Before Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s new musical Dear Evan Hansen was a certified Off-Broadway hit, selling out its Second Stage run and then extending to sold-out crowds, it was the idea the duo was afraid of. “Our producer, Stacey Mindich, approached us and asked us what we wanted to do and what was the thing in our heads that we didn’t have the courage to write without somebody kind of helping us and coaxing us and pushing us forward,” said Pasek. “I don’t think we would have been brave enough to write an original show had she not [pushed us].”
It seems a rarity that any musical emerge free from source material—no previous version as a play or film or even a book. The story (with a book by collaborator Steven Levenson) follows Evan Hansen, a high school senior paralyzed by anxiety whose world opens up after his classmate dies and the school flails to grasp on to something and someone.
“The idea came from experiences we had had when we were in high school and some things that are true to life, and we really were going from how we felt emotionally about these events that were true,” says Pasek. “And then watching how people respond in those types of situations,” continues Paul, “on a small scale like that, but on a larger scale with 9/11 or celebrity death. Looking at how we have this need right now—and I see it magnified in social media—to connect amid a tragic moment, and there’s a cynical side of that, but there’s also a really real side. People feel this need, and [we asked] why do we feel this need, and how far are we willing to go to sustain that?”
With projections of emails, Facebook profiles, Spotify playlists, text messages and more by designer Peter Nigrini, Evan Hansen absolutely immerses the audiences in this global social world, but felt intimate with its small cast in the Off-Broadway venue. Will Broadway mean bigger?
“I think we’re going to just figure out how to make the space work for what the show is,” says Pasek. The show, which won the Obie, Outer Critics Circle and Helen Hayes Awards for Best Musical plus a Drama Desk for Outstanding Lyrics, will bow December 4 at the Belasco Theatre. “I think, conceptually, it’s going to remain similar in size and scale.”
Still, audiences can expect changes. “We want to take it to the next step and the next level, but also be smart and judicious, knowing that there are things that are working and performances that are working that are beautiful that we don’t want to touch,” says Paul. Namely—at least for starters—their leading man, Ben Platt.
Platt burst onto the movie scene as the lovable Benji Applebaum in Pitch Perfect, but Evan certainly marks his breakout stage role, proving his unbelievable vocal power and emotional vulnerability. Lauded by critics, he will reprise his Obie-winning performance alongside Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mike Faist, Michael Park, Will Roland and Kristolyn Lloyd, all of whom (with the exception of Park) come off the Second Stage run. (Park originated the role at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage.)
Pasek and Paul have already proven they’re not afraid to make changes. “[This show] was a lot of trial and error,” says Paul. “We definitely have a score full of songs that are not part of the show because if you change one little thing, especially in an original show, it has a ripple effect. We didn’t have to go back to a source material, which is very scary, but also freeing in a way.”
As Evan Hansen continues to mature, we know its identity comes back to one question: “When we’re offered an opportunity to be a part of a community, how far will we go to take that?”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.