie about classmate Connor Murphy that quickly builds to a full-scale deception – also launched the career of Ben Platt, recently seen in Ryan Murphy’s The Politician on Netflix. While it tackles difficult themes (anxiety, bullying, suicide) there’s a lightness of touch and, of course, lively songs. “It’s pretty sophisticated in the way it seduces you,” Greif says. “There’s a lot of humour – then it takes you some place else.”
As Evan, Tutty has had to get into the mind of a character who struggles to communicate with the people around him, eventually writing motivational letters to himself beginning with the three words that give the show its title. “Evan’s brain is racing all the time,” says Greif. “A lot of his anxiety is based on the fact he’s constantly second-guessing. So I’ve been getting Sam to consider the worst possible option all the time.”
As well as intensive rehearsals in New York alongside the show’s creators, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Tutty drew on his own school days (he grew up in Sussex, later relocating to Hull) for the playground dynamics. “I certainly found myself in situations where things snowballed and got out of control. I think that’s such a relatable thing for everyone.”
The actor has previously spoken about how he identified with Evan, who is raised by his mother (Tutty’s own father left at a similar age). The show’s class politics resonated too: Greif describes the two clans, the Hansens and the Murphys, as “struggling” and “very affluent” respectively. “I know people whose families were from a higher class,” says Tutty, “but they still went to the same school because their parents felt like it was a civic duty. And because this show is so wonderfully written, you don’t go, ‘Why are these people all at the same school?’”
Evan might sound like a tough character to play, especially for a first-time West End performer, but Tutty has found it a joy. Among his highlights is Sincerely, Me – a moment of levity in the first act, memorable for its sarcastic lyrics about teenage drug use and rubbing one’s nipples and “moaning with delight”. Besides, he says, “there’s a beautiful scene where Connor says to Evan, ‘Now we can pretend we both have friends.’ Within that moment, Evan realises he does want friends, he isn’t just looking to hurt people.”
As Tutty proudly shows off his Evan wardrobe of identikit polo shirts and the plaster cast – a heavy one he has to wear on his arm – Greif says: “What I’m really hoping is that we erase the line between people who see plays and people who see musicals. This is a show with all of the emotion and celebration musicals have, but it also has a sophisticated, credible plot. You don’t have to check your intelligence at the door.”
• Dear Evan Hansen is at Noël Coward theatre, London, until 4 April.