Shenandoah musical theatre student Roman Banks ’21 always aspired to perform on Broadway.
He just had no idea it would happen so soon.
Making theatre history
Banks is a standby performer for the Tony-winning Broadway smash, “Dear Evan Hansen.”
He’s an understudy for three parts, including Evan Hansen. Whenever he’s called upon to portray the title character, he’ll be the first African-American to play the role, which Banks said he finds exhilarating. (Banks first performed in the role on Dec. 12, 2018.)
“That fact alone has been the most special part about getting this job, but not just for my own sake. I’ve gotten endless amounts of messages from people of color, both young and old, telling me how much it means to them that I’ll be playing the role. The show is gaining new fans out of their desire to see a person of color portray the iconic character. People who had given up their dreams, due to the hardships that actors of color face, have been inspired again to pursue them. Fans who have already seen the show now want to come back and see it once more. It fills my heart with love and hope. I feel so blessed to have been chosen for such a special thing during such a difficult time for people of color in this country. It makes me want to do my best so that I can pave the way for those who wish to follow in my footsteps. I see it as, if I play a part in diversifying the future of this show, and all Broadway shows for that matter, then that’s everything that I could ever wish for. After all, any type of person can play this role, and I hope that my involvement with this show will allow present and future casting directors to truly open their eyes to that.”
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“And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true…” ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ It is my absolute pleasure to announce my official arrival with the @dearevanhansen family on Broadway. This opportunity is, in every essence of the phrase, a dream come true. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Thank you to EVERYONE who helped me get through this entire process. #IAmBlackHistory
Working with Shenandoah family
He’s also in the “Dear Evan Hansen” company with another member of the Shenandoah family, Garrett Elise Long ’91, who has been a standby performer for the roles of Cynthia Murphy and Heidi Hansen for the show’s entire run. At the 2017 Tony Awards, the show won Best Musical, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical honors.
“I heard about Roman before I knew he was from Shenandoah,” she said. “I was of course thrilled to hear he was from Shenandoah, and happy to play ‘big sister’ to him.”
Like Banks, she said the show, which is anchored by a character with intense social anxiety and deals with the effects of youth suicide, is one that’s massively influential. “I have never been in a show that is having such a HUGE impact on, dare I say, the world… so that’s new and thrilling,” she said. “I love my DEH family. I honestly feel like I have the best job on Broadway getting to spend time with them and understudy both Moms.” With the roles they’re playing, there could be a night in which Long and Banks portray mother and son. Banks is also understudying the parts of Jared Kleinman and Connor Murphy.
Stepping Forward, Fearlessly
Banks’ path to “Dear Evan Hansen” began when he took a chance. “Evan Hansen was one of my two dream roles (next to Aaron Burr [in “Hamilton”]), so when I saw that the show was holding an open call for Evan, I knew that I had to do my best to get to NYC and audition,” Banks said. “I had nothing to lose! At best, my dream would come true, and at worst, I’d gain exposure. Sounded like a win-win to me, at least.”
“Roman told me about an open call in NYC for ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ said Assistant Professor of Theatre, Coordinator for Recruitment for Musical Theatre, and Charles B. Levitin Chair in Musical Theatre Kevin Covert. “I naturally encouraged him, as that show in particular calls for younger men in its casting. He has such a wonderful contemporary lilt to his voice, and he is a fine young actor. It happens that my friend Ben Cohn is the music director of ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ so I spoke to him in depth about Roman. Coincidentally, one of my very closest friends, Michael Park, plays Larry in the show, and he was a wonderful resource when helping Roman prepare the sides for the callbacks. Roman did such beautiful preparation for the callbacks; he truly earned his spot on Broadway.”
Auditioning with plenty of Shenandoah support
Banks had the full backing of his Shenandoah faculty during the long audition process. “My teachers were very supportive,” he said. “I always tell my vocal coach, Stephanie Higgins, that I wouldn’t have been cast in this show without her. We worked on my audition songs week after week after week, even including extra lessons here and there. Stephanie teaches with incredible diligence and enthusiasm, and I feel blessed that I was able to work with her throughout this exciting process. I was additionally coached by the fantastic Kevin Covert, Matt Edwards, and Rick Edinger, and I worked with numerous students as scene partners as well. It really took a village of individuals to make this dream come true, and I’m very appreciative and indebted to those who played a key role along the way.”
It was surreal to finally learn he won a role earlier this summer, Banks said. “I found out that I’d gotten the job on the spot, so it was weird for everything to come together so quickly after such a long audition process. I’d spent the last few months dreaming about how this moment would happen – if it happened – and it was still nothing like how I had imagined. Needless to say, it was, and still is, a dream come true.”
“When Roman called me to tell me that he had been given the offer for the show on Broadway, I was in complete shock,” said Covert, who is also a veteran Broadway performer. “It took my breath away, and then I immediately burst into very happy tears. It was an exhilarating moment. It is so incredibly fulfilling to see those that you have mentored achieving their dreams. I plan on continuing to teach and mentor him for as long as he likes! I have a strong feeling this is the beginning of many wonderful things.”
The Tony-winning hit musical “Hamilton” inspired Banks to pursue musical theatre. “The show changed my life,” he said. “As a young black man, you grow up learning about the genius and ambitious white men who created and established the fundamentals that built our country, and you unconsciously create this image of how they looked, spoke, walked, talked, etc. So, as someone who hated history class, to see people who looked like me, spoke like me, and were raised like me, portraying these historic individuals? While rapping?! My mind nearly exploded. Not only that, but it took the world by storm. It was so brilliant, so new, and so unique that it left audiences speechless. But most of all? It gave us a voice. It said, ‘Yes, this is not what you were expecting at all, and yes, we are brilliant, and yes, here’s why.’ It was so brilliantly unapologetic. So after that I knew that I wanted to make people feel how I felt the first time I watched the show, and so I knew that Broadway was the answer.”
But Shenandoah wasn’t originally on his radar when he was exploring places to pursue his dream. “It’s funny because I feel like Shenandoah actually chose me,” he said. “In fact, the only reason I even found out about the school was because my friend, Logan Smith (now a Shenandoah classmate of Banks’), told me about the program during our week with the National YoungArts Foundation. Even after hearing about the school, I don’t remember being very interested.”
“I knew the very second I saw him perform that I wanted to teach and mentor him,” Covert said. “I gave him my card after YoungArts, and he auditioned for us in New York City.”
“Ironically enough, Shenandoah, out of all the schools that I auditioned for, made the process as relaxing and professional and possible,” Banks said. “In the end, one of the big reasons I chose to attend Shenandoah was for that alone. I felt comfortable and accepted enough by the school’s faculty for the artist that I was during that time, and I ultimately felt that Shenandoah was where God wanted me to be.”
Banks, who drew attention for singing his high school graduation speech in Georgia (read the story and hear his song at 11alive.com and on youtube.com), never thought the next step in his career would be onto a Broadway stage. “I didn’t think that I would be good enough for this profession by the age of 19. Before college, I’d never independently taken a dance class, an acting class, or a singing lesson. I couldn’t afford them. I thought that it would take me years to get to the level of those I’d be competing with. But the beautiful thing about life is that sometimes God has other plans. Even now, I sometimes don’t feel like I’m good enough or don’t understand why I was chosen amongst hundreds and hundreds of other boys, but I also remember that none of that matters now. What matters is that I’ve been blessed abundantly, and I have a responsibility – that I find to be much bigger than myself – to deliver what’s been expected of me. And yes, while things can get overwhelming, or scary, or even overwhelmingly scary at times, I find comfort in God’s promises from Philippians 4:13 – ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ And that’s – that’s enough.”
Being a #ProudCoach
And more Shenandoah Conservatory students may end up on Broadway, too, with the support of faculty members like Covert, who refers to himself online as a #ProudCoach after receiving the nickname from his students. “My first show at Shenandoah was ‘Spring Awakening,’ and I talked a great deal about the company being a team. One rehearsal I started the evening with ‘Hi, Team’ and someone replied, ‘Hi, Coach.’ It stuck, and I love it. I am a very proud Coach.
“In terms of how I coach them, I like to approach songs and text at first with a personal connection and then figure out the material from that jumping-off point. We talk a great deal about different aspects of the material both in how they can personally relate and then how it matches the intent of the author.”
Covert also draws upon his Broadway experience to help his students. “I spent most of my professional life in New York City, originating three Broadway musicals, several national tours, working with casting directors, and as an associate director and choreographer. I have made lifelong connections and continue to keep in contact with the New York theatre industry. I also continue my relationships with several directors and choreographers and continue to work on the development of new Broadway shows.” He recently recommended two Shenandoah Music Theatre students to a producer from the musical “Memphis,” (Covert was in that show’s original Broadway cast) who is developing a new show with its eye on New York.
As a #ProudCoach, Covert is part of a conservatory that he said offers exceptional musical theatre training. “I think that our attention to all three disciplines of Music Theatre is vital,” he said. “Also, we are very good at observing the trends and adjusting our training to what is relative in the industry right now. We have a VERY strong (if not the strongest) grasp on Contemporary and Pop/Rock Musical Theatre and how it should be taught.
Studying musical theatre with the pros
“One of the most special things about Shenandoah is the embarrassment of riches we have on the faculty. On the dance front, Jacob Brent, Shylo Martinez and Mary Robare are all Broadway veterans. Our brand-new Music Director Patrick Brady is quite literally a Broadway icon. He was the original music director and conductor of ‘The Producers,’ ‘Young Frankenstein,’ ‘Fosse’ and ‘Triumph of Love’ on Broadway. I am incredibly excited for the students and faculty to collaborate with him this fall. Our acting faculty, including Carolyn Coulson, Kirsten Trump, J.J. Ruscella and our newly hired Director of Acting Scott Hudson, are all incredibly accomplished and offer such variety in their teachings. Our students are also lucky that our technical theatre department is so strong. To have the experience of learning from them all is invaluable. I am grateful for collaborations with Will Ingham, Bill Pierson, Andrew Carson, Jennifer Adams and Cheryl Yancey. I also love that our students get weekly vocal instruction from professors. Probably one of the most valuable colleagues I have is Matt Edwards. His reputation across the country is astounding, and he is in high demand to speak and teach masterclasses. Shenandoah is incredibly lucky to have him on our faculty. The entire theatre faculty is focused on making the students the very best that they can be in order to be competitive in this industry.”
Creating a career defined by kindness and emotional power
That noted, Covert said one of the best things students can be, as they seek out a Broadway career, is kind. “It doesn’t take any effort, and it certainly goes a long way. I say that you should never burn a bridge. You never know if the person sitting next to you on a tour will be the next major director and choreographer on Broadway (yes, that happened to me!) Too often I have seen people do one Broadway show, garner a horrible reputation and then never work in the city again. To be successful, you must continue to train – in acting, dance and voice. I was taking classes up until the day I left New York City. You must have a solid work ethic and be a team player. It isn’t all about getting the job, it’s about getting hired for the next one!”
As for Banks, he’s delighted to be performing in an art form he loves.
“The most beautiful thing about theatre is how it affects people,” Banks said. “The theatre has been known to heal hearts, change minds, and create necessary dialogue amongst its viewers. I love that people can walk into a theater one night and come out feeling like a completely different person. It’s such a safe space for scary, powerful and/or unspoken stories to be told. It can give a voice to those who may feel silenced. Theatre is an incredibly powerful art form that changes/saves lives and will continue to change/save lives for years and years to follow.”