Cast and creatives from Broadway's Dear Evan Hansen took the stage at New York Comic Con 2019 October 4 to give theatre-loving Con goers a look at how the Tony-winning musical came to be and what it's like to bring the story to the stage every night.
Producer Stacey Mindich began by sharing Dear Evan Hansen's origin story, which starts with her own love of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's song cycle Edges, written while the pair were still students at University of Michigan. Mindich was so impressed with their songwriting that she began developing a musical with them.
As for subject matter, an experience from Pasek's high school years became a starting point, though not the direct basis of the show's plot. Bookwriter Steven Levenson, who Mindich brought on to collaborate with Pasek and Paul, detailed the story that inspired their musical.
"A student in [Pasek's] class died tragically of a drug overdose. It was someone who had been sort of a loner, didn't have a lot of friends or status at school, but suddenly in the wake the death, Benj watched as everyone wanted to claim that they had been friends with him and claim that they had been a part of this person's life."
But it wasn't just Pasek's high school memory that inspired Dear Evan Hansen. The show's heavy focus on social media and its impact came from early discussions between the writing team, as Levenson shared. "We all [noticed] a really fascinating, bizarre phenomenon of public grieving [on social media]. Whenever a celebrity would die or something really tragic would happen, there was this outpouring online of people kind of making it about themselves."
Current Broadway cast members Andrew Barth Feldman, Alex Boniello,, and Gabrielle Carrubba were also on hand to share their experiences from appearing in the show. Feldman remembered his reaction to seeing the musical for the first time when he was just 14 years old.
"The first time I saw the show was on Broadway, just after it opened. I was beginning to feel this weight of growing up and social media, because I'm growing up in the same era than Evan is. It articulated something for me that I couldn't yet articulate. It opened up so much for me emotionally."
Boniello, who has spoken publicly about his own struggles with an anxiety disorder, spoke about the care he puts into portraying Connor's mental health issues, rendering a fully authentic character in just a few short minutes of stage time. "The thing that's really interesting about Connor as a character is that we only see him as he actually is for about four minutes, so as an actor you have to do a lot of work that the audience doesn't see to make him make sense and allow the audience to see him as fast as possible."
As for what that work entails, Boniello offered a glimpse of the backstory he's developed for his character.
"I always think about the summer before the show probably being the most important time in Connor's entire life. I think that he spoke to his therapist and they've said, 'Listen. You're going to go to school and seize that moment and connect with somebody.' And it fails miserably, which is why the show happens."
Feldman talked about living in an emotional story eight times a week, and specifically how he's able to recover from the emotionally wrought song "Words Fail."
"The easiest way for me to do 'Words Fail' is to be as invested as I possibly can in Evan's story, because if I have to use anything from own life it makes me more emotional, which is the goal, but it makes it harder as a human being. But really the rest of the show provides that recovery and catharsis."
The panel also covered the show's impact on audiences, and how its characters resonate with people. "I've heard from adults who identify with Evan and Zoe and kids who identify with the parents," shared Mindich. "It's so cool to see people see themselves in you," added Carrubba.
Levenson also revealed some minor changes being made to the script for the show's upcoming West End premiere. As British audiences might not be as familiar with Trader Joe's, Pottery Barn, or camp counselors, and references to each are being changed for clarity.
Dear Evan Hansen continues its run at Broadway's Music Box Theatre and is currently embarking on a national tour. The West End production begins performances October 29.