Greif is talking about Dear Evan Hansen, the new musical he's directing at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Tony nominees for A Christmas Story, The Musical, and the librettist is Steven Levenson, a writer and co-producer of TV's Masters of Sex.
The show runs July 10-Aug. 23. The title role is played by Ben Platt, known as Benji Applebaum in the hit movie "Pitch Perfect" and the current "Pitch Perfect 2;" the cast includes Rachel Bay Jones, who received much praise as the widow Catherine in the recent Pippin revival.
Greif, who got his three Tony nominations for Rent, Next to Normal and Grey Gardens, and who helmed last year's If/Then, says the new musical is "about a lonely kid, and how a family in crisis, a grieving family, in many ways adopts this lonely kid. And this kid finds a lot of love and a lot of support from this family, but also always knows that in many ways he doesn't deserve their love and support."
"This is what's the emotional crux of the show," he says.
It's a very powerful theme, he says. "I think there's an extraordinary urgency to the emotional stakes in the show. I feel like the writers have created a scenario that gives the characters a lot to sing about — and in such a heightened emotional arena that they always need to sing about it."
He's been quoted as saying that the musical tells "a story where the stakes are so high that it feels like the characters are singing for their lives."
"I'll stick by that," he says.
The family, he says, is "dealing with an extraordinary loss. And they meet — or they seek out — this kid and they attribute to this kid — they really make this kid a part of their family because they need this kid to be a part of their family. It fulfills an enormous need that they're suffering from — to have a surrogate son."
Greif is talking about Dear Evan Hansen for Washington while working in New York City on the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest, starring Sam Waterston and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, which ends its run July 5, just before the musical begins. He says he has found with The Tempest, as "I have found when I work on truly great plays, that as we actually put the play together and run it there are things that become illuminated — they're almost built into the fabric of the play, but you're not aware of them on the page. It's only when you have bodies in space dealing with one another that you see the brilliance of the play's construction."
Dear Evan Hansen is being born into a theater-musical world that nowadays can accommodate everything from the hip-hop of Hamilton to the family tragedy of Fun Home, from the rampant silliness of Something Rotten! to the balletic elegance of An American in Paris. Where does Evan Hansen find its niche? It's "a family drama," Greif says. "I feel like it's in the musical family of Fun Home, of Next to Normal, because I think it takes on serious content and tries to illuminate character and dramatic situation through music."