It all started with an incident at Benj Pasek’s suburban Philadelphia high school.
It involved a fellow student who seemed to fade into the woodwork. But when he died of a drug overdose, this “almost anonymous” teen, according to Broadway and Hollywood tunesmith Pasek, became a kind of posthumous celebrity. Classmates who barely knew him claimed him as a close friend. Some even wrote essays about him and spoke about his importance in their lives.
That display of grief fascinated Pasek and stuck in his mind. And more than a decade later, in searching conversations with his writing partner Justin Paul, it spurred another kind of phenomenon: the 2017 Tony Award-honored musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” which comes to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre Jan. 23-Feb. 2, on its first national tour.
From “West Side Story” to “Spring Awakening” to “Next to Normal” and “American Idiot,” Broadway musicals about alienated, crazy-mixed-up youths have constituted a popular genre.
But each of those shows is unique. And there is also something different and special about the acclaimed “Dear Evan Hansen,” which features a score by the highly successful songwriting team of Pasek and Paul, with an original book by playwright Steven Levenson, and which won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The musical duo’s flair for crafting entertaining, tunesome material is evident in their prior youth-geared stage musicals (e.g. “A Christmas Story,” which had a pre-Broadway run at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, and “James and the Giant Peach,” presented by Seattle Children’s Theatre). And among their movie songs, “City of Stars” for “La La Land” won them Oscar and Golden Globe awards for their lyrics to Justin Hurwitz’s music.
But “Dear Evan Hansen” has a different tilt. It’s the first mass-appeal Broadway tuner set firmly in the rapid-fire social-media age of contemporary adolescence. It offers a frank portrait of an isolated, insecure teen whose lie about a (nonexistent) friendship with a dead peer takes on a life of its own. In the process, numerous burning concerns of modern youth come into play — bullying, loneliness, suicide, depression, moral ambivalence. And for some viewers, the show resonates with a larger sociopolitical debate about faux “truth.”
Pasek’s high-school experience was one inspiration for “Dear Evan Hansen.” Another was 9/11. As high-schoolers, both he and Paul knew of peers who posted about victims of the terrorist attacks, falsely claiming to have known them. “And with celebrity death culture online today,” Paul added, “people post [personal] things about celebrities who’ve passed away … who they didn’t know or had no connection to, [just] to be part of the story, part of the narrative.”
On Broadway and along its 60-city tour, “Dear Evan Hansen” has accumulated a passionate fan base of young theatergoers — along with some of their anxious parents.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the show’s success, for its composers and former University of Michigan classmates — both in their 30s — is something “we hoped for but weren’t sure would happen,” said Paul via email. “[It] has become a show for all generations …. for families, for grandparents, and young people, and a way for them to talk and to connect.”
“One reason it continues to resonate with people is that it’s not just about a teenage boy,” agreed Pasek, speaking by phone from New York City. “We were really encouraged by our director, Michael Greif, and our producers to not just focus on what it means to be young today, but what it means to be human today. It’s about parents and children not knowing how to bridge the chasm between them, and what it is to have secret parts of ourselves that we feel are too ugly and too raw to reveal.”
The title character of a 17-year-old high-school senior (played on tour by Ben Levi Ross) is no broody anti-hero, nor glamorous rebel without a cause. The son of a hardworking divorced mom, Evan is so desperately, cripplingly shy he can’t even exchange a few words with a pizza delivery man, let alone make friends at school. Yet he somehow blossoms through someone else’s tragedy: the suicide of Connor, a fellow student and also a misfit.
Through a compounded misunderstanding, Evan suddenly reinvents himself as a close former confidant of Connor — thereby gaining a girlfriend, the warm attention of adults, the admiration of his peers, and a brief spell of glory in the social-media sphere that allows him to perpetuate and expand on the lie.
“When we first worked on the show, we felt it was much more of an indictment of the younger generation,” said Pasek. “We wondered how kids are so addicted to social media, sometimes to the exclusion of real human contact. But then we started asking, less judgmentally, why do they act this way? We’re all living in a time when people feel more isolated, more alone, more anxious than before — and they’ll take any opportunity to feel seen and connected to others.”
Teen suicide (a leading cause of death in 15-to-19-year-old Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is a major plot element in “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“In the state of Washington we lose two teens to suicide every week,” said Dipti Chrastka, the crisis services director of the Seattle-based mental-health agency Crisis Connections, which runs Teen Link, a peer-to-peer phone and text help line staffed by trained adolescent volunteers.
“Teen suicide is an epidemic that’s growing and it’s frightening,” Chrastka said. “We have more and more teens calling in, approaching us at various events. We have parents who also have questions for us: How do I know when I should do something? What is a typical warning sign?”
Glossy fictional dramatizations run the risk of romanticizing suicide — a charge leveled by some mental-health professionals and educators against the controversial Netflix series “Thirteen Reasons Why.” Based on Jay Asher’s novel, it focuses on a teenage girl who, before killing herself, recorded cassettes describing all the reasons why she took her own life.
Chrastka finds fault with fictional depictions that “veer away from the fact that serious depression among teens is a real thing. It’s best to take mystique out of it and explain what it really is. Build awareness, dispel a lot of myths, get teens interested in helping out on hotlines and becoming an ambassador, a safe person someone dealing with this can talk to.”
The artistic team behind “Dear Evan Hansen” consciously avoided glossing the issue, and “certainly mental illness, and particularly suicide, were never meant to be depicted as a solution to any problem in the show or these characters’ lives,” said Paul.
Instead, he stresses, “We show the gravity of the grief, and the traumatic, catastrophic effect that it has on families, and on people connected to that person. But we also, I think, in our portrayal of Connor for the short time you see him, certainly didn’t want to make it seem as if there was any specific reason or specific action that caused this act. It really is an effect of mental illness … and certainly shouldn’t be romanticized or oversimplified.”
Said Pasek, “I definitely have had therapists, including my own, talking about the show with other patients. We’ve heard very positive things from the mental- health community. While the show is complicated and has a dark underbelly, it says that if you are struggling or in a place of pain, you can be rescued and be found.”
And while “Dear Evan Hansen” doesn’t end on an entirely upbeat note, it closes on a hopeful one. “One of the plights of this digital age is that it makes us feel more removed from other people,” Pasek said. “Our show opens with a boy and his computer, and it ends in an orchard with a real, face-to-face conversation.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson. Jan. 23-Feb. 2; Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; tickets start at $50; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org
Warning signs of suicide
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have concerns about someone who may be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You will be routed to a local crisis center where professionals can talk you through a risk assessment and provide resources in your community. The more of the signs below that a person shows, the greater the risk of suicide:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org)
Crisis Connection’s 24-hour crisis line provides confidential assistance to people in distress, especially in the King County area: 866-4-CRISIS (866-427-4747) or 206-461-3222. Online: crisisconnections.org
Crisis Connections’ Teen Link is a peer-to-peer phone and text help line staffed by trained adolescent volunteers. The help line runs every evening 6-10 p.m. at 866-TEENLINK (866-833-6546); there’s also a Teen Link Chat (6-9:30 p.m.) at the agency’s website (866teenlink.org). Outside of those hours, an adult is available through the Washington Recovery Help Line (866-789-1511).