In his dressing room at “Dear Evan Hansen,” Ben Platt has kept an anonymous letter from a fan: “You stopped me from letting go.” That letter kept him going when “I don’t want to cry, and sing, and scream” in the title role of Evan Hansen in the Tony-winning Broadway musical.
Platt is leaving the musical today, two days before the official publication of “Dear Evan Hansen through the window” (Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 224 pages) the latest coffee table book that offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Broadway musical and also contains the entire libretto of the show, annotated.
Today is my last @DearEvanHansen performance, ending a 3.5 year journey with a remarkable family of artists. I am proud of all I gave & grateful for all I received.
I love you, Evan. You changed every part of my life. I’ll carry you with me for the rest of my days.
— Ben Platt (@BenSPLATT) November 19, 2017
The new book is similar to last year’s Hamilton The Revolution and The Great Comet of 1812: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway Like the others, the Evan Hansen book is geared for fans such as that anonymous letter-writer, the most fanatical of whom call themselves “Fansens,” It is an elaborate souvenir book with lots of photographs, individual profiles of each member of the cast and creative team and a tinge of self-congratulations. (It is also printed on paper dyed blue or black, which is dramatic and keeping with the the musical’s color scheme, but makes the words less easy to read.) But the book also offers intriguing details of the years-long process of putting together a musical from scratch, without even, say, American history or a famous novel to guide its creators.
The songwriting team of lyricist Benj Pasek and composer Justin Paul, who had met as freshmen in college, first thought of the idea that became “Dear Evan Hansen” in discussing an incident that occurred during Pasek’s high school years. A classmate committed suicide, and fellow students reacted as if they knew him better than they had. Pasek saw in this a glimpse into the culture at large; he was struck by how private grief in response to tragedies (whether suicide or a terrorist attack) had morphed into “emotional exhibitionism,” amplified by social media. Initially, Pasek and Paul saw this as ripe for a satirical and cynical approach.
Steven Levenson, the playwright they hired to write the book, helped convince them to lose the mocking tone
“We were judging our characters rather than investing in them,” Pasek says. The characters’ motives, the creative team began to see, are not nefarious – they act out of feelings of isolation and loneliness.
At the same time, the creative team wanted to make sure it didn’t swing too far in the opposite direction, which explains Jared, the part played by Will Roland. “Jared’s function in the show is often to puncture deep emotional moments before we run the risk of tipping into sentimentality,” Steven Levenson writes in one of the annotations. (He writes far more of the annotations than either Pasek or Paul, underscoring just how central his contribution to the musical.)
And so the three slowly hammered out the story: Evan Hansen, an anxious high school kid, writes a letter to himself as an assignment from his therapist. Troubled classmate Connor Murphy, whom Evan barely knows, takes the letter from him – and it’s found in Connor’s pocket after he commits suicide. Connor’s parent find the letter, make assumptions, and Evan lies, telling them he was Connor’s best friend. This has unintended consequences, including a growing and incontrollable life of its own on social media.
The creative team and producer Stacey Mindich speculate that the success of the musical was in part because it plugged into what they call a post-ironic moment on Broadway, with audiences wanting “full-throated sincerity” and “psychological realism” – their proof of this the commercial and critical success of the last three shows to win the Tony Award for best musical – Fun Home in 2015, Hamilton in 2016 and Dear Evan Hansen in 2017.
The clearest lessons of the book are how much the musical changed over the years and how many people contributed to the changes. There were major additions and subtractions occurring after the debut at Arena in D.C. after its Off-Broadway debut, right up to the Broadway run, but they creative team seemed to agonize over the slightest details. There were “endless debates,” for example, over whether Evan’s mother Heidi would have an account on Facebook
Michael Greif, who had directed both Rent and Next to Normal, was actively involved in shaping the musical from the moment he was brought abroad.Levenson says that Will Roland’s off-kilter sense of humor helped shape the character of Jared that he portrays. Indeed, the actors contributed greatly, in ways you wouldn’t expect. After three readings, the musical had its first full workshop in March 2015. The audience seemed to like it, but Pasek and Paul and Levenson — seeing it staged for the first time — so hated it that they wanted to pull the plug. But, as Paul recalls in the book, they said to each other: “We can’t do that to Ben Platt.”
“Dear Evan Hansen: Through The Window” ends with an account of Tony night, with its blue-themed after party, and the six Tony Awards that the musical won, and the memorable acceptance speech by Ben Platt, which was as good a summary of the meaning of “Dear Evan Hansen,” and explanation of its appeal, as anything in the musical itself:
“To all the young people watching at home: Don’t waste any time trying to be like anybody else but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”