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The Untold Truth Of Dear Evan Hansen

Dozens of musicals populate Broadway in New York at any given time, and even more are launched and performed in other theater strongholds around the world like England's West End. But musicals that really find a way to tap into the pop culture zeitgeist and become phenomena are rare. One of the few modern examples of a musical reaching that level is "Dear Evan Hansen," a 2016 show that first took Broadway by storm before becoming a worldwide success. The story of a high schooler whose world is shaken up by a classmate committing suicide is an unusual one, but it's that distinctiveness, as well as catchy tunes (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) and a willingness to talk about hot-button issues like mental health, that propelled it to a level of fame that's scarce for the vast majority of stage musicals.

With "Dear Evan Hansen" furthering its reach through a theatrical film adaptation, there's never been a better time to dig into the show's untold truth. While everyone may know the lyrics to songs like "Waving Through A Window," not everybody knows about certain details, like what inspired the show in the first place as well as what it was like shooting the movie version of "Evan Hansen" during a global pandemic. The untold truth of "Dear Evan Hansen" is, like the musical itself, thoroughly unique, but also totally unforgettable.

The inspiration for Dear Evan Hansen

Though "Dear Evan Hansen" has now become an indelible part of the modern musical theater scene, there was, of course, a time when this show didn't even exist. The inspiration that brought this musical to life came primarily from a real person's experiences informing a storyline that would prove universally appealing.

"A student in [Benj Pasek's] class died tragically of a drug overdose," book writer Steven Levenson said at the 2019 New York Comic-Con, per Playbill. "It was someone who had been sort of a loner, didn't have a lot of friends or status at school, but suddenly in the wake of the death, Benj watched as everyone wanted to claim that they had been friends with him and claim that they had been a part of this person's life." Modern-day social media also played a role in the creation of "Dear Evan Hansen," with Levenson adding, "We all [noticed] a really fascinating, bizarre phenomenon of public grieving [on social media] ... Whenever a celebrity would die or something really tragic would happen, there was this outpouring online of people kind of making it about themselves." These combined influences helped spark the idea that would soon become one of the more popular musicals of the modern era.

The original plot for Dear Evan Hansen was different

As part of the creative development of bringing "Dear Evan Hansen" to the stage, various elements from earlier versions of the show had to be jettisoned. This included everything from certain songs to different characters. This even included an entirely different plot, which would have taken "Dear Evan Hansen" into a wholly new direction.

Songwriter Justin Paul detailed to ABC News how the initial version of "Dear Evan Hansen" was originally much more blistering in how it approached the concept of people exploiting a tragedy for personal gain. "It was a cynical look at that, and when ... we started to write, it became clear to us that it wasn't an interesting musical," Paul explained. "There wasn't any heart to that. So we really tried to look at it from a different view, which was: What experience does someone have that they're in such a place that when given any opportunity to fib a little bit (they'll) say that they had a connection to someone that they didn't have a connection to." Revamping the plot and embracing a more empathetic tone ensured that "Dear Evan Hansen" had the goods to become a real crowdpleaser.

When Ben Platt got involved with the show

Thanks to both his Tony-winning performance in the original Broadway musical as well as reprising the role in the film adaptation, it's now impossible to imagine the original iteration of "Dear Evan Hansen" without lead actor Ben Platt. However, there was a time when "Evan Hansen" was still gestating and there were no actors set to headline the musical. Early on in the show's production, though, Platt became involved and the musical would never be the same.

According to The Washington Post, Platt first got involved with "Dear Evan Hansen" in May 2014. He was invited along with three other actors (all of whom would join the original Broadway cast) to participate in a reading of the script. Part of this reading included Platt belting out a very early version of the famous tune "Waving Through a Window." 

"Right away it was clear to me," Platt said about his first time playing Hansen, "It was a really good match for my voice." That "good match" was also apparent from the start to the show's creative team. "We went into that first workshop thinking, we'll see what we think of Ben, and we'll see if this role is written right," recounted songwriter Benj Pasek on the casting process to The New York Times. "Then, honestly, within five minutes into that first reading, Michael [Greif] turned to us and said, 'OK, we know what we have here.'"

Dear Evan Hansen's brief detour off-Broadway

While it would become a sensation during its run on Broadway, "Dear Evan Hansen" did not start out on the Great White Way. Like so many famous Broadway musicals, its earliest performances were actually held at other locations. In this case, per The Washington Post, the first public performances of "Dear Evan Hansen" took place at the Kreeger Theater in Washington D.C. Though elements would be tweaked between then and its Broadway debut, the initial audience responses to "Dear Evan Hansen" were very positive.

Even after that debut, though, "Dear Evan Hansen" still had to work its way up to the world of Broadway. In April 2016, the show set up shop Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theater in New York. Here, "Dear Evan Hansen" continued to tweak and adjust its story and musical numbers to make things perfect for what would end up being a fall 2016 premiere on Broadway. While that is where "Dear Evan Hansen" became famous, its time in Washington and Off-Broadway is where the show truly formed into the one the public knows today.

Dear Evan Hansen is now part of the Smithsonian

The cultural legacy of "Dear Evan Hansen" has been made apparent in many ways, and that even includes the musical being memorialized in one of the biggest museums on the planet. Starting in 2018, "Dear Evan Hansen" found a place in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. Per the Smithsonian Magazine, props from the show would become a part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

"['Dear Evan Hansen'] has this freshness to it that helps people to connect to these issues of social media and the internet, of depression and anxiety, and how you present yourself in a world that's increasingly digital. All of that is wrapped up in this," said Ryan Lintleman, curator of the entertainment collection of Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Considering how quickly "Hansen" was added to the Smithsonian after its Broadway premiere, it would be easy to ask if it was too soon for such an honor. But Lintleman was convinced that "Hansen" would continue to be relevant for years to come. "That's one of the trickiest things you do as a curator," Lintleman said. "Trying to look forward when, usually, you look back as a historian."

The controversial Dear Evan Hansen discourse

No project escapes without criticism and that goes doubly true for "Dear Evan Hansen." While the show received largely positive marks and even six prestigious Tony Award wins, including one for Best Musical, it's also received its fair share of critiques. Many of these more negative responses have taken umbrage with the behavior of the show's titular protagonist and how the show doesn't emphasize how truly dangerous his actions are.

One of the more notable pieces covering this perspective came from Slate writer Jason Zinoman in his piece, "Dear Evan Hansen, You Are A Creep." While Zinoman notes the show has its emotionally powerful moments, he also remarks that the behavior of Hansen undercuts the better qualities of the whole production. "The American musical does have a long tradition of likable con artists," Zinoman observes. "But 'The Music Man' and 'The Book of Mormon' did more to examine the ramifications of the deceptions, even suggesting that sometimes being lied to can be good for you. 'Dear Evan Hansen' is less interested in this provocative point than in the anguish of adolescence." Zinoman has proved far from alone in this opinion, leading the "Dear Evan Hansen" discourse to become far more complicated and interesting.

Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel

When a stage musical gets popular, it doesn't stay as just a stage musical for long. Eventually, these projects take on a whole new life in other mediums of storytelling. Some become movies, others inspire TV shows, and still others find their way into the domain of the printed word. Novels can be a lucrative way of extending the shelf life of a beloved musical and offering a new interpretation of a well-known story. This concept was utilized for "Dear Evan Hansen," which was turned into a young adult novel in 2018, according to The New York Times.

In addition to following the path of how often popular stage shows get translated into other mediums of storytelling, this development also fit like a glove with the show's target demographic. Teenagers were the ones showing up to watch "Dear Evan Hansen," so why not turn it into a novel geared towards this age bracket? Plus the producers were open to The New York Times about wanting to find a way to make the story accessible to people who couldn't afford to see a Broadway show in New York. Through pursuing these means, the pop culture presence of "Dear Evan Hansen" was able to expand tremendously. 

The positive feedback Pasek and Paul have received

Part of what gave "Dear Evan Hansen" its pop culture resonance wasn't just the positive marks it received from critics, but also the way the project seemed to personally touch so many audience members. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are no strangers to this phenomenon and have been open about the kind of deeply personal responses they've received.

Justin Paul told the New York Theatre Guide, "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. 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."

Shooting the Dear Evan Hansen movie during a pandemic

It's always a challenge to figure out how to translate a stage musical into a theatrical film. But all those hurdles were exacerbated as the film version of "Dear Evan Hansen" was shot during the coronavirus pandemic. The film began principal photography in the U.S. just a few months after the pandemic started. Lead actor Ben Platt has made it no secret what a surreal experience it was to make a movie during such an unpredictable period in history.

"The whole process was weird because I never saw my director's face from the nose down," Platt explained on The Late Late Show with James Corden. "I never saw anyone on the crew from the nose down. I could only touch my four closest cast members." This isolated approach even extended to Platt's father, Marc Platt, who was a producer on the film. "I could never see him, or talk to him, or be in the same room as him," Platt recalled. "I'd use the front door of the house and he'd use the back door." Still, the unusual circumstances at least fit the story the movie was telling: "As you know, Evan Hansen is quite a lonely, isolated guy," Platt reasoned.

How Stephen Chbosky came to direct Dear Evan Hansen

For his first two directorial efforts, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and "Wonder," Stephen Chbosky became familiar with directing teenagers and kids who were outsiders navigating the turbulent world of public school. This would seem to make him a perfect choice for "Dear Evan Hansen," a musical set in high school and all about a kid so isolated he's usually watching the world through a window. Chbosky was apparently a fan of the original stage musical and remained intrigued with the concept of what a film version of "Dear Evan Hansen" could look like.

Talking about how he got attached to the project, Chbosky recalled to The Hollywood Reporter, "I was having a general [meeting] with Marc Platt and [the film's other producer] Adam Siegel and I asked them, 'What are you doing with 'Dear Evan Hansen'?" And they said, 'Why? You're interested?' And I go, 'Yeah, I think it could be amazing.' I think it was in September, a couple months later, when they hired me, after a few more meetings and me going in to Universal to meet with (studio executives)." With that, the "Dear Evan Hansen" movie had an experienced filmmaker ready to shepherd the story from one medium to another.

Julianne Moore had to audition for Dear Evan Hansen

Julianne Moore has been acting for decades and has scored countless famous roles and accolades, including a Best Actress win for her work in "Still Alice." Given all these achievements, you'd think she'd be well past the point of having to audition for potential projects. But that's just what she had to do to for her role in "Dear Evan Hansen," which resulted in a process as idiosyncratic as the musical itself.

"I hadn't auditioned in a really long time. I was terrified," Moore recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. "I had to sing 'So Big/So Small.' Justin was playing the piano — it's pretty terrifying to have the composer playing the piano for you. Stephen Chbosky was there, and so was the casting director, Bernie Telsey. And they were recording it for Marc Platt. So it couldn't have been more scary." She added, "It's one of those things you're always saying to your kids: 'You just have to try. It doesn't matter what happens. Trying is the most important thing.'" And thanks to her "trying," Moore was able to handily secure the important role of Evan's mom, Heidi Hansen.

Amy Adams was so excited to work with Kaitlyn Dever on Dear Evan Hansen

Given what kind of a huge star Amy Adams is, you'd imagine that all young performers would be excited to work with her rather than the other way around. However, when it came time for Adams to show up on set for "Dear Evan Hansen," she was the one bubbling with excitement over working with a noteworthy co-star. Specifically, Adams was over the moon about the prospect of getting to share scenes with "Booksmart" lead Kaitlyn Dever.

"I geeked out on Kaitlyn pretty bad," Adams gushed to The Hollywood Reporter. "I sometimes forget that I'm not Kaitlyn's peer, or the peer of these really amazingly talented young actors and actresses. I kind of think I'm their peer, and then I'm like, 'No, Amy. You're so uncool right now that it's painful.' But as soon as I knew she was cast, I freaked out and then went, 'Oh, she must sing!' Late to that party, too. I went and did a deep-dive online stalking of Kaitlyn's singing, and she is so brilliant and talented."