In August 2012, when I first met songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, then 27, they were in the midst of Dogfight’s Off-Broadway run at Second Stage Theatre and anxiously awaiting their Broadway debut with A Christmas Story. “We stood outside of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for like 35 minutes just looking at it,” Pasek told me in 2012. “It had this mystical quality. We feel so lucky that we’re going to experience something that we’ve dreamed about forever.”
Yet, they couldn’t help but talk about a contemporary, pop-driven, original new musical they had in the works—a passion project that, at the time, no one knew about.
“We’ll see!” said Paul ever-so casually about what we now know as Dear Evan Hansen. Broadway’s newest sensation has sold approximately $10 million in advance ticket sales, and even though he and Pasek are now a sought-after tune-writing twosome—they wrote lyrics for La La Land and are at work on The Greatest Showman and a live-action Snow White—some things remain the same.
“To be able to get to see this show [Dear Evan Hansen] on Broadway is beyond our wildest expectations,” Pasek says, following the show’s opening and critical acclaim. “Really, it’s been an amazing experience to get to see the show in a Broadway house.”
“We’re very lucky to have such a perfect home for it,” Paul adds. “We love the Music Box. It’s fun to be able to go by…”
The two were on hand December 14, when I met them at Jazz at Lincoln Center where they were honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) with the Harold Adamson Lyric Award for their work in musical theatre, specifically for their intelligent and sensitive use of language within their lyrics.
That makes sense, considering just how close to home the words of Dear Evan Hansen hit audiences. The story is real, derived from Pasek’s high school experience and expanded for its central title character, who is awkward, shy, anxious and, most of all, lonely.
Evan sings of looking in from the outside, as if through a window; of feeling forgotten, with hopes of being found; and of words failing when apologies just aren’t enough.
The show, like its story, has ignited the Internet across social media. Fans sing and post covers of the musical numbers, mirroring the fictional characters’ social response, retweets, and reactions to Evan Hansen.
“It’s really gratifying to see that this show is turning out to be accessible for people and something that they can relate to,” Paul says. “That’s what you hope to do when you’re writing something. I would throw a lot of that to the cast, especially when people go to see this show. I think we’re so in love with our cast and in love with the fact that they’re giving such devastatingly human performances—they’re just so real and so right there… Physically, you can reach out and touch them because they’re giving such truthful performances. I think that has a lot to do with people’s feeling like they can really engage with this show because they have access to the characters. A lot of that is because the way Steven [Levenson] wrote them, and a lot of that is because of the way these actors are portraying these roles.”
Pasek says the other magic ingredient is director Michael Greif, “who is a master of shaping these kinds of stories,” he explains. Paul adds, “These modern characters—they’re us or they’re someone we know. Michael has an amazing way of creating those.”
Just like in 2012, Pasek and Paul are focused on the next project: the Dear Evan Hansen cast recording. They come to the ASCAP honors from the studio and head back right after. But if, for a moment, they get caught up in the whirlwind of success, they tell each other to “look around,” as goes their lyric in “You Will Be Found.”
“It’s good to have each other,” says Pasek, “to look up and see that something that we’ve been working on for a really long time is on a marquee on Broadway is a really unparalleled experience.”
Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.