9:00 am EDT, October 10, 2018

‘Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel’ breaks new ground: Pasek, Paul and Levenson on taking ‘Evan’ from stage to page

Dear Hypable Readers, today is going to be an amazing day and here’s why. Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel is finally in stores, and we got to talk to the creators all about turning their hit show into a book.

When Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel was announced back in March, the concept completely blew my mind. What eclipsed all other thoughts was that it had been staring us in the face the whole time: it had never occurred to me, or apparently to anyone else, that this was a gigantic potential solution to the problem that many, many theater fans face, which is the inability to fully appreciate and get involved with a story by its songs alone – to truly appreciate the work in its entirety without getting the chance to sit in the theater and watch it play out.

There’s always Hamilton, of course. Hamilton transcended. But one big difference between Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton is their form – Hamilton is completely sung-through, and so the entire story is actually available for fans in audio form only – you can still know Hamilton breath-for-breath without seeing it live. Plus, it has a source – it’s based on a true, well documented story, found in a specific biographical book. The combination of those two factors make Hamilton unusually accessible without having ever gotten a chance to sit in the room where it happens.

Dear Evan Hansen is a book musical – it’s an extremely dialogue-heavy show, and while the interspersed songs are powerful and thematic, the soundtrack is nowhere near the entirety of its impact. It’s also an original book musical — it has no source material, the stage show itself is the first iteration of the story. To truly know Evan’s story, and why it’s so important and so moving, you kind of have to be able to experience the whole thing.

The eponymous Evan, a isolated teenager with severe anxiety, gets caught up in a maintaining a snowballing lie, regarding a falsified friendship with another student, Connor Murphy, after Connor commits suicide. The swiftness of social media and the confusing messes caused by the instant but often inauthentic engagements that these technological advancements allow us all a play big part in how the chain of events unfolds, as does the difference between truth and reality.

I jumped at the opportunity to speak on behalf of Hypable with Dear Evan Hansen creators Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson in advance of this Tuesday’s book birthday, and get some great insights on this uniquely transforming story and what this book might mean for the world of theater fandom.

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I was recently speaking to a gentleman that I believe you guys know fairly well, I tell the team, named Andy Mientus… This is met with much excitement and pride over his new book The Backstagers and the Ghost Light – Mientus, Pasek and Paul all went to college together at the University of Michigan – and it’s a very interesting conversation that I was having with him, which I’d like to continue with you, about that point of access for theater changing.

We’re seeing young people come into theater fandom through a particular bent, through the internet or viral buzz, becoming fans of a particular show that they’ve never seen, sometimes with no prior involvement with musical theater, then discovering more about theater from that point. Of course, this concept – fans of musical theater from afar – is not new, because theater is not an accessible medium and it never has been, but Dear Evan Hansen is huge example of a gateway drug show for this generation of theater fans.

That sounds like a big motivation for the journey you’ve taken with the book, that you were aware that this story was bigger than its medium, and that you were concerned about the constraints caused by that same medium. What has your experience with that shifting Broadway fandom been like? Any thoughts on why these people may be changing their point of entry to theater, or ideas for how to make it more accessible in general? What you’re doing with this book is – right now – something of a of one-of-a-kind solution, but there are obviously wider problems in making theater accessible as a medium for young people to get their storytelling.

“I mean, we wish we knew the grand solution to it,” Benj Pasek begins. “I think from our perspective – I’m sure that Andy talked about this too – it has been amazing to see the kinds of communities that have come together online and obviously that’s something that really only started with the advent of the Internet, but to see that people can form community based on something that they relate to, and what’s specific about Evan Hansen is that it’s a story about people who have a difficult time connecting, a difficult time feeling like they’re heard or they’re seen or they’re noticed and the characters have a really difficult time being able to communicate with each other.”

“So we find it really heartening that so many people who relate to these characters, who live with unexpressed words and desires, they get to see themselves in these characters, they get to express themselves and then they get to have a community of people that they can engage with online and that can then fuel experiences of getting to be in a theater with someone, or if that is too prohibitive, getting to talk about a novel or getting to talk about a story or creating fanfiction or creating fanart.”

“And you know, you’re right,” Pasek affirms, “in the sense that theater is a medium which is very difficult to be ubiquitous because it has to exist in a certain place at a certain time, but we feel very strongly that it really does make a big difference when producers invest in original storytelling for Broadway musicals and we felt very lucky to we got to originate a story in musical theater format, and then we can take these characters that people relate to and we can sort of translate them into more universal mediums.”

“We also hope that eventually – the national tour begins literally tonight, in Denver Colorado – that the story will be able to play there and all over, and hopefully one day we’ll have a production of Dear Evan Hansen in Australia, that it will be something you can all physically see – but but again I think it comes down to like letting original storytelling happen in theater and then letting that story permeate and and continue to find its way in different mediums.”

The stage musical isn’t the only facet of Dear Evan Hansen that’s currently travelling the nation. Composers Pasek and Paul, along with Levenson, the musical’s playwright, joined up with actor, musician and novelist Val Emmich for this collaboration – Emmich was tipped for the prose-writing job by the creators themselves – and the four writers are taking the book on a cross-country tour, which started in New York City on Monday night and will conclude in Los Angeles on October 16.

Each tour stop will include a signed book for attendees, a stage talk and song performances, with different team members, guest hosts and performers of note joining the tour each night. (another UMich alum, Darren Criss will host Pasek and Paul at their mutual alma mater in Ann Arbor; James Corden will join the team in Los Angeles.) I’m spitting with jealousy and irrational rage at the existence of the Pacific Ocean.

I first saw Dear Evan Hansen in April 2016, while in New York City on one of my frequent Broadway vacations. I have no time for gatekeeping or elitism in any industry, particularly theater, but I must admit, in the case of Dear Evan Hansen, I’m rather proud of being an early adopter. The show was still in previews off-Broadway at Second Stage on 43rd, and it was my thirtieth birthday – if you calculated the time zones precisely, the actual anniversary of my time of birth back in 1986 would have been somewhere into the first act of the show.

The entire Evan Hansen experience that evening left behind a visceral impact and a strong sense memory, and the show was the biggest highlight of a trip that also included seeing a Lea Salonga cabaret and the original cast version of Hamilton. Even in these early days, well before a cast album was released, the show was attracting a lot of interest. Due to a broken leg within my party of travelers, we had to take the venue’s tiny elevator to reach our seats, and we ended up sharing that elevator with none other than Stephen Sondheim, who was in the house that night to see what the new kids on the block were up to.

Immediately upon exiting Dear Evan Hansen – passing Sondheim, being accosted on the way to his car by fellow celebrity attendee, Joss Whedon – I knew three things as absolute fact. I knew that the show would transfer to Broadway, I knew Ben Platt would win the Best Actor Tony following that transfer and I knew that, in a positive twist on the in-show explosion of Evan’s story, that Dear Evan Hansen would go viral, and introduce itself to a lot of people all over the world who mightn’t have had your traditional theater fan experience, in a lot of different ways.

Pasek, Paul and Levenson attend a photocall for Dear Evan Hansen.

Unshockingly, all three of these predictions came true, and many, many, many more accolades followed. I’m no genius or prophet – I’m pretty sure everyone who saw the show left with exactly the same thoughts. What no one could have predicted was the immense scope of that success, and just how far and wide it would spread this story – or the lengths that the creators would go to actively express their discomfort with its inaccessibility and ensure that the audience was able to engage with the story beyond the confines of a Broadway show, especially after tickets to Dear Evan Hansen became almost unobtainable due to popularity and resale prices.

After I processed that a novelization of an original musical was a concept a) could happen and b) would in fact happen, it seemed like an obvious solution that should have happened years ago. Theater creators should have been taking advantage this idea of for years. But it also seemed right that Dear Evan Hansen would be the first of its kind, that this was the show that provoked such a need and provided such a fix. How did that develop?

“What ended up happening was that when the show opened in New York,” Steven Levenson tells me, speaking from that fair city, “We were really thrilled and shocked and astonished by the response that we got on the show from people in the world, and what we started to find especially was that we were getting a huge response from people who had never seen the show, people who had heard the album or seen clips of it online or read the synopsis or some combination of all of those things, and at the same time we started to notice that a lot of the fans of the show were kind of interested in expanding the story and making the story their own.”

“We saw a lot of fanart and fanfiction and it felt like there was an appetite out there for this story in a way that we felt – you know, with a piece of theater, with our musical, this was a story that could only reach a certain number of people every night in one place in the world and we felt like “ Is there a way to get this story to more people?” and at the same time get to expand the story and dive into the things that we couldn’t fit into the musical, things that we had talked about, or just get more into these characters’ lives, and that’s where the impetus for a book came from. We felt like this is a way of really expanding the reach of the story, and also expanding the scope of the story itself.”

“And giving people a chance…” Justin Paul adds. “We were sensing a desire for people to connect with the characters, and to engage with characters and it felt like a novel would be a chance for them to literally hold the story in their hands and to have that special connection that you have with characters in literature, when you can put the book down and pick it back up and engage with it in your most private spaces.”

The idea of a musical novel is kind of comparable to a novelization of a movie, books which are more than often panned as cheesy extra marketing, though sometimes they are actually quite good. However, as a general concept, a book adaptation feels very different for theater – more of an opportunity to fully realize a vision – and as a more specific one, there’s the consideration that Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel is not a mere stage to page adaptation of the show – it’s much more revelatory than that.

You see, Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel opens not with Evan’s voice, but with Connor’s. The stage show is about the aftermath of his suicide, and the Connor we see after his death is a Connor of Evan’s invention. That Connor quite simply does not exist, and the truth of him and his motivations are entirely unknown.

The novel changes that, introducing Connor’s real, first-person POV, which appears in interludes between Evan’s perspective. Connor tells us about his life before his death and gives his opinion on what he sees happen in a world without him, as his conscious ghost witnesses the events of the musical and commentates on the plain inaccuracies, or, facts aside, the truthful emotional resonance.

Mike Faist originated the role of Connor Murphy.

“It’s something that we were excited about and curious about, that we seem to have in common with fans of the show,” Paul admits. “Everyone has always been – including us, and we intentionally did not go into this in stage musical for certain reasons – everyone is so intrigued about Connor, the character who takes his own life very early in the show and comes back sort of as he’s imagined by Evan, but the real person behind that quick character that we see come and go from the show is something that always intrigued us and something that we always talked a lot about ourselves and talked a lot about with the actors who have played the role, and it also has been the subject of more often than not, much of the fanfiction and fanart that’s created online in the show’s fandom.”

Having this Word-of-God canon perspective on Connor may be something of a mixed blessing for Dear Evan Hansen’s audience, because Paul speaks the truth: Connor speculation is the online fandom’s favorite pastime and the subject of much fanfiction, and here, on paper, are the definitive answers.

For some, the opportunity to know the canonical truth will represent the greatest wish fulfillment possible, and their curiosity will be sated and validated. For others, perhaps participating in such transformative works is part of the joy of fandom – relishing the opportunity to make the real Connor whoever you want him to be, without all the answers.

Getting into Connor’s head like this highlights his fragility and self-awareness, as we see another mentally ill boy – this one, unlike Evan, unsupported and without compassion from his family – dive deeper into analyzing some of his impulsive and destructive behavior and how powerless his triggers and impulses made him feel. The parallels between Evan and Connor are a big part of the show and a bigger part of the novel, Paul explains.

Mike Faist as Connor and Ben Platt as Evan.

“We always intended for the show to draw the comparison between Evan and Connor and show that these were really two boys who had similar trajectories. And one happened to make his way to tomorrow, and one didn’t. That was one of the very big high points for us in terms of what we could do with this novel and what we talked to Val about, and what he was intrigued by as well, which was: we’ve got this character that we barely get to get to know in the show, this is the perfect opportunity to drop into his head and to hear about what events precipitated where we meet him in the show and what led to this and how he feels about it and we get to hear from him after it too from from from the great beyond, we get to see some of the action through his eyes and that was a really special thing that we only could really do in this novel form and it’s something that we are really passionate about doing and it’s going am really proud of in the novel as it stands now.”

Readers will learn what relationships he had that really did matter, and how they played into his choice – and yes, the book confirms many fans’ suspicions that Connor was indeed queer, which, while validating, is a bit of a double-edged sword as far as representation goes, as the actual musical is bereft of visible LGBTQ+ characters.

However the reveals of the novel sit with you personally, one thing is undebatable: if you do read it, be prepared for your viewing of Dear Evan Hansen will be fundamentally changed forever by incorporating this lens. The book adds layers of both irony and tragedy to the musical as we learn just how discordant the characters’ perception of Connor is.

As its passionate fanbase grows, and the show is performed in more cities (as mentioned, the show just embarked on its first national tour, and a West End transfer was very recently announced,) the potential for Dear Evan Hansen fandom to read the novel in advance of seeing the show now exists, and this will likely become an extremely common point of entry from here on out. Do the creators think that book-before-show experience will work as well as the show-before-book version? Is there an order they prefer?

“Ideally our hope is that people know that there is no one way to this story,” Levenson confirms on behalf of the group, “That hopefully people will come to one or the other and not know ‘Oh, does the book come first or does the musical?’ From the beginning it was incredibly important to us that the book be something that could stand on its own and have its own integrity as a piece of art, and I’m really proud of what Val has done in that regard. It’ll be really interesting for people that reaD THE book first to come to the show. We haven’t really spoken to anyone yet that’s had that experience so I think we’re very curious to see what that will be like. it’s also such a different experience to read the book and then to hear the music and there’s just something… what I would hope is that there’s such a rich deep experience with the book, and then you come to see the musical, and to get to spend time with those characters in the same physical space and to get to really feel and experience what they’re going through – it’s hopefully another facet of that experience.”

L-R Val Emmich, Benj Pasek, Steven Levenson, Justin Paul.

It will be illuminating – and possibly game-changing – to see how expanding the story plays out, both for the Dear Evan Hansen fandom specifically and for theater in general. Books. The answer lies in books, because if course it does. Is there any question that can’t be answered by books, in some way? I’m already creating a wishlist of all the other original theater pieces that I’d like to relive in more detail in a prose novel like Dear Evan Hansen, so I ask the guys if they’ve thought of any, just as fans.

Pasek offers up two shows: “One, originally it was obviously a graphic novel, Fun Home, obviously lends itself and they did an adaptation, but something that existed first as a musical – I would love to see Next to Normal turned into a novel in some capacity because there’s so much about that woman’s psyche and so much about the family dynamics, in a similar way to our show…”

“And a wildly unreliable narrator experience,” Paul interjects.

“Yeah, yeah. It’d be really, really interesting, because she [lead character Diana Goodman] she is a really really fascinating character, and the way she sees the world really changes based on the kinds of new treatment she’s getting, and whether or not that she believes that her son is alive. I think that would be a really fascinating show that could be turned into a novel.”

And yes, I told them the Stephen Sondheim elevator story – Thank you for putting that experience into my life, by the way.

“I bet you’ve never been more thankful for a broken leg!”

Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list and follow Pasek Paul on Twitter!

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