going for the big hit
At 30, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have won praise and a Tony nomination for turning small-scale movies into musicals. Now they’re looking to make a career-shaping leap with their own work — ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ — at Arena Stage.
Justin Paul, left, and Benj Pasek wrote the music for “Dear Evan Hansen.” Director Michael Greif says, “I had tremendous regard for their abilities” to produce work “that pushes the form to new, deeper places.”
new york— Is this the one? Could be. Who knows? Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, 30-year-old college buddies who as musical theater songwriters chose for themselves one of the most tenuous job paths imaginable, certainly hope so. At the moment, they were huddled over a laptop in a sixthfloor hallway on Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, working out the kinks in the new opening number they were inserting into their latest show, “Dear Evan Hansen.”
The musical, which stars Ben Platt (“Pitch Perfect”) as a shy teenager who through a bald-faced deception wends his way into the hearts of a grief-stricken family, was being put on its feet in a nearby rehearsal room by director Michael Greif, of “Rent,” “Next to Normal” and “If/Then” fame. Soon, the cast and creative team would be heading to Washington for the world premiere of “Dear Evan Hansen” at nonprofit Arena Stage, where a six-week summer engagement — subsidized by a commercial producer — will continue at Arena’s Kreeger Theater through late August.
The run represents another huge opportunity for Pasek and Paul, who are highly admired in the business but still waiting for that career-defining project. In the summer of 2012, “Dogfight,” their musical based on the modest early ’90s movie of the same title, opened to respectable reviews at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre. Later that year, their songs were featured in “A Christmas Story,” another musical that was adapted from a movie and that ran during the holiday season on Broadway. That one even earned them a Tony nomination for best score.
In an industry forever desperately needing home runs, the shows were solid singles. Now, coming up to the plate again, Pasek and Paul have composed with book writer Steven Levenson a small-scale show that may in fact constitute their most ambitious at-bat to date.
For the first time in their professional lives, they are not relying on outside source material. They have devised characters and plot entirely out of their own imaginations. A new musical, in the truest sense.
“What’s the thing you want to make that nobody else told you to make?” the songwriters recall being asked over an introductory lunch by Stacey Mindich, a New York theater lover and investor who was offering to be their producer. “This,” says Paul, “was that thing that we were talking about.”
The movies rule
Plays virtually always are born at the desk of a playwright. While it’s not a hard-and-fast rule by any means, musicals are far more likely to start in the business office. “It’s really very much a producer’s art form these days,” observes Dana P. Rowe, a composer who with lyricist John Dempsey wrote “The Fix,” an original musical satire that is being revived next month by the company that birthed it in the late 1990s, Signature Theatre.
Rowe and Dempsey also have worked on stage adaptations of movies, turning, for instance, “The Witches of Eastwick,” which had been both a novel and a film, into a musical. That project, however, emerged essentially from the mind of London and Broadway impresario Cameron Mackintosh, producer of “Cats” and “Les Misérables.” “It started because Cameron came to us with a list of movies,” Rowe recalls, “and said, ‘ You come back to me with one of those and I’ll produce it.’ ” (“Witches” had a 750-performance run in the West End and later an American premiere at Signature, but it has yet to be done on Broadway).
The perception has grown in the business that a musical, often carrying an investment north of $10 million, has a better chance of breaking through commercially if it bears the title of a well-known movie. And producers line up to make these. One Broadway veteran showed me a list of the movies that are in various stages, from the talking to the singing, of being developed into musicals. It was three pages long, single-spaced, and contained more than 100 titles, ventures that are following in the footsteps of such celluloid-to-Broadway transformations as “Ghost,” “Legally Blonde,” “Shrek” and this past season’s “Finding Neverland.”
But it’s also true that there remains an extra degree of esteem in theater circles for shows assembled out of material dreamed up organically for the stage. That is borne out in the awards bestowed of late: Out of the past 10 Tonys for best musical, for example, only three have gone to shows made from movies: “Kinky Boots,” “Once” and “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” And even those were based on properties from way outside the Hollywood mainstream, European movies on small budgets. Other shows winning Broadway’s top accolades these days, such as “Fun Home” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” are adapted from niche novels or, like “The Book of Mormon” and “In the Heights,” are built for the theater from scratch.
The roots of ‘Evan Hansen’
“Dear Evan Hansen” falls into this last category. The idea for it emanates from a traumatic event that occurred on the periphery of Pasek’s life as a high school student in the Philadelphia suburbs. He and Paul, a Connecticut native, met in the musical theater program at the University of Michigan. Having entered as budding actors — and then being cast as spear carriers in college shows— they shifted to songwriting. Social media validated the shift: After they posted the music online from “Edges,” a cycle of songs they wrote as undergraduates about the concerns of people their age, students at a dozen other colleges performed it.
They were accepted into musical writing workshops after finishing up at Michigan. And then a bit of luck kicked in. Big fans of another Tony-winning musical, “Avenue Q,” they wrote to Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, the show’s songwriters. “They wrote us back,” Pasek says, “and they let us come and watch the rehearsals for the Las Vegas production”— the first place on the road “Avenue Q” was produced after Broadway. Pasek and Paul asked them to listen to “Edges.” “They were so supportive. They gave it to their agent, who became our agent.”
Mindich encountered “Edges” and loved it, too. “Their songs are all the voices of a generation — not just out in the world but in the musical theater, too,” she declares. That led to the exploratory lunch in 2011 that set the wheels — and multiple workshops — of “Dear Evan Hansen” turning. Bethesda native Levenson, a playwright (“The Language of Trees”) who writes for Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” was brought on to compose the book; he put together a treatment and then a script based on Pasek’s memory of years earlier, when a student in Pasek’s high school died. Pasek had been struck not only by the outpouring of tributes, but also by the number of people who wanted to claim the student as their dearest friend. The musical, then, takes the notion of a teenager, Platt’s Evan Hansen, who invents an important role for himself in a tragedy that he did not earn. And it examines the consequences after the mourning family embraces him.
“This is a show about people who feel sort of alone,” Paul says. Adds Pasek: “It’s about how the person you project to the world is not the real you.” Greif, who knew their work from “Dogfight,” signed on about 21/ years ago,
2 when the musical was still in early development. “I had tremendous regard for their abilities,” Greif says, adding that the young creative team met his criteria for work “that pushes the form to new, deeper places.”
Mindich has underwritten a series of readings and workshops for “Dear Evan Hansen,” including one last September in New York that became an unusual variation on a backers’ audition. She invited officials from regional theaters, including Arena, to have a listen and decide whether they might take a chance on “Dear Evan Hansen.” “I wanted an East Coast, smart audience and a city where Benj and Justin and Michael and Steven could really trust the response.”
Arena bit. Mindich would provide enhancement money — no one will say how much — and the company the use of its facilities. “It hit us at just the right time,” says Edgar Dobie, Arena’s managing director. “It moved quickly up the list of things we’d like to see happen.” The midsummer scheduling, however, meant the company could not offer it as part of its regular season subscription. So “Dear Evan Hansen” is going to have to find an audience without that seat-filling cushion.
That may be just as well. The trajectory for “Dear Evan Hansen” at this point leads no further than to Arena’s elegant headquarters at Sixth and Maine SW. If the musical has real future earning potential, the test of its appeal will be more reliable with an audience that has to be enticed into the Kreeger on the basis of its own musical and thematic strengths and relevance.
Pasek, Paul and Levenson say they are ready for this next step — and to learn from it. “The thing about Benj and Justin is they are so unrelenting,” says Levenson. “They don’t settle for ‘ okay’ or ‘ almost there.’ I know we are going to push one another — and they are going to push me.”
Rachel Bay Jones and Ben Platt in “Dear Evan Hansen,” which will run through Aug. 23 at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater. Platt, of “Pitch Perfect” fame, plays a teenager who through deception wends his way into the hearts of a griefstricken family. “It hit us at just the right time,” says Edgar Dobie, Arena’s managing director. “It moved quickly up the list of things we’d like to see happen.”