In a different world, Asian Jewish actor Zachary Noah Piser would’ve become an Olympic swimmer.
“Before the age where everyone started growing, I was like, becoming an Olympic swimmer is my journey. This is my path like 100%,” Zachary told me when we spoke recently. “And then as soon as everyone started hitting puberty, I was like, OK, I cannot be an Olympic swimmer because I am three feet shorter than most Olympic swimmers.”
Instead, Zachary found an equally incredible path. As of today, he is taking over the role of Evan Hansen on Broadway full-time, becoming the first Asian American actor to do so. Before this, Zachary was an original cast member of the international premiere of “Dear Evan Hansen” in Canada.
I hope Zachary won’t hold it against me for saying that I, for one, am certainly glad his dreams of becoming a professional swimmer didn’t work out — though he does credit his nearly 16 years of competitive swimming for his good lung support. Onstage, his performance of Evan Hansen in the acclaimed Broadway show about mental health is emotionally riveting and gripping. Tears well in his eyes throughout the performance, bringing a deeply genuine sense of pain to Evan, a role originated by fellow Jewish actor Ben Platt. In turn, his performance revives a sense of sympathy for his character that seemed dampened by the less-than-favorable reviews of the “Dear Evan Hansen” film.
I had the opportunity to chat with Zachary over Zoom about feeling Evan Hansen at a molecular level and being “Jasian,” or Jewish Asian — a term he jokingly asserts he coined.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
So could you tell me about your Jewish background and identity? How do your Jewish and Asian identities intersect, if at all?
So I grew up in California, in the Bay Area, in a conservative Jewish household. My dad is Jewish with Lithuanian roots, and my mom is an immigrant from China. She grew up atheist, but she actually converted to Judaism before she had me. So I am a certifiable Jew, bar mitzvahed and everything. As a kid, I went to Hebrew day school during the week at Temple Beth Abraham, which I’m still connected to. My rabbi is actually coming to my opening night, so I’m very close to that community in Oakland. And then on the weekends, I would go to Chinese school, where I learned basic Mandarin, simplified, traditional, all that kind of stuff.
Even though there is a large Asian population [in the Bay Area], I think if you had asked 12-year-old, 13-year-old Zach how he identified, I think I actually probably would have said that I identified more Jewish than I did Asian-American. And then somewhere around high school, I really kind of took on the term that I coined — well, I don’t know if I coined it, but I think I did — Jasian: Jewish Asian. In high school, I really adopted that identity and really started to love how that felt.
In terms of how they intersect, I think they’re very similar in a lot of ways. First is, of course, food. Everything revolves around food when you’re Asian and when you’re Jewish, which is great. And then family is also huge for both. In Asian culture, a lot of families have grandparents and parents and kids all living under the same roof. And similarly with Jews — if someone says the phrase “family reunion,” everyone’s there in a heartbeat. A perfect example of that is when I first took over the role first, in the beginning of the year, my entire Jewish family all came, just like that. Oh, and the idea of tikkun olam, saving the world or healing the world, that feeling is echoed in some ways in the Asian culture, at least in how I grew up.
Thank you for sharing that. Also, I have to ask, was your bar mitzvah Broadway-themed?
Oh, my God. No. It’s so funny you ask because I was the worst theater kid. I did not think that I could do theater, and I didn’t realize that I wanted to do theater until like the end of high school. But then I had my first actual theatrical experience in high school. I played Jean Valjean, of course, in “Les Mis,” and I was like, Oh my God, this is like the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And I really changed my whole trajectory in terms of school towards doing theater. But I wasn’t ready to dive into a conservatory.
Anyway, the theme was swimming. I wish I could go back to my 13 year-old self and just be like, what are you thinking? The party gifts were like, towels. I was like, what? Who would do this? There were balloons that looked like bubbles… it was so much, but it was fun. It was a blast.
That’s so fun. So turning to Evan Hansen, how have you been preparing to take on that role full-time?
So I’ll start by saying that I think there’s always more to learn and to discover, especially with a role of this size. When I perform, I’m never like, Oh, I totally understand this character. It’s always a process, at least for me. And that’s kind of who I am, always wanting to continue that work and never just be content. Because I’ve been in the orbit of the show, in and out of the pandemic, for three years, it is in so many ways in my body on a molecular level. Which is a really lovely feeling.
But to prepare for fully taking over the role, it’s a lot of self-care. (Which, I will say, I’m terrible at.) So for me, that means exercising, relaxing, steaming, stretching, going to voice lessons and going to therapy; all of these things are really important for the upkeep of my total body. In some ways, my granola-Berkeley-feeling comes out when I talk about it, like: My body’s a temple. But I’m not always that way. I do things that some singers will be like, you did what?!
This role is very demanding, so it’s really about treating your body and mind and brain and voice as well as you can — I have been in communication with other Evans of “Evan Hansen past,” and that’s the overwhelming sense I get from their advice. And, it also helps knowing that [Broadway actors are] not robots, and sometimes it’s not going to be exactly how you want it to be or you might not be feeling the best. So knowing when it’s also right to take a day off, whether it’s a physical day, a mental health day, whatever that is.
Yeah, it’s interesting you bring up self-care, because I think one of the things I was struck most by during your performance is that you’re crying for the majority of the show. How do you re-energize from that? And does that weigh on you?
When I was first learning the show in Toronto, at the international production, I would finish one show and be like, I am ready for an eight-year summer. How does anyone do this? And the truth is that the more that you do it, [the more] it becomes a little bit easier to access those emotions, and to comprehend and digest those really difficult things. Maybe it’s just because, in some ways, it is a muscle — not the act of crying or generating tears, but the act of getting yourself to that place emotionally where you are in the story becomes something that is more easily attainable organically, instead of feeling like you have to force something. That’s been my experience, at least.
There are also many shows where I’m feeling all these emotions, but maybe there aren’t water drops coming out of my eyes. As long as I feel that I am earnestly and emotionally in that moment, that’s the most important thing to me.
That definitely comes across in your performance. So right now, antisemitism and anti-Asian violence are on the rise. What does it mean to be giving representation to both of your communities on such a (literally) big stage? Especially since May is AAPI month, Jewish American Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness month.
Yeah, the rising antisemitic and anti-Asian sentiments and violence do weigh on me. And it’s less about me and worrying about my specific safety; I think about the other people in my life that I am worried about. I feel like I should be contacting them and saying, are you okay? Do you feel safe? Those kinds of things. Which makes me sad that I even just have to think about it in that way, but it’s the stone-cold truth of where we are currently.
But in that same vein, I think I am just so honored to be able to represent all my intersecting communities in this show, a show that was originally written for an all-white cast, and it just so happens that I am Asian and Jewish, and I’m able to play this role. So especially now, when being a Jew and/or being Asian feels like you have a target on your back, it means everything to me to be able to give some kind of voice to those communities.
I love how much Asian-Jewish representation there is with “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway right now, because assistant director Miranda Cornell and cast member Nathan Levy are also Asian Jews. Do you feel that community presence?
Oh my gosh, yes. I have met only three or four Asian Jews, so meeting more of them, on a personal level, it makes me feel so good and warm and fuzzy inside.
On an industry level, it also makes me more excited and hopeful that there will be ripple effects to open more doors for people with so many intersecting identities that also happen to magically overlap with mine. Because that also means that people who have those intersecting identities — who maybe aren’t initially included in the original intent of the show — are capable of sharing and telling the story. I hope that becomes clear: Just because [a show] is written a certain way or was originated by certain people who identify a certain way doesn’t mean that it can’t include other people who do not identify in those ways to tell those stories. And I think that’s the weightier understanding of it. But both of those feelings are really special.
It’s interesting you bring up that anyone from any background can come into these roles, because Evan is written as a very relatable teenage boy for an American audience. He’s white, presumably not Jewish and he’s straight. Since that identity is very much not yours, how do you relate to him?
That’s a great question and it’s honestly hilarious, because in fact, I am not straight or white, and I am Jewish.
At the end of the day, “Dear Evan Hansen” is really just about a young man who feels like an outsider. As the song says, “on the outside always looking in,” you know, “waving through a window,” and that’s a sentiment I relate to so hard. In middle school, I was that chubby Asian kid who had a really hard time making friends. And so usually the thoughts that I have before I enter the stage are trying to recall 10, 11, 12, 13, 14-year-old Zachary going through those emotions. How did that Zachary approach the day? How did he overcome that day? How did he make it through? And that’s really how I find my way into him every single day.
I saw the publication “Jewcy” called “Dear Evan Hansen” “the latest Jewish non-Jewish musical.” Do you feel there’s Jewishness to the show?
I don’t think it’s a show about Jews, or what it means to be Jewish. But I think it certainly makes room to include the Jewish community. The character of Jared Kleinman talks about going to camp, presumably a Jewish camp, and hooking up with a girl from Israel. He talks about bar mitzvah money, Rosh Hashanah — all of those moments create space so that Jews can absolutely exist in that world. So I don’t think [“Dear Evan Hansen”] is about that, but I think the exciting thing is that it doesn’t exclude [Jewishness].
There’s no reason that the character of Alana couldn’t be Jewish, and there’s no reason why the Murphys couldn’t be Jewish. There’s no reason that any of those characters couldn’t have that as part of their character development if they wanted to. If it is that actor’s identity, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be brought to the table. I mean, you can’t change lines and be like, “Hi, I’m Jewish,” you know? You can’t do that. But there’s nothing that I think excludes that development if you want to bring that to the stage.
Definitely. In terms of more literal identities, there have been quite a few different actors who portrayed Evan Hansen on Broadway. So I’m curious what you feel you bring to him, or how you interpret him? And how do you want the audience to see Evan?
Because this character is so well-known, the most important thing to me about Evan is that he’s still relatable — that to the young folks in the audience, to the adults, to the parents of the kids, his anxiety, while palpable and maybe off-putting and uncomfortable both for the audience and for the characters on stage, is still something that everyone can understand and feel in their own body, so it doesn’t feel like what they’re watching is so far removed from what’s organically possible for them.
And also, what’s really important to me with Evan is that on the outside he can look like someone who is just really, really upset with his circumstances and is always focusing on his own struggle. But my understanding and portrayal of him is that he is actually an optimist. He is constantly craving connection with others, with his mom, with the Murphys, with Zoe, with Connor, with Jared and with Alana. He’s not a kid who has given up. He’s a person who is always looking to connect and hoping that this next time, someone will actually wave back at him. I think that is so crucial in the development of his character and how his journey goes throughout the show.
To your point about being able to reach everyone in the audience, there were a lot of young people and their parents in the audience when I saw the show. Do you feel the weight of sending the message of “Dear Evan Hansen” to kids?
I do feel a sense of responsibility to uplift kids and adults and everyone in between who are struggling with mental health, or who are just simply having a bad day and are at the theater. Whenever I’m feeling particularly emotionally spent or physically tired with the show, all I have to do is just remember that there might be one audience member, of any age — because I really think that this show speaks to all ages — who needs to hear the words “you will be found,” or my favorite lyric from the show in “Disappear,” “If you never get around to doing some remarkable thing / that doesn’t mean that you’re not worth remembering.” I just remember that there might be someone out there who needs to hear that and that maybe I can help them through whatever they’re going through, however big or small.
Do you have a sense of how long you’ll be playing Evan Hansen full-time?
I will be in this role through the summer.
I think the thing that’s so amazing about doing this role full-time, knowing my history with the show, is that it’s such a beautiful way for my experience to culminate. It’s so incredible. It’s such a gift in so many ways to be able to take on this role. And I’m so excited to really, fully step into the role and take full ownership of it with its ups and downs, which are par for the course. I’m just really, really thrilled for the opportunity.
Exciting! And just one more question. “Dear Evan Hansen” tackles online spaces and how the internet can affect our mental health and emotions. Is there anything you want to say to Hey Alma’s online Jewish community, which has a lot of young Jews and Jews of color?
In “Dear Evan Hansen,” we depict the magnitude of social media and its influence, and how that can be overwhelming — which definitely rings true for me sometimes. And on that, I think that if anyone else is feeling that way, it’s OK. It’s very OK to put your phone down and take that space. And it’s important to use social media for your own needs, and to question how it serves you.
But I’d also like to share one of my favorite things about “Dear Evan Hansen.” Evan goes through a very tumultuous journey for the two hours and 45 minutes we see him on stage. But I hope the biggest takeaway from the show, besides being able to create space to talk about mental health, is that no matter how deep, how dark, how alone you feel, there is always hope for a better tomorrow. All of us just went through, and are continuing to go through, an insane time with the pandemic and everything that’s going on in the world, internationally and domestically. And whenever I’m feeling that weight on my shoulders, I just remember Evan’s mantra at the very end of the show. The last words he says are that he’ll keep going until he sees the sun.
So at the end of the day, I hope what this story imbues in the audience is a sense of hope that it will get better, whatever you’re going through, and that you should look forward to the next day — especially for the young Jewish and young Asian Jewish communities out there that are really not feeling seen, or feeling scared to be seen.