Award-winning ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ musical spreads its wings

Associated Press


The stage musical “Dear Evan Hansen” is about a lonely young man desperate to be liked. Mission accomplished, we’d say.

In addition to selling out each night on Broadway, the show is launching a 50-city national tour from Denver with stops in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The first international production is slated for Toronto next year and another will bow in London. A new song collection and a 390-page novel based on the story are coming out this fall. Never has a misfit been this popular.

“Getting this opportunity to spread the story in different mediums and in different ways is really, really thrilling,” says Benj Pasek, who wrote the music with Justin Paul. “It is about just getting the story in front of as many people as possible in hopes that it does make a difference or it starts a conversation.”

“Dear Evan Hansen” is a heartbreaker of a musical that centers on an awkward teenager raised by a single mom who inadvertently becomes a social media sensation, with disastrous consequences. It captures the strains between children and their parents, as well as exploring suicide, alienation and peer pressure.

“The central paradox is why do people feel so alone in a world that’s so connected?” says playwright Steven Levenson, who won a Tony for writing the story. “It’s a story that is very much about the world we live in today. But it’s also, hopefully, at its heart, it’s also a pretty simple story of these parents and children who are struggling to find one another.”

The show won six Tony Awards, and the cast album entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 8 — the highest-charting debut position for an original cast album since 1961 — and went on to win the 2018 Grammy Award for best musical theater album. (One remixed song from the album hit No. 1 on the Dance Club Songs chart.) The original cast also won a Daytime Emmy Award.

The show’s creators hope its message of acceptance, honesty and love can resonate far from its 984-seat Broadway home , where the average ticket price is $179. That’s why the various tours with cheaper tickets and the $11.99 novel come in.

“It’s a great new way to experience the story, and it doesn’t replace the other way to experience the story,” said Paul. “It’s sort of they all are part of the ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ world, which is great.”

Another way the show is spreading its message far and wide is a deluxe cast album in October, which will offer songs cut from the show, new recordings of existing songs by the show’s current and touring cast members, cover versions and original demos.

It’s part of a mini-industry fed by fans who have embraced it like “Hamilton.” Pasek and Paul said many of the show’s complex themes might seem like unlikely fodder for a big Broadway show. But they credited musicals such as “Next to Normal,” “Fun Home” and “Rent” with paving the way.

“Those were shows that we looked to a lot and leaned on a lot in the moments where we were like, ‘What are we writing about? This shouldn’t be a musical.’ So that was a comfort,” Paul said.

Michael Greif, the Tony-nominated director of “Next to Normal” and “Rent,” also helmed “Dear Evan Hansen” and argues that audiences are thirsty for complex, flawed characters.

“They want to be able to see their story and the world they live in being reflected in surprising and authentic ways. And I think that this piece really, really, really does that,” he said. “The characters are written with such specificity and such complexity that everyone gets to see themselves and all the mistakes they’ve made.”

Pasek and Paul haven’t slowed down much since writing the songs for “Dear Evan Hansen.” They won an Oscar for “La La Land” and a Golden Globe for the song “This Is Me” from the film “The Greatest Showman.” They recently came agonizingly close to achieving EGOT status, but lost their Emmy bid for writing a new song for the live TV version of their “A Christmas Story.”

These days they’re hard at work on an upcoming live-action film adaptation of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and writing new songs for Disney’s 2019 live-action film adaptation of “Aladdin.”

The pair have ridden — and helped shape — the recent wave of interest in musical theater, fed by shows like “Glee,” “High School Musical” and “Hamilton.” They’re not surprised to find that young people taking to the streets these days to discuss everything from gun violence to #MeToo have a theater background.

“I think theater demands empathy,” Pasek said. “I think so many of the kids who run away to the circus of theater and who have felt like they aren’t cool or they’ve been marginalized or whatever, they find this community of the other broken toys and then there’s this real sense of wanting to stand up for the other underdogs that exist in the world, the other misfits, the other weirdos.”