On Monday, Sept. 20, 2010, at 3:04 a.m., budding Broadway songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek sent an email to New York producer Stacey Mindich, describing their excitement over the “fantastic meeting” they had with her and her team.
“We can’t tell you how humbled and blessed we feel,” they wrote, “that smart producers and theater types like yourself are willing to help us develop an idea for a musical without any source material or adapted content, but a story from our lives and from our hearts.”
And with that, “Dear Evan Hansen” was launched on the arduous road to success.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment an idea takes its first incremental step en route to becoming a great musical — in this case, one that would premiere at Washington’s Arena Stage, later land on Broadway and ultimately garner nine Tony Award nominations, trophies for which it will vie Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall.
That electronic message sent seven years ago from Paul’s account in the wee hours of the morning is a useful way to mark the musical’s birth. Because in the theater, the conjoining of writers with a producer solidifies what was before just a beautiful wish.
The wish was to write a truly original show based on a perception Pasek had back in high school, when a student died and his classmates rushed disconcertingly to claim the status — and attention from their peers — of grieving intimates. From that unlikely premise came the story of anxiety-ridden teenager Evan Hansen, who, through a series of misconceptions both in and out of his control, achieves the popular acceptance he’s craved, through the lie that he was best friends with a student who has taken his own life.
Such an unorthodox tale would require a set of particularly sensitive collaborators. So the recruitment in 2012 of a director, Michael Greif, who had worked on Broadway with this kind of delicate material before, on the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal,” would be a pivotal development. As had, of course, been the selection the year before of playwright Steven Levenson (“The Language of Trees”) to write the book of the musical.
“I can’t thank you enough for bringing me on board,” Levenson emailed Mindich in May of 2011. “And I can’t wait to get started.”
Once started, the musical took shape and then took on other shapes. “This is the story of people in pieces,” Levenson wrote in the original 2011 treatment. Pasek and Paul, friends and writing partners since college, composed an initial full act’s worth of songs, for example — all of which would eventually be cut. Conceits that became central to the enterprise cropped up at random moments. Levenson recalls a key plot innovation in 2014: that Evan, a loner who fancies himself an expert on trees, has fallen out of one. “I called Benj and Justin and said, ‘What if he broke his arm?’ and they said, ‘He’s going to wear a cast the entire show?’ I said, ‘ Well, not the entire show.’ ” Anyone who’s seen “Evan Hansen” (or even the poster for it) knows how crucial that lightbulb moment turned out to be.
In the countless interactions of this sort, encompassing everything from choosing the intensity of lighting to illuminate Platt’s solos, to picking the fonts and Pantone colors of the ads, a musical’s impact and identity became ingrained. And as a chronicling of “Evan Hansen’s” ascendancy reveals, the process takes time. What follows are some highlights, beginning with the first private airing of the efforts of Pasek, Paul, Levenson and all their collaborators. It’s a shorthand mapping of “Dear Evan Hansen’s” march to critical and popular acclaim and its position as one of the more remarkable shows in recent musical-theater history.
Pearl Studios, New York
In one of the pivotal decisions of the musical-making process, Ben Platt is invited, along with Rachel Bay Jones (playing Heidi, Evan’s mom), Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson (as Larry and Cynthia, parents of the dead student) to participate in the first reading. All four would make it to the original Broadway cast. Among the songs Platt is given to sing is one called “Waving Back at Me,” later to be called the evening-defining “Waving Through a Window.” “Right away it was clear to me,” Platt recalls, of that first encounter with the role of Evan, “it was a really good match for my voice.”
Chelsea Studios, New York
Will Roland (snarky teenager Jared), Mike Faist (Connor, the student who dies) and Laura Dreyfuss (Zoe, Evan’s love interest) join, replacing actors from the first reading. Their performances would stick. “I remember thinking, how do we keep this family aboard?” says Levenson. Though not everyone felt so confident. Says Dreyfuss: “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s no way they’re going to keep me!’ ”
Set designer David Korins (of “Hamilton” fame) was also invited to one of the first readings, and on a folded copy of the cast list, he sketched ideas for an “Evan Hansen” set that could incorporate the show’s significant references to social media. One of those crude drawings was of vertical panels — “a wind chime of screens,” Korins calls it, suspended on sticks like upside-down Popsicles. They would become the look of the show.
Sept. 2014 — Third reading, Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, New York. More refinement. Among the songs performed: “This Is Me,” for the company, which at this point consists of 12 members, including a sort of adolescent Greek chorus, played by four young actors. It’s also one of the songs that won’t make it into the final production.
March 2015 — Full Workshop, Gibney Dance Center, New York. Before the premiere engagement in Washington, this more elaborate staging, involving two invitation-only performances, will for the first time include lights, costumes and projections. It’s down to the wire with changes to the material, and Paul says he and Pasek were feeling particular pressure, thanks to Levenson: “We weren’t entirely matching the subtlety of Steven’s script,” he says. Significant revisions will occur, not the least of which is the jettisoning of four roles — those of the chorus of teenagers. The creative team was discovering that a streamlining of narrative and music not only clarified the characters but also enriched the story.
July 2015 — World premiere, Arena Stage, Washington. Five years in the making, the preview performances in the Kreeger Theater are the first opportunity the creative team has to gauge audience response. Just before the run, Roland learns that his huge Act 1 number, “Goin’ Viral,” has been cut. He’s crestfallen at first, he says, but adjusts to an enduring truth: In a complex 2½ -hour musical, the focus has to remain on Evan’s story. Faist, meanwhile, remembers that even at this stage, he doesn’t feel completely comfortable as troubled Connor, a difficult but vitally important role.
Greif shows Pasek, Paul and Levenson, the environment that Korins, lighting designer Japhy Weidman and projections designer Peter Nigrini have created. “The first time they walked into the Kreeger and they saw a dimensionality to the physical production, and they were happy,” Greif says. “That’s everything to me.”
Arena theatergoers are enthusiastic, responding emotionally to the tender, melodic score, with ballads and pop songs such as “Only Us,” “For Forever,” “Sincerely, Me,” “Words Fail” and “So Big/So Small.” At a performance for Arena donors, Roland recalls, the audience is so in the show’s thrall that it demands the cast return from the dressing rooms for another bow. The reviews have caveats about some of the storytelling, but the reception to the musical is extremely positive. “Heart-piercingly lovely,” declares The Washington Post. Before the end of the sold-out run, plans are announced for the show’s next big leap: off-Broadway.
April 2016 — Off-Broadway premiere, Second Stage Theatre, New York. Work continues after Arena, with some significant song substitutions that replace both the opening and closing numbers of Act 1. “Does Anybody Have a Map?” sung by the story’s two moms, is developed for Thompson and Jones. Even more consequential: the new Act 1 finale, “You Will Be Found,” which will in short order be adopted via the Internet as an anthem of self-affirmation. In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood calls the production “superb.”
June 2016 — Announcement of the Broadway engagement, beginning November 2016, at Belasco Theatre. Second Stage leads to the theater world’s biggest platform, at the 1,000 seat Belasco, just east of Times Square on West 44th Street. Parks, who left the show when it moved to Second Stage, where he was replaced by John Dossett, returns. The rest of the cast remains, including Kristolyn Lloyd, who joined the company off-Broadway in the role of Alana, a student overachiever. A key Act 2 plot point is beefed up for her character. “The cast,” she says, “was really open to embracing me.”
Sept. 2016 — Announcement that “Dear Evan Hansen” will open instead at the Music Box Theatre. In the theater business, a belief exists that some Broadway houses are, in terms of size, comfort and geography, better than others. When the Music Box, of roughly the same capacity as the Belasco and also operated by the Shubert Organization, becomes available, Mindich makes the change. Situated on West 45th Street, smack dab in the heart of the theater district, the Music Box feels more intimate than the Belasco — more like Arena’s Kreeger.
Dec. 4, 2016 — Official Broadway opening. It’s been almost eight years since Mindich first sat down to lunch at a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with Pasek and Paul and asked them to ponder their dream project. Now, together, they’d taken it to smash-hit status. The reviews would be some of the best of the season, and the whole team could breathe just a little bit easier. “My hope is that it will be a turning point for me, to help with the longevity of my career,” says Thompson.
May 2017 — Tony nominations announced. “Dear Evan Hansen” receives nominations in nine categories, including best musical. Two weeks later, a national tour is announced, to begin in October 2018. The next decade in the life of “Dear Evan Hansen” is not so far off.