The songwriters of "Dear Evan Hansen" and the author of "Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel" will appear in Seattle in October to promote the novel of the hit Broadway musical.
You don’t have to see “Dear Evan Hansen” to know it. Not just the acclaimed songs of the Broadway show, but the story. The feelings. The angst.
The show — which opened in December 2016 and won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Musical — is about an anxious high-school student named Evan Hansen who has a brief exchange with a classmate named Connor Murphy who later dies by suicide. Evan connects with Connor’s family on false pretenses, and what results is a heart-wrenching mess of secrets and deception that touch on grief, the mores of high school in the age of social media and an acute desire to belong.
The show started with songs written by the award-winning team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a book by Steven Levenson. Now the show has been novelized, and Paul and Pasek will appear in Seattle on Sunday, Oct. 14, to celebrate the release of “Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel,” with its author, Val Emmich. The three will discuss the new book and Pasek and Paul will perform songs from the show, with support from Seattle-based “special guests” Sarah Rose Davis and Kendra Kassebaum.
The event, sponsored by the University Book Store, will be held at 4 p.m. at the University Temple United Methodist Church. Tickets are $18.99 and include a pre-signed copy of the book and admission for two people. Purchasers will be entered in a raffle in which five people (and their guests) will be chosen for a meet and greet with the “Dear Evan Hansen” team after the event. (Disclaimer: I will be moderating.)
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“We really felt like it was a collaboration and we all wanted to hit the road together,” Paul said of the decision to tour in support of the novel before the “Dear Evan Hansen” touring company takes over the Paramount Theatre in January. “We thought it would be fun to come to theater-loving and book-loving cities.”
Seattle is both those things — but it is also a long way from Broadway. So many of the fans who have embraced the show and the issues within — the majority of those fans young people — have done so without ever seeing the production. This will be the first time they connect with it in a live setting.
Pasek and Paul won a 2017 Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture for “City of Stars” from “La La Land,” and a 2018 Golden Globe for “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.” They’re familiar with Seattle, having written the music for shows like “A Christmas Story,” which first played at The 5th Avenue Theatre in 2010; “James and the Giant Peach,” which premiered at the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 2013; and “Dogfight,” which premiered at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery in 2014.
“We have stress-eaten our way through the entire city of Seattle,” Paul said. “We rotated through the Tom Douglas restaurants. Anywhere they had a coconut cream pie at 11 p.m.”
Because “Dear Evan Hansen” deals with intense issues like the high-school pecking order, suicide and the minefield of social media, the team feels a certain responsibility to the fans, who have overwhelmed them and the celebrated cast with gratitude and personal stories.
“We had no idea who the show would reach or if it would reach an audience at all,” Levenson said. “But when the show started in New York we felt that people connected with this character and this story in a special way. Hopefully this can be something to bring people together and help people feel recognized and visible. We take that pretty seriously.”
Paul recalled watching theatergoers crowd around the stage door to share personal stories with the cast and creative team. He doesn’t want to share any of what people had confided, “But I do recall someone sending a letter to (lead actor and 2017 Tony Award winner for Leading Actor in a Musical) Ben Platt, an anonymous letter saying ‘Thank you for helping me not let go.'”
The show also has an email account where fans can post letters — and they have, with stories about how the show has helped them better connect with their children, understand their family members and deal with anxiety, depression and loss.
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of the largest school shooting in the country, wrote to say they had hung banners in the cafeteria bearing one of the musical’s taglines: “You Will Be Found.”
“It’s amazing that something we worked on could give people verbiage for what they were going through,” Pasek said.
As the “Dear Evan Hansen” phenomena grew, Emmich was brought on to write the novelization of the play. It’s an unusual step — musicals are often written from books, but not the other way around.
“I researched how this was done before and I couldn’t find an example for this,” Emmich said. “So I was nervous because of that.”
He saw the musical twice, and was struck by the emotions on the stage — and in the audience.
“The guys (Paul and Pasek) had a certain standard, they had a lot of emotional attachments,” Emmich said. “They had experienced backstage interactions with the fans that I hadn’t. They were carrying a weight that I was only learning about. All that adds to the anxiety.
“But I think that helped fuel the story.”
He decided to write it in first person, from the point of view of Evan Hansen, who has an anxiety disorder.
“So my own anxiety helped,” Emmich added.
Levenson said Emmich’s approach made perfect sense, since the musical feels like a first-person narrative.
“We wrote it consciously to be the journey of this one character,” Levenson said. “What Val does with the book is open up the world a little bit and see vistas that the musical can’t. Evan can express himself.”
Pasek was grateful that the book allows fans of the show to better get to know Connor Murphy, the character who kills himself not long after having a brief exchange with Evan, during which he signs Evan’s cast. It’s never made clear — in the show or the novel — how Connor dies.
“Connor remains enigmatic,” Pasek said. “The book gives us permission to get to know Connor a bit. Here we get to know the real Connor, whereas on the stage, he is part of Evan’s subconscious. That was the fun thing we all got to figure out with the novel. New plot elements and backstories. Not the Connor that Evan needs, but the Connor that Connor is.”
The whole “Hansen” phenomenon has inspired its creators to do more. Pasek and Paul are working on the music for live-action movie musical versions of “Aladdin” and “Snow White” for Disney, and an original animated musical called “Foster” at Fox Animation/Blue Sky Studios.
“We are in a way all really lucky that we’re living in a time when the people who came before us made it interesting and cool again to see a musical,” Paul said. “Things like ‘Frozen’ and ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ on TV.
“It really makes it an exciting time to be working on musical projects because there are so many possibilities. It is the right time to be doing this. It’s a beautiful time.”