Excitement, disbelief and stress — that was how Alaina Anderson ’21 felt when she booked a role in the touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” — a 2015 stage musical with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book by Steven Levenson — explores themes of suicide and mental health in young people. In the musical’s touring production, Anderson will understudy for the roles of Zoe, the main character’s longtime crush, and Alana, their high-achieving classmate. A cognitive science major with a passion for theater, Anderson has balanced her diverse interests both in and out of the classroom. She initially thought about the audition as a fun opportunity to hone her skills during a semester with a relatively light extracurricular load. She never thought she would actually book the job. Two weeks and two callbacks later, Anderson was making plans to rehearse in New York.
Anderson, who flew to Vancouver on Monday to rehearse with the touring cast, explained the difficulty in deciding whether to take time away from school. She had originally agreed with her agent to start going to auditions after graduating so that she could focus on her studies.
“My parents and professors were all very supportive — not pressuring me to make a decision either way, but helping me to walk through all my options and weigh the pros and cons of each,” Anderson said. “I only told a few friends and professors about the audition, and they all were encouraging in that they thought that it would be a good experience for the future.”
Anderson is currently taking time off school to learn lines, music and blocking in preparation for her first night as an official cast member in mid-March. She says Grace Hopper College Dean David Francis helped her figure out how to pursue this opportunity and eventually return to her studies at Yale.
As an understudy, Anderson will learn the parts of both Zoe and Alana. If a main cast member calls out or goes on vacation, Anderson will fill the role. Although learning the lines for both roles poses a challenge, Anderson said the characters have some similarities — both are teenage girls that Anderson can relate to in different ways.
“Alana is a high-strung, perfectionistic overachiever — which I think a lot of Yale students can relate to having been at one point in time or another — but the show eventually peels back that facade to show the insecurities beneath,” Anderson said. “Zoe is more relaxed and laid-back than Alana but has no less depth; she has a rich arc throughout the show of learning to grieve and trust and forgive.”
Anderson believes it is rare to find female characters, particularly for young people, that are more than just stereotypes. She sees all of the characters in “Dear Evan Hansen” as “multi-dimensional, nuanced and human.”
Anderson’s extensive singing and acting experience will help her rise to the challenge of playing such nuanced characters. She has performed in community and school theater since the age of 12 and sung in choirs before that. At Yale, she’s played Nina in “In the Heights,” Cinderella in “Into the Woods” and Wendla in “Spring Awakening,” among several other roles.
At Yale, Anderson sings with the a capella group Mixed Company and participates in student theater. She believes both experiences helped her develop her vocal range, stylistic ability and confidence. Joy Hermalyn, her private voice teacher in the Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater, helped her prepare for the callbacks.
“From fall 2018 until January 2020 she has progressed a lot, not just vocally but maturing as a person as well,” Hermalyn said. “She has matured into a beautiful performer all around, whereas she came sort of like an untamed raw talent, although she had some credits already and an agent. She has this open way about her which is very endearing to casting people.”
Hermalyn likened Anderson to a “chameleon” due to her highly versatile voice. She can sing classical music and soprano repertoire musical theater and can belt in both classic and modern styles.
“Working at all in show business is a big deal, and [it is] a gift to get the top of the food chain so quickly,” Hermalyn said. “Hopefully it only gets better from here, although I’d love for her to come back to me and finish her degree at some point.”
Hermalyn plans to Skype Anderson when she is on the road, a common practice for voice teachers and their students.
Singing aside, Anderson has done ensemble roles, leads and everything in between. Some of her favorite roles have been Juliet in her high school’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” and Nina in “In the Heights.”
“One of the fun parts of acting is bringing little bits of yourself to the roles and connecting the characters you play in that way,” Anderson said. “I’m looking forward to exploring these roles further and seeing even more what they have in common with me and with past roles I’ve played.”
Although she devotes much of her time outside of class to acting and singing, Anderson also works on data collection and data entry in a research lab under psychology and psychiatry professor Arielle Baskin-Sommers. Baskin-Sommers was one of the first professors Anderson told about the role.
“I was lucky enough to have Alaina enroll in another one of my classes this semester, ‘Research Methods in Clinical Psychology,’” Baskin-Sommers said. “However, a few weeks into the semester, she came up to me before class and said that it was going to be her last class. At first, I was really nervous — I thought that something was wrong. But then she quickly said why and I was elated for her.”
Baskin-Sommers described Anderson as a “conscientious, creative and caring person” with “an amazing work ethic.” She believed these attributes supplemented her talent in the audition.
Anderson believes that pursuing theater while taking STEM classes has been one of the best parts of college. While she knows the next stage in her journey involves learning on her feet, she is grateful for the support of the entire “Dear Evan Hansen” team.
Natalie Kainz | firstname.lastname@example.org