In this age of instant communication, he can’t manage to say anything.
The title high-schooler in “Dear Evan Hansen” is an endearing misfit so afraid of social interaction that he can’t face a pizza delivery person at the door, let alone muster the courage to speak to his secret crush. A wounded bird with one hand in a cast, he looks incredibly vulnerable. Soon, though, a series of well-meaning lies will propel him from awkward nobody to social-media celebrity.
Amusing, alarming and packed with feeling, this new Broadway musical is propelled by the songs of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The show, which opens Dec. 4 at New York’s Music Box Theatre after enthusiastically received runs in Washington, D.C., and off-Broadway, is shaping up to be the 31-year-olds’ breakthrough. On Dec. 9 they’ll get another boost as audiences begin to hear their lyrics for Damien Chazelle’s much-buzzed-about movie musical “La La Land.”
The script for “Evan Hansen” is by another young gun: Steven Levenson, a 32-year-old, L.A.-based writer-producer for the Showtime series “Masters of Sex.” The director is Michael Greif, 57, the wizard of new musicals whose résumé includes “Rent” and “If/Then.” And in a star-making performance, Evan is portrayed by Ben Platt, a 23-year-old L.A. native who played geeky replacement singer Benji in the “Pitch Perfect” movies.
With key plot points driven by the Internet, “Dear Evan Hansen” is above all a story about connection. Evan, like all of us, craves the old-fashioned kind: “needing to be known,” as Pasek puts it, “needing to be seen, needing to be heard, needing to be found — wanting to be loved and accepted for who we really are.”
But Evan confuses connectivity with actual connection. Often left alone while his single mom is off working, he tends to disappear into his laptop — a perilous place for a still-forming ego.
“Like Evan,” Paul says, “you can look at a Facebook feed or social media and watch the marvelous lives of everyone else and think, ‘I’m not a part of any of that,’ ‘I don’t have a life like that,’ and feel lonelier than ever.”
Evan’s anxieties get cranked still higher when he and a pair of overzealous schoolmates magnify a fabricated story by pushing it onto the Web. The result is a social-media chain reaction. Video projections of social-media feeds, which wash across Evan’s world throughout the show, swell to a torrent that threatens to swallow him whole.
The lie makes him a hero to a grieving family and to a growing array of Internet admirers, and he slips into an alternate life — all of which he hides from his mother. She is the last to know, a powerful Internet-age twist on that universal paradox of parenting.
“We were really interested in the exhibitionism of the Internet,” says Levenson, who wrote the script from an idea by Pasek and Paul. “We are so comfortable sharing the most intimate parts of ourselves with total strangers, and then among the people we’re ostensibly the closest to, we don’t share anything.”
“There are tremendous, tremendous emotional stakes,” says Greif, “which give all of the characters something to sing about.” And when they do, these characters, so inarticulate in life, find all the words they need in song.
The titles alone speak volumes: “Anybody Have a Map?” “Waving Through a Window.” “You Will Be Found.”
Pasek and Paul write with “such delicious humor, such specific, vivid imagery,” says Rachel Bay Jones, who plays Evan’s mom. Their “soaring pop melodies,” she adds, “really grab the truth of the lyric, really grab at your heart.”
“They’re pretty much as good as it gets,” says Platt, who seems awestruck to be in one of their shows. He’s been a fan since he and some friends sang a piece from the songwriters’ first collaboration, “Edges,” for a senior recital at Harvard-Westlake.
Pasek and Paul clicked right away when they met at freshman orientation at the University of Michigan, where each expected to become an actor-singer-dancer. Ballet class, which was part of their performance curriculum, sealed the friendship. “Benj and I were the two worst dancers by far,” Paul recalls, “and we had to sort of stick together and be there for each other as we embarrassed ourselves on a daily basis.”
They began writing music late one night in a practice room. Pasek had carried along some rudimentary songs — lyrics and basic chords — from high school days; he asked Paul, a skilled pianist, to help flesh them out. Ideas were soon flowing between them.
They were just sophomores when they began to establish their reputation with “Edges,” a cycle of songs brimming with the all-or-nothing emotions of being young. A performance at the university was well received, so Pasek and Paul decided to spread the word. YouTube was young; Facebook was still a college connecting tool. Pasek and Paul used these to reach students with similar interests, and productions were soon turning up on other campuses.
Unlike many songwriting pairs, the New York-based Pasek and Paul don’t separate their contributions, preferring to be linked under a joint “lyrics and music by” credit. “Justin is at the piano,” Pasek says, “and I am at my MacBook Pro. But we try to approach a song as a unit. You can’t really divorce the lyric from the music when it comes out of a character’s mouth, so we try to work as in-tandem with each other as possible.”
It’s “a fraternal kind of relationship,” Pasek says. “We feel very comfortable fighting with each other — we don’t hold anything back — and a mutual respect.”
They had a big year in 2012. That summer, they were off-Broadway with “Dogfight,” which they wrote with their friend Peter Duchan. Like “Evan Hansen,” it is unafraid to wrestle with conflicted motivations and questionable actions: It focuses on a young Marine who woos a soulful young woman as part of a cruel bet. The show won the Lucille Lortel Award for musical. They also provided the music to “A Christmas Story,” which played a holiday engagement on Broadway and earned them a Tony nomination.
Both of those projects were based on movies, the former on a limited-release 1991 film that starred River Phoenix, the latter on the popular 1983 boyhood Christmas movie. But “Dear Evan Hansen” is that rare commodity: an entirely original musical. Its inspiration came from Pasek’s high school years, when a sad event prompted extravagant displays of sympathy from unexpected sources.
Critical and audience response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Dear Evan Hansen” played to near-capacity audiences last year at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where it won the Helen Hayes Award for musical, and this spring at New York’s Second Stage, where it won the Obie musical theater citation and the Outer Critics Circle Award for new off-Broadway musical.
At the movies, Pasek and Paul have already unleashed one ear worm on the public this year: the “Trolls” song “Get Back Up Again,” sung by Anna Kendrick.
On Friday, they hit the big screen with their savvy, swooning lyrics to Justin Hurwitz’s songs for “La La Land,” writer-director Chazelle’s newfangled yet delightfully old-fashioned musical about romance and ambition in glittering, heartbreaking Los Angeles.
Pasek and Paul were eager to work with Chazelle and Hurwitz, another pair of 31-year-olds, who had teamed for the hard-charging musician’s tale “Whiplash” and the music-driven romance “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.”
Pursuing the job played out like something that the showbiz dreamers of “La La Land” themselves might experience: After a phone-conversation audition, Pasek and Paul heard seven of the most dreaded words in Hollywood: “They liked you, they didn’t love you.”
“Then,” Paul recalls, “we got some crazy advice: Go to L.A.; just show up and say, ‘Hey, we happen to be in L.A.; let’s meet.’
“So we took them out for pizza and we all just sat and talked about musicals that had inspired us and some of those shared loves and passions. Then the next day we presented them with a version of a song that we might write lyrics for, which became ‘City of Stars’ ” — now one of the movie’s principal songs.
Now, Pasek and Paul are at work on “The Greatest Showman,” a movie musical about P.T. Barnum that will star Hugh Jackman.
“We want to continue to challenge ourselves to write different kinds of shows, about different subjects and in different styles,” Paul says. Pasek adds: “We really are living our dream right now.”
And key to that is coaxing “Dear Evan Hansen” out into the world.
Evan’s lies are a way of writing a happier story for himself and for a wayward schoolmate. But ultimately, he must learn “how to make real connections in a world where it’s very easy to make superficial ones all the time, every day, everywhere you look,” Platt says. “Nothing superficial or online or that’s lied about can ever really validate you the way that a real human connection can.”