It’s possible you’ve never heard of Michael Lee Brown, but you’re about to—and I don’t mean just here. Michael appears on Broadway at least twice a week, and his first CD was just released. It’s sure to be the first of many.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, Brown plays Evan Hansen in the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen, and he’s an alternate for Evan at other performances as well as for two other lead roles, Evan’s friends Jared and Connor. I’ve seen Michael as Evan, and he’s spectacular in a show that’s equally so.
As brilliant as he is, Michael’s performances have been largely hidden in the shadow of star Ben Platt’s. That’s the life of a Broadway alternate. But Michael is no ordinary alternate. First, he inhabits the role of Evan Hansen in a way that’s very different from the much-celebrated version played by the Tony-winning Platt, bringing it an enviable level of reality and a dose of stark authenticity. And second, he’s now stepping out of everyone’s shadow as a singer-songwriter with the release of Way It Used To Be, his new 3-track EP. (It’s about to be available on all the usual streaming platforms.)
His songs are rich with lyrics and musical hooks, each one calling to mind simpler times and pleasures. These folk-pop tunes are immediately hummable and deceptively straightforward. Each has lyrics that blossom upon repeated listening. Michael, at only 25, has a very nostalgic eye. He writes about the past, when we were less connected but much more communicative. Though he appreciates technology, at the same time Michael longs for simplicity, for face-to-face conversations, say, over typing.
Recently, Michael and I met in New York. When I asked him how the EP came about, he explained that it’s all tied up with his work as an actor. Dear Evan Hansen is at the Music Box Theater, which is also where the revival of Pippin played a few years ago. Pippin is Michael’s favorite show, and he and its star, Matthew James Thomas, became good friends. Last fall, after having worked out the songs during performance breaks, the two of them recorded a few of the songs at Duncan Sheik’s studio in upstate New York.
“Our goal has been to create very simple, honest, and truthful contemporary music with a pop-rock folk style,” Michael said. “I think it’s very important that as we grow up, and with all these things are happening around us, it can be very isolating and hectic, and these simple joys that give us so much happiness are still here for us to turn to.”
“Way It Used to Be” is about screens, bingeing, how we watch reality TV instead of focusing on reality. “I got the idea walking through the streets of New York, and everybody’s happy on their phones and looking down all the time… This is how I would make a soundtrack to that.”
His point is that there’s more to bring connected than connectivity. “It takes this,” Michael said, using our conversation as an example. “People need to remember that face-to-face interactions are so important. It’s not putting down what’s happening, but it’s a reminder that we still need to do those things.”
I suggested that this idea might arise from Dear Evan Hansen, as the show is all about how we communicate using technology in contrast with the longing to connect with people in real life.
“I get a lot of letters from fans, from people every week, and it shows people still [want to connect], and the show has resonated so much with people, and I think that conversation has opened my eyes even more and inspired me.”
“Lettin’ It Play” is about having the confidence to say something without having to say it perfectly.
And “Life Can Be,” more of a ballad, is about populating your journey with meaningful moments. It sounds—and I mean this in the best possible way—like a song you’d hear during an emotional montage during the TV show, This Is Us.
If you’re not familiar with Dear Evan Hansen, it’s about two high school seniors, Evan, an awkward boy with few friends, and Connor, a neighbor who commits suicide. Evan is caught up in a series of lies that involve Connor’s family, other schoolmates, and Evan’s mom. The songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (they wrote the songs for La La Land and The Greatest Showman), are brilliant explorations of each character and how they interact. Some are funny, others are searingly real, and the show is an unforgettable experience that will leave you emotionally spent.
Why does Michael think the show resonates so deeply with people? “There are so many layers to the show,” he said. “You might connect with the mom in one show, Evan’s mom, or you might connect with Evan, or Connor or Jared. People come back and they find different perspectives within the same show. It’s about having a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of something and figuring out who you are. It’s such a loud, chaotic community than we live in, as a society. I think people really connect with that [in the show]. And the feeling of being heard.”
As much as the show is about the kids, it’s also about Evan’s mom and Connor’s parents. Evan’s dad split when Evan was seven, and Connor and his dad didn’t really connect. Most everyone who talks about the show focuses on the kids, but there are unforgettable moments for the parents, especially Evan’s mom and Connor’s dad.
“We think of the kids, Evan or Connor,” said Michael. “We think of how it feels to be lonely in high school. How does it feel to have anxiety or depression and that longing to be part of something at that age? But we don’t often think about how parents help their kids the best they can. They’re learning as well. They don’t know all the answers… They’re all trying to figure out who they are. It’s just different stages of life. I think what’s important is being open, discussing it, being genuine about it and not hiding it.”
As an alternate for all three boys, Michael has a unique point of view. “I’ve watched at least 300 shows in a row when I wasn’t on, and I really got to see all the perspectives of the show. It’s kind of helped with each character, knowing the other characters’ journey and knowing the other characters’ state in the scene.”
As I said earlier, Michael’s Evan is not Ben Platt’s. “For sure,” he said. “Because I know the perspectives of the characters I play, for me it’s been very beneficial in finding those deep moments, being vulnerable, and really feeling comfortable and a part of the story. What’s so great about the writing is that playing Evan, you kind of get lost in the story because you’re on stage for so long…and really live in the reality of the story.”
What’s next for Michael? “I teach a lot of classes now and do musical theater workshops and such—and so my thing is always being very specific about the things that you want to do and manifesting that, and visualizing that I think has been very important. And finding the specific type of musical theater and the type of work you want to do and the reasons you want to do it.”
His hope is that this EP turns into a full CD. And in the meantime, he’s not leaving Broadway. “I’m not leaving Dear Evan Hansen for a while. I love acting, I love musical theater, and I love Dear Evan Hansen, so it’s not something I’m planning on giving up at all, you know. I just love doing the songwriting too.”