“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical unabashedly of its time. The show, whose national tour arrives at the Citizens Bank Opera House Wednesday, centers on a high school misfit riddled with debilitating anxiety who perpetuates a lie that spirals out of control, spawns a social media-fueled sensation, and transforms the character from an outcast into a gone-viral insider. So, given the subject, it’s no surprise that the musical has a vociferous fan following among young audiences.
But as its songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book writer Steven Levenson developed “Evan Hansen” over many years, they didn’t want it to fall into the familiar trappings of what they jokingly call “a backpack musical” set in a high school, with tropes about jocks, bullies, popular girls, and social rejects. Instead, the show evolved from a coming-of-age story about a boy into a narrative that’s bigger and speaks more broadly to the world we live in now.
“Initially, it was about how a parent didn’t understand the secret life of a teenager, because the kid spent so much time on the Internet. Now it’s become a show about what we as humans hide from the people that we love or the people that we feel disconnected from,” Pasek says. “Everyone has bits of themselves that they’re hiding, wounds that they’re trying to cover up, lies they project and parts of themselves that they protect. So it became a much bigger human story about relationships — a boy who needs a family, a family who needs a boy, a mother who can’t relate to her son.”
Hunkered down in the Blue Room backstage at the Music Box Theatre (the Broadway home of “Dear Evan Hansen”), Pasek, Paul, and Levenson discuss their Tony Award-winning show (it won for best musical in 2017), the roots of their collaboration, as well as their now-flourishing careers. In the same season that “Evan Hansen” stormed Broadway, Pasek and Paul also won an Oscar for best original song as lyricists for “City of Stars” from the movie-musical fantasia “La La Land” (Justin Hurwitz composed the music). In 2018, they nabbed another Oscar nomination for the pop earworm “This Is Me” from the P.T. Barnum musical biopic “The Greatest Showman.”
Meanwhile, Levenson, 35, has his own hit on his hands with this year’s Emmy-contending FX series “Fosse/Verdon,” about the tumultuous, decades-long creative and romantic partnership between director-choreographer Bob Fosse and actress Gwen Verdon.
“It definitely feels like a whirlwind,” says Paul, 34, of the past few years. “It’s just an exciting time to be writing musicals, whether it’s onscreen or onstage. Broadway producers are feeling more bold and adventurous in taking risks on original content and out-of-the-box ideas.”
“I know we were lucky enough to come after the last 10 years of Broadway musicals that really changed the game — ‘Next to Normal,’ ‘Spring Awakening,’ ‘Fun Home,’ ‘Hamilton,’ ” says Levenson.
Indeed, “Evan Hansen,” too, could be considered a game-changer that took its own considerable risks. The show features an unusual protagonist (Ben Platt originated the role on Broadway and won a Tony) who perpetuates a web of deception. “Evan wants to be seen, but he also simultaneously fears that if he’s seen, no one will like the person they see,” Pasek, 34, says. “So he invents this better version of himself through this relationship with this kid.”
In the show, that kid, another alienated teenager named Connor Murphy, commits suicide, and through several misunderstandings, his heartbroken family comes to believe that Evan had a secret friendship with their son. Evan allows the lie to mushroom, because their phony relationship becomes a source of much-needed consolation to Connor’s family. But it also raises Evan’s social status, connects him with Connor’s sister Zoe , his longtime crush, and gives him a kind of surrogate family. At the same time, his relationship with his own harried and overwhelmed mother, Heidi, continues to fray, and she feels increasingly distraught and confused by their growing distance.
Each of the characters is grappling with self-doubt, pain, and trauma that they keep hidden under often-sunny facades. That gulf between the images people project to the world and the truth of their inner lives and vulnerabilities lies at the beating heart of the show. “Every single person who posts photos on Facebook, they’re wanting to communicate a certain image of how their life looks to the world,” Pasek says. “But there may be a really different reality underneath.”
A kernel for the story took root from an experience Pasek had in high school. A classmate, a social outcast, had committed suicide, and after his death some students implied they were closer to him than they actually were. Pasek even recalls his own desire to invent an intimacy with the student that never existed. “I was fascinated by why everyone did that,” he says.
Pasek and Paul’s own connection dates to their first day as freshmen at the University of Michigan. As fellow musical theater majors and aspiring performers, they immediately hit it off and bonded over their status as the two worst dancers in their ballet class and being relegated to minor roles like “man with camera” and “county coroner” in the school’s musical productions. So they began writing songs, seeing it as the best path into theater. “It was a whole new thing that we could explore that could be ours. And then we wrote our own show,” Paul says.
That show, a heart-on-the-sleeve song cycle called “Edges,” about young adults grappling with romantic turmoil, was performed with fellow classmates in a hall the pair had rented in Ann Arbor — before they’d even learned to write a true musical score. “The idea was if we reserved a space, and we invited our entire department to come see it, then we’d have to actually write a show,” Pasek says.
“We were scared,” Paul adds. “But it was a cool, organic way to start, and things took off from there.”
Songs from “Edges” wound up being shared online, and an early version went viral. Then students from the Boston Conservatory reached out through Facebook to ask if they could perform “Edges” in their school’s musical theater program. More college and theater groups followed, and Pasek and Paul were suddenly off and running. “You could connect with people over a love of musical theater or the love of a song in a way that was impossible before [social media],” Paul says.
Levenson praises Pasek and Paul’s songs as “always having a heart and an emotional gravity that is really hard to pull off without becoming treacly or twee,” he says. “We all felt we wanted to tell a story that was moving and emotional and true and not flip or cynical.”
Indeed, nailing the show’s tone was key, which meant not leaning too heavily into sarcastic, biting, or meta humor. “If the attempt is to get at truth, it’s not right to then condemn characters or make fun of them or be snarky about their behavior,” Pasek says. “The harder part is to look at why a person feels so broken or why a person feels in such a desperate need of connection. So instead of shaming a character or a person for feeling or acting that way, we wanted to try to understand it, because that desire to be seen and heard lives inside all of us.”
Dear Evan Hansen
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, July 10-Aug. 4. Tickets from $49.50, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com