For Pittsburgh Theatre
Dear Evan Hansen's Marrick Smith
May 27, 2019
One of Broadway’s biggest shows hit the Pittsburgh stage last month when the tour production of Dear Evan Hansen came to Heinz Hall. The city was already wild with anticipation before it arrived with long online queues to buy tickets. The show played to sold out crowds every night, the cast of eight filling Heinz Hall with their voices and captivating their audiences. One of those eight was Marrick Smith, who played the ill-fated and temperamental Connor Murphy.
Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of sixteen-year-old Evan Hansen, a boy whose crippling social anxiety and depression makes it nearly impossible for him to make friends. Though he can’t even introduce himself to her, he’s in love from afar with Zoe Murphy, a guitarist in the school jazz band. “I love jazz, well not all jazz, but definitely jazz band jazz. That’s so weird; I’m sorry,” Evan tells her when she briefly introduces herself to him after her older brother, Connor, pushes Evan to the ground. After a series of unfortunate misunderstandings, when Connor dies, Evan is mistakenly identified as Connor’s best and only friend. Unequipped with enough social prowess to rectify the situation, Evan finds himself trapped in lies that he feels forced to expand upon until, eventually, they all come crashing down.
Smith takes on the daunting role of Connor, a complex role that sometimes necessitates a hesitancy and sometimes a wrathful anger. “My Connor has been called the scary Connor,” Smith laughs. “There was a certain amount of physical danger that was brought into the room. We weren’t sure if Connor was going to punch his father in the face. And Michael Griest [director] says to me on the first day of rehearsal, ‘What I really love about you in this role is that this is the first time that I feel like Connor might actually hurt someone. The energy that you bring makes me think you tried to punch through your sister’s door screaming that you were going to kill her.’ Ultimately, the only person he ends up hurting is himself, which I think is what vindicates him in the end.”
On-stage, Smith is a menacing presence. His blue eyes are piercing and accusatory. His hair is long, his nails painted black, and he’s zipped up in a sweatshirt. He looms over Ben Levi Ross, who plays Evan Hansen, and stomps across the stage in heavy boots. Off-stage, however, Smith is kind, personable, and funny. He’s easy to talk to and has an abundance of stories. He’s articulate and always has small details that color his stories. It’s hard to see off-stage Smith as the same man who plays Connor.
Smith grew up in Staten Island, which he credits with helping him play Connor. “You can take the boy out of Staten Island, but you can’t take Staten Island out of the boy,” he quips. His father was a police officer, and he says he grew up in a blue collar, “Good Will Hunting” neighborhood which has helped him with his portrayal of Connor. He didn’t sing growing up but was instead an athlete because little boys didn’t sing. When he was eleven, at the end of mass one day, there was an announcement of an open role, Patrick in Mame. He told his mom that he could do that and she replied with, “Marrick, no, you don’t sing.” He responded, “Yes, I do.” And she said, “No, Marrick, these kids go to classes and train and you haven’t done any of that. I don’t want you to be disappointed. You play basketball, that’s what you do.” But Smith was sure he could do it. He went to the audition and then got on the payphone — “There were payphones back then. This was 2001, mind you,” he jokes — and called his mom and told her that he’d landed the role. “I could tell by the tone of her voice that she was kind of upset because she was thinking, ‘Great, now I have to drive him to basketball practice and play practice. We also never called it rehearsal. It was always ‘play practice’.”
At fifteen, Smith had booked his first professional gig as Troy Bolton in High School Musical at the Bucks County Playhouse. It was one of the first High School Musical productions in the northeast right after the hit movie was released. He had permission to take Wednesday-Friday off of school every week for almost three months to perform. The internet, he says, was just being integrated into his school, so they gave him the go-ahead so long as he emailed all of his work to his teachers and wrote a five-page essay on the experience and what he learned. He decided that he wanted to pursue an acting career professionally and began auditioning for schools, including what would be his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University here in Pittsburgh. He felt behind because he wasn’t heavily trained like a lot of the boys he was up against; he mentions friend and fellow CMU alum, Corey Cott, as one of his few classmates who also did not attend a performing arts high school. He applied to four or five schools including CMU and got in, but the tuition prices were steep. He went to Don Wadsworth, not yet the head of the Drama program and told him that he couldn’t go to CMU even though he wanted to. But Wadsworth convinced him to come and helped wrangle some things behind the scenes, so Smith graduated from Carnegie Mellon, with student debt, but he says it was worth every single penny. He considers himself an actor who just happens to sing well and lists off a few names of famous CMU alumni including: Patrick Wilson, Megan Hilty, Zachary Quinto, and Christian Borle.
Early on, Smith says that he felt like he was playing catch up. He had never taken ballet before; he’d been a raw, scrappy kid from Staten Island. “The end of my first semester, I was put on academic probation — I had all Cs and Ds. I went to all of my teachers and asked them what I was doing wrong, what I could do, and they all told me to be patient with myself and keep my head to the pavement and keep working hard. And I did and then things started to click together. By the time I graduated, I was getting As in everything. I started recording my classes and doing an extra ballet class on the weekends. I was an athlete; my body wasn't used to moving that way. I wound up being a TA for Voice and Speech, and by the time I graduated I had won the John Arthyr Kennedy Acting Award for excellence in acting.”
During his time at Carnegie Mellon, Smith, a talented musician, had to put his songwriting and recording to the side because of the intensive, thorough experience CMU offered. He quips that once he graduated from CMU he suddenly had “this mystical thing called free time.” He resumed songwriting and released one recording, an EP titled Entropy, and he is in the process of promoting his newest, an LP titled bAd Bad Man. He’s played guitar since he was young, getting his first electric Yamaha after cutting his fingers on the rusty metal strings of the old family guitar. He came home from getting a tetanus shot, and his new guitar was waiting for him. Smith’s music career is just as bright as his acting one; the summer before he joined Dear Evan Hansen, he toured the country as a musician.
Originally, when Smith was offered the role of Connor, he wasn’t sure it was a good fit. He was friends with the original Broadway Connor Murphy, Tony-nominated Mike Faist, and wasn’t sure he’d be able to take on Faist’s role after him. It was Faist who saw the potential. The two had met two and a half years before performing in a workshop together in Aspen called Alice by Heart, along with fellow Broadway actors Phillipa Soo (Hamilton) and Noah Galvin (Dear Evan Hansen). Later, Faist saw Smith perform in an Icelandic play, The Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson House Painter. When the Dear Evan Hansen creative team asked Faist, post-Tony nomination, who he thought might take over the role when he left, he recommended Smith to the associate director, Adam Quinn. Quinn told Smith the story later, quoting Faist as saying, ‘You don’t know this kid, but his name is Marrick Smith, and I worked with him a bunch of years ago and I swear to God this kid’s the next Connor Murphy.’”
A year and a half later, Smith was cast in the show.
“Mike and I are intrinsically different actors,” Smith says. “We come at things a different way. Mike has this beautiful, ethereal quality to a lot of his work, and I’m a bit rough around the edges. With Mike it’s a different energy which is why, when I first saw the show, I didn’t think I was a good fit for me. When I got the call from my agent saying that they wanted to see me for this, I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ But I went to meet the director even though I still didn’t think it was right and did my version of this very damaged kid, and the creative team, thankfully, really responded to it very well.”
He talks about the rehearsal process and how he and the other Murphy family actors worked together to find their own Murphy family in their own Evan Hansen world. He compliments his fellow cast members and calls Ross, currently on leave from CMU, “a lovely Evan” and then, laughing, tells how he accidentally sent Ross flying on their first day of rehearsal. “He’s great to work with, but I remember on the first day of rehearsal, there’s this moment where I pull him off the ground in “Disappear.” We hadn’t done it before, and he’s tiny. I guess I didn’t realize how tiny because I went to pull him off the floor, and when I say that little boy flew, I mean he flew through the air. So we went back to try it again and Danny [Mefford], our choreographer was like, ‘Maybe a little less force this time.’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’m sorry.’” (Smith had worked with Mefford on the Broadway musical Fun Home, a musical based on the graphic memoirs of Alison Bechdel.)
Throughout his time with Dear Evan Hansen, Smith has found that there are three different versions of Connor that he plays in the course of the two and a half hours. The first, beginning Connor, is depressed, a kid who wants time to be alone and wants to be happy and, Smith says, is struggling not to be unhappy. He says it’s difficult in the beginning because he goes through three scenes coming in at 110% so that the audience can get to know Connor quickly before things shift. As the show progresses, things get more fun, Smith says, keeping the details close to his chest so as not to spoil the show.
Be sure to catch Smith and the rest of the talented cast of Dear Evan Hansen on tour!
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