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.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS Dear Evan Hansen Mu­sic and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; book by Steven Leven­son. Di­rected by Michael Greif. Through Aug. 23 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW.

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.”

LINDA DAVID­SON / THE WASHINGTON POST

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASHINGTON POST

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.”

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