Spending more than a year on the road can make anyone feel disconnected from their roots — even for a Broadway veteran. That is what brought Dear Evan Hansen actor Aaron Lazar to the Sabes JCC this past Monday and Wednesday.
Lazar said an actor’s life is pretty self-centered, so he decided to begin volunteering as a way to give back and connect with his Judaism.
The epitome of a nice Jewish boy, Lazar readily accepted requests to speak to more and more groups, including an impromptu visit with Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School (HMJDS) students after his initial Q&A with Senior Dining and other community members. He also sang “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera and invited the audience to sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” from Oklahoma! with him. Lazar was in the Broadway company for both shows.
“I was almost the first ever Jewish Curly in “Oklahoma!” he said. “But then the show closed before I got to go on.”
Hugh Jackman played Curly in the movie version of the show, and Lazar said his grandfather calls him ‘Jew Jackman.’
On Wednesday Lazar joined the Inclusion program for lunch and their weekly challah braiding. Lazar said he hadn’t made challah since nursery school, but that he grew up around a lot of good Jewish baking with his great-grandfather being a baker.
Family is important to Lazar and what led him to join the Minneapolis Jewish community while he is in town. He has a 7-year-old and 9-year-old son.
“I’m recently divorced, and I’m thinking about family life for me and my kids, and I’m like they should have a sense of community and holidays,” he said. “I remember my mom used to take me and my brother to the Jewish nursing home to see my great-grandparents when I was little. Maybe I can take my kids and give them that experience.”
His kids will join him on tour for three weeks, and he will take them to the JCC in Cleveland before then. Lazar said he hasn’t seen his kids for over three weeks, but he makes use of FaceTime to keep in touch with his sons. He said, “I probably wouldn’t have taken the job if there wasn’t FaceTime.”
Lazar plays a father on stage too. He plays Larry Murphy who struggles to deal with the suicide of his son and support his family.
Lazar said all eight characters are lost. The story follows them on their ways to accepting they are good enough if they just are who they are. He described Dear Evan Hansen as intimate, special, meaningful and emotionally transformative for the audience.
The musical is also full of Judaism. Lazar said being in a show with other Jewish writers and actors and Jewish jokes gives him a great sense of pride because there are stigmas around it.
“Most famous Jewish actors have changed their names to less Jewish names, and I’ve had experiences in the theater where I’ve been told I’m essentially too Jewish to play [a] part,” he said, “To be in a show where not only is that not an issue but I can celebrate my heritage, my people, and take great pride that we’re in cities across the country. And you’ll hear jokes like ‘My parents haven’t touched the liquor cabinet since Rosh Hashanah 1997,’ and you get a huge laugh from the audience and go like ‘Ah there’s a bunch of Jewish people here tonight’ and/or ‘the non-Jews know what Rosh Hashanah is and still get it. So it’s just, it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”
His parting advice to the HMJDS sixth-graders was that you have to love what you do and believe in yourself.
“You have to be realistic about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and you have to work really hard to make your weaknesses your strengths,” he said.
This advice must work since he went from writing letters to Stephen Sondheim in college to singing in Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall in 2010.
Dear Evan Hansen will continue performing through Sunday at the Orpheum.