Interview with Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
In what has been a packed year for new musical theatre on Broadway one show has certainly stood out. Dear Evan Hansen the 9-time Tony Award-nominated musical has been playing to packed houses at Broadway's Music Box Theatre since November 2016 where it landed on Broadway following an Off-Broadway run and a premiere in Washington D.C. A rare example of a truly original musical it features a book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul.
Dear Evan Hansen is described as being "about someone you know, maybe even someone you are, but more than anything, it's about discovering the person we all long to be - ourselves."
With a powerful original story about a boy who has felt invisible his whole life until a big secret changes his entire status from an outsider into somebody everyone wants to know, it features a powerful rock score by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. As writers the pair were nominated for their first Tony Award in 2013 for the score to the Broadway musical A Christmas Story and recently won both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song for "City of Stars" for their work on the smash-hit film 'La La Land', with their song "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" also earning them a second Oscar nomination.
Speaking to Broadway's hottest writing partnership at The 32nd Annual Lucille Lortel Awards they were able to tell us a little bit more about the writing process behind Dear Evan Hansen and its journey to becoming one of the most talked about new shows of the season.
"Well, this is the show that we started working on when we were in college together, so it was a long time ago" Benj laughs, speaking before the ceremony. "Yes, it was unfortunately a long time ago" Justin replies. "It’s been many, many years since college. It feels long in a good way because we got time to work on the show every step of the way. That’s a real gift as writers."
"We’re thrilled that we get to be a part of this community" Benj comments. "Facebook just reminded us that four years ago we were here [at the Lucille Lortel Awards] for Dogfight – our show that was also at Second Stage. Off-Broadway and the theatre community has always been incredibly kind to us and we feel really lucky to be here."
Dogfight was the first show the duo had run in London in a new production at the Southwark Playhouse back in 2014. Following the buzz and success of Dear Evan Hansen, it's surely only a matter of time before the musical finds its way to the West End. Part of the reason the show stands out from the crowd is the fact that it's not based on a film, a novel or a pre-existing story.
"It’s loosely based on some real experiences of mine in high school" explains Ben, "but obviously when Justin and I started to talk about some of the themes we wanted to explore from that event and when we were paired with the phenomenally talented playwright Steven Levenson, who we feel so fortunate to have written the show with, we began to find an actual plot to go along with those themes. Just like Evan Hansen, it sort of deviates from actual truth in service of – hopefully – a good story."
The cast of Dear Evan Hansen includes the phenomenal Ben Platt in the lead role, alongside Rachel Bay Jones and Mike Faist who have all been nominated for Tony Awards for their performances. The show was been affecting audiences in their hundreds and both Pasek and Paul explain how important it is to hear that immediate feedback by those who feel touched by Evan Hansen's journey.
"Well, whether it’s at the theatre or in emails or letters, we do hear from people who are touched and feel that the show is resonating with them" Justin comments. "They feel like they are represented on stage. That’s a really special thing. I think there’s no greater gift to receive as a writer than to know that something you have written has resonated with someone who maybe feels like your friend and maybe feels like they haven’t been represented before. Now there is someone like them on stage. We owe that as much to the cast because they are so authentic and so real in their portrayals of these characters. I think everyone can relate to them because they are so true to life."
In terms of future projects the pair neither dismiss or confirm the rumours of an upcoming stage adaptation of 'La La Land'.
"It is very much a “could” as far as we know, we’ll probably be the last to find out" laughs Justin. "We had a great collaboration with the composer Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle" explains Benj, "so if they came knocking, we would definitely answer the door..."
[This interview initially ran on NewYorkTheatreGuide.com on 12 May 2017]