The new musical by Tony-nominated 31-year-olds Pasek and Justin Paul (and book writer Steven Levenson) made its world premiere in Washington, D.C., at Arena Stage, and is sparked by a death over a decade ago. Amid tragedy in Pasek’s high school, teens tried to claim the late student as a dear friend, much like the fictional Evan Hansen, who is struggling to find an identity for himself by any means possible.
“It’s us wanting to feel like we’re connected to something and we’re worthy or valuable in some way, so we make something up or we embellish something,” says Paul, “and that’s the thing that our protagonist ends up doing.”
Ben Platt is the protagonist at the heart of Dear Evan Hansen. Evan doesn’t quite fit in. He’s awkward, he’s shy, he’s weird and, most of all, he’s lonely. “I try to speak, but nobody can hear,” he sings in the show, “so I wait around for an answer to appear while I’m watching people pass… I’m waving through a window.” His answer appears in the form of a grieving family, and finally he’s found friendship.
“Evan is just what they need, and they are just what he needs,” explains Platt.
Pasek adds, “The character that we tried to write is a character, I think, that feels very, very common nowadays. It’s a character that looks at other people’s lives on a Facebook or a Twitter feed and wonders why he isn’t a part of that world, and I think that’s something that I relate to and a lot of people relate to—just seeing the world and feeling outside of it. We’ve moved into a more digital world, [and] I think people feel more alone than they ever felt. He has a really, really tough time connecting to people and feeling like he’s a part of a community and a part of this world. He watches it scroll past him…”
The new musical lives in a world where Facebook and Twitter are not only the norm for teens and twentysomethings, they’re basically required. And, when a social platform paints the picture of our lives, one’s authentic self gets lost somewhere in status updates of 140 characters or less.
“He sort of hides behind another version of himself,” says Pasek, as many young adults do in today's society; in fact, he becomes “more comfortable with himself than he ever was in his honest self,” according to Platt.
He adds, “It’s very hard these days to really be truly at the end of the day, just who you are—bare bones, your dirtiest self—and I think that the show’s about somebody who just kind of needs to come to terms with who that person is.”
Although Evan is having trouble finding himself, Pasek and Paul have a good handle on him—with the help of Platt, whom they enlisted to play Evan from the very beginning. They first met the Pitch Perfect actor when he auditioned for Dogfight in his teens; although he was too young for one of the marines, Pasek and Paul kept him in mind for Dear Evan Hansen.
Now all three are in it together—creating a musical and a character from scratch, with no pre-existing material. The story is completely original, which—for Pasek and Paul—is thrilling, but “also terrifying because it's completely uncharted waters,” Paul says.
It’s new territory for the two. Their Tony-nominated A Christmas Story, The Musical was adapted from the iconic holiday film, and Dogfight was also previously seen on screen before stage.
“As songwriters, you know that there are moments that pop out,” says Paul on musicalizing a pre-existing work. “If you’re adapting something, there are going to be at least five moments that are already going to be there handed to you. No matter what we do and where we go with the story, those five moments are going to be songs, even if it’s only four or five… Here, it’s like: Do we even have the right moments to be songs? Are we telling the right story? There’s no map at all. It’s definitely challenging. For us, at least for me, I know the audience has made all the difference. Up until literally our first invited dress rehearsal [in D.C.], I was like, ‘Is anyone even going to have clue as to what’s going on or care about the story at all?’ You don’t know at all because no one has ever seen it and no one has ever said, ‘Oh, that story is interesting.’ No one ever made a movie out of it, no one ever made a book out of it, no one ever made a comic book out of it. No one ever made anything out if it! You really have no idea. I think that’s been the craziest part—do we have anything here at all? I guess we’ll wait and see.”
The new musical had prominent producers attached since the run in D.C., so a transfer into New York was expected, although Pasek and Paul were unsure what the future had in store.
“Your guess is as good as ours,” Paul said about Evan Hansen before it opened in D.C. “We have one goal right now, which is to get the show in as good shape as possible and open it at Arena… Thankfully, it’s not up to us what happens. There’s so much to worry about with just getting the show up here right now for these audiences, that we really don't have any time to think about, or worry about, what might come next, so it’s a very actually freeing thing. We have no pressure.”
Well, it looks like they were onto something. After an acclaimed Off-Broadway run, the show hits the Belasco November 14. Hopefully Evan Hansen will muster up enough courage to greet Broadway audiences this fall.