by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
The need to fit in and be liked is a powerful feeling, and one we've all experienced. Whether as a high school student or as an adult, no one wants to feel alone. In their new musical, Dear Evan Hansen, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul look at how far we'll go to fulfill our need for connection. In our social media world where "friend" is a verb and we only share the highlights of our life, what happens when we reveal our true thoughts and feelings?
What was the inspiration behind Dear Evan Hansen? How did this project come about?
BP: Dear Evan Hansen is rooted in an idea that we had in college, inspired by real events that happened in my high school. When disaster struck my school, I found that everyone wanted to be a part of this tragedy, in whatever way they could.
JP: We were interested in how our generation responds to grief. We’re as interconnected as we’ve ever been, but we’re also as lonely as we’ve ever been. There’s a need for public community—especially online—and that need often drives people to prove or even invent connections to one another, particularly as they come together in the wake of tragedy. We wondered why this might be the case? And we were interested in taking a protagonist with a deep and very real need for connection, placing him into a situation like this, and just seeing what might unfold.
BP: We were presented with the opportunity to write that thing in our heads that no one had ever given us the chance to write before. So many of the shows we admire have started as questions the authors have had about themselves and humanity, things they wanted to understand. We thought it would be really exciting and challenging to tackle this question.
How would you describe your collaborative process?
SL: In my experience, I’ve found that writing a musical is actually very similar to writing for television in that both are inherently collaborative forms. The elusive triple threat librettist-composer-lyricist provides the exception to the rule, as does the even more rare television writer who somehow has the combination of stamina and masochism required to write an entire season of TV—on average, comprising ten to twenty-two individual episodes— without the collaboration of other writers.
BP: Justin and I have been working together since college, almost 11 years now. We came to Steven Levenson—a playwright we love and admire—with the seed of an idea, and he was completely instrumental in helping us craft our idea into an actual story with a beginning, middle and end.
We spent a year or so before we wrote songs just hashing out the story we wanted to tell, searching until we found the most compelling narrative. From there we began to identify song moments.
How does writing an original musical differ from adapting an existing piece (like A Christmas Story)? And Steven, how does your process differ when you’re writing the book for a musical, compared to a play?
JP: In an adaptation, you know where the ‘tent pole’ moments are, those moments that are absolutely crucial to the structure of the piece, because they’re tried and proven in the source material. In a wholly original musical, those moments constantly change. One alteration to something in act two can reverberate and change what the opening of the musical has to be. The ground is always shifting.
BP: We’ve had many experiences in creating this show in which small changes had huge effects. It’s a long, challenging, but ultimately rewarding process.
SL: The biggest difference, and the greatest challenge, in writing a musical is reckoning with the incontrovertible fact that, at a certain point in the evening, the actors onstage are going to stop doing whatever it is that they are doing and start to sing. The difficulty, as the book writer of an original musical, comes in crafting a story that has the urgency and the emotional immediacy to not only allow this to happen, but to make it feel utterly inevitable when it does.
Who are your musical influences?
JP: Our goal in writing this score was to write something that felt like a theatre score—that felt theatrical and told stories with songs and moved plot forward—but at the same time felt musically authentic to now and to the musical artists we listen to. We are drawing on influences from a lot of contemporary singer-songwriters. I particularly admire and respond to the work of Gabe Dixon, Ingrid Michaelson, and Madi Diaz, for starters.
BP: Rent was really the show that got me into musical theater. It allowed me to see that a musical could be challenging, nontraditional, and address aspects of life that were difficult to look at but worthy of illumination. So getting the chance to work with Michael Grief has been more than a little thrilling.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
BP: Birthday cake.
JP: Häagen-Dazs and mid-2000s TV with my wife.
SL: I happen to enjoy both birthday cake and mid-2000s TV, preferably in tandem.
If you could give advice to the high school you, what would that advice be?
BP: A lot of who Evan Hansen is reflects how many of us perceived ourselves as high schoolers. As cliché as it sounds, finding your most authentic self is a really hard process, but one that is incredibly freeing and wholly worth it.