I find that it’s impossible for me to be cynical while listening to Ben Platt; from the moment he stepped out on stage in Pitch Perfect and sang, “I’ve got the magic in me”, to his heartbreaking, Tony-winning turn in Dear Evan Hansen, I was taken by the earnestness in his voice that resists all attempts at reading his performance as anything less than genuine. Even in The Politician, a show where he played a scheming, conniving, socially-manipulative twerp, the moment where his character performs a cover of Joni Mitchell’s River is startling in its sincerity, using his emotional singing voice to peel back the character’s facade, giving us a fresh perspective on his inner life.
In his new Netflix special, Ben Platt Live from Radio City Music Hall (launching Wednesday May 20th), this all holds true more than ever. The film is a relatively straightforward capture of a live performance from last September, featuring Platt running through original music from his 2019 debut album Sing to Me Instead. Even though it doesn’t do anything particularly original with the concert-special format, it’s still an excellent showcase for a brilliant performer coming into his own, using that voice he manipulates so well to say something as himself instead of as a character.
“Usually when I come up on stage, I’m disguised as one thing or another,” he says during his first bit of mid-show banter after the opening two numbers. “A nerdy magician, perhaps…” — pause for applause from the Pitch Perfect fans — “…or a very strange Mormon missionary…” — oh yes, he was in Book of Mormon too — “…or perhaps a kid with a broken arm…” — a Dear Evan Hansen reference that draws raucous cheers. “Oh my gosh!” he says, “I’m so glad that you’ve appreciated my work in Ricki and the Flash. But this year is the first time I’ve gotten to come up on stage as myself, and be myself.”
He launches into a very funny recap of his coming-out experience, foregrounding both his Jewish identity and the fact that he is gay right at the top of the show. He has apparently been out to his family since he was 12 years old (thanks to an incident on a trip to Israel that involved a late-night phone call home to his parents), but he never discussed his sexuality publicly until last year, when he released his music video for Ease My Mind; the video featured gay actor Charlie Carver as his lover.
It’s impressive, then, that this concert special is as proudly gay as it is, considering he had only been talking about that part of his identity for a few months when it was filmed. Throughout the concert film, he tells anecdotes about funny past experiences he’s had with men, difficulties he’s had on dates, and the acute pain of the loss of a relationship, always using male pronouns to refer to past partners. The stories he tells help position the objects of his affection in his music as recognizably male; for the most part, his lyrics tend to be addressed to a “you” or “we.”
His lyrics are the weakest part of his album, tending toward the vague and the cliché. It’s all delivered in such a way that it’s completely forgivable, though; I’ll listen to anyone sing rhymes as easy as “I am an honest man / why won’t you take my hand?” or “When you are younger, you’ll wish you’re older / and when you’re older, you’ll wish for time” if they’re singing them as well as Platt does. Every so often, though, his lyrics turn toward the brilliantly specific, peppering in unexpected turns of phrase like “somewhere in your room / I left my virtue and my favorite shoes.”
His song Share Your Address is a particular highlight for this reason. “When I go on a first date and it goes well,” he says by way of introduction, “I’m picking out china patterns, children’s names, like… grave plots… I go all-in very quickly! It’s been referred to before as, like, ‘stalking,’ or, ‘deeply uncomfortable.'” The song is a plea to his new lover to let him move in right away and do things like “stare at your face / and spend quality time with your mother,” letting him know that, “I wanna pick up your clothes / I wanna clean up your mess.” The song builds to a bridge where he chants, “I wanna be your emergency contact / you can put me down / cause you know I know you best.” It’s funny and strange and delivered with a wild-eyed intensity that shows he’s in on the joke.
Platt has a certain way of singing that packs emotion into every vibrato-filled note. In Dear Evan Hansen, he performed entire numbers while crying, managing to get his mouth around the lyrics and notes while actively sniffing and sobbing. Here, too, he modulates his emotion from song to song and sometimes line to line, conveying grief, sadness and loss, yes, but also unbridled joy and lust. He brings the audience to tears on In Case You Don’t Live Forever and especially Run Away, the album closer, and he gets everyone up on their feet and moving during Rain, a dance single he released last fall.
Platt seems completely at ease on stage despite being open about his struggles with anxiety, referring to his music as an escape from “the voices in my head.” No matter the song, he’s compelling throughout, a joy to watch and to listen to. Ben Platt is great at playing characters; turns out he’s just as good at being himself.
By Eric Langberg
Ben Platt Live from Radio City Music Hall launches on Netflix in the US Wednesday May 20th 2020. For more details and to stream the concert special head to Netflix.com.