Why ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is a Broad­way must-see

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PE­TER MARKS

new york — It’s be­come a daily rit­ual af­ter the cur­tain comes down on “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Mu­sic Box Theatre. Clus­ters of teary teenagers gather at the stage door, clutch­ing their Play­bills and hop­ing for an au­to­graph and a mo­ment of con­ver­sa­tion with any of the stars of Broad­way’s new­est jug­ger­naut.

Michael Park, who plays one of the grown-ups in this mu­si­cal about ado­les­cent anx­i­ety and the peer-pres­sure power of so­cial me­dia, says that he en­joys the en­coun­ters but that the re­ac­tions of the par­ents out on West 45th Street af­ter the show af­fect him even more deeply.

“They stand be­hind their kids and mouth a silent ‘Thank you,’ ” he says. “That’s the best com­pli- I can get.”

The in­tense emo­tional grip in which “Dear Evan Hansen” holds au­di­ences is a ma­jor rea­son for the mu­si­cal’s run­away suc­cess on Broad­way this sea­son, af­ter its birthing at Arena Stage in sum­mer 2015 and a sub­se­quent of­fBroad­way run at Sec­ond Stage Theatre last year. A strong wel­come might have been ex­pected, given the ster­ling re­sponses from au­di­ences and crit­ics dur­ing its pre­vi­ous en­gage­ments. But its me­te­oric propul­sion to the top of the box-of­fice charts since its of­fi­cial Broad­way open­ing in early De­cem­ber has caught ev­ery­one by surprise.

Week af­ter week, the show, with mu­sic and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a book by Steven Leven­son, is

re­port­ing head-spin­ning re­sults. For the week ended Feb. 26, for ex­am­ple, the mu­si­cal grossed $1.127 mil­lion in ticket sales and played to 101 per­cent ca­pac­ity. Its av­er­age ticket price of $141 was be­hind only the long-run­ning megahits “Hamil­ton” and “The Book of Mor­mon,” and its ad­vance ticket sales are said to be in ex­cess of $20 mil­lion. And all this at what is usu­ally seen as the tough­est time of the year for fill­ing Broad­way seats.

“I think we’re all deeply shocked and humbly grate­ful,” says Stacey Mindich, the show’s lead pro­ducer. Mindich has been with the pro­ject since it was a bud­ding con­cept in the imag­i­na­tions of Pasek, 31, and Paul, 32, pals from the Univer­sity of Michi­gan who just won best orig­i­nal song Os­cars for their lyrics to “City of Stars” in “La La Land.” The de­mand for seats is “un­be­liev­able,” Mindich says, adding that it’s a “tight ticket” un­til June. (She can’t even find ex­tra tick­ets to fill re­quests from Pasek’s and Paul’s moth­ers.)

As a re­sult, “Dear Evan Hansen” is on track to be among the most suc­cess­ful pieces of mu­si­cal theater ever to orig­i­nate in Wash­ing­ton — and be­yond that, a show that is as­ton­ish­ingly well timed for a gen­er­a­tion of younger ticket-hold­ers seek­ing to claim their own the­atri­cal touch­stones. The plot ze­ros in on the pe­cu­liar prob­lem of com­mu­ni­cat­ing, within fam­i­lies and among friends, in an era when reach­ing out has never been eas­ier, at least in a tech­ni­cal sense. The story re­volves around emo­tion­ally re­pressed Evan Hansen, played by Ben Platt, a friend­less high school stu­dent who makes a Faus­tian bar­gain with men­dac­ity. He achieves overnight pop­u­lar­ity and In­ter­net fame cour­tesy of a mis­un­der­stand­ing that he per­pet­u­ates, re­gard­ing his sup­posed close­ness to an­other trou­bled class­mate who has died un­der wrench­ing cir­cum­stances. And, of course, his sub­terfuge comes at an an­guish­ing price for all in­volved.

“From the very be­gin­ning, it was a great story that had a fan­tas­tic dra­matic setup that landed al­most per­fectly in the world,” says Michael Greif, who has di­rected each in­car­na­tion of “Dear Evan Hansen” and pre­vi­ously guided stan­dard-set­ting shows such as “Rent” and “Next to Nor­mal” to Pulitzer Prizes for drama. “It had in­cred­i­ble per­sonal dy­nam­ics, in the re­la­tion­ships of par­ents and chil­dren. And it also had the per­fect back­drop for th­ese char­ac­ters, in their in­ter­ac­tions with the vir­tual world.”

Top­i­cal rel­e­vance or even a ter­rific score doesn’t guar­an­tee a long life on Broad­way, and, like other smash hits be­fore it, “Dear Evan Hansen” needs to con­front some par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges if it’s go­ing to en­dure. Chief among th­ese is, para­dox­i­cally, the show’s most dy­namic as­set: the splen­didly sung and emo­tion­ally pre­cise per­for­mance of Platt, for­merly best known as one of the nice guys in the “Pitch Per­fect” movie fran­chise — and now a bona fide Broad­way star.

“Dear Evan Hansen is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen!” Betty Buck­ley tweeted Feb. 24, just af­ter see­ing it. “Many thanks to the whole cast and @BenSPLATT for your di­vine per­for­mance!” When you get re­views like that from a revered pro like Buck­ley, a Tony win­ner for her Griz­abella in “Cats,” you’re in a rar­efied cat­e­gory.

Platt has yet to miss a show. His con­tract runs through Novem­ber, and ticket-hold­ers ask him on so­cial me­dia for as­sur­ances that he’ll be in the cast the day they’re com­ing. This is both grat­i­fy­ing for Platt and just a bit wor­ry­ing for the pro­duc­tion, be­cause a mu­si­cal too de­pen­dent on a par­tic­u­lar ac­tor could find its au­di­ence drift­ing away af­ter he de­parts. This is widely seen as the rea­son “The Pro­duc­ers” — a mu­si­cal smash in the early 2000s — didn’t have the stay­ing power of some megahits with com­men­su­rate mag­ni­tudes of buzz. Its stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Brod­er­ick, were so in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the show’s suc­cess that no suc­ces­sors ever matched their magic.

Park, a vet­eran mu­si­cal theater ac­tor who per­formed in “Evan Hansen’s” orig­i­nal read­ings and at Arena Stage, speaks ad­mir­ingly of Platt’s abil­i­ties and work ethic. Sit­ting in the “Blue Room” at the Mu­sic Box — a back­stage gath­er­ing place dec­o­rated for the com­pany by Bloom­ing­dale’s — you could hear Platt up­stairs in his dress­ing room lim­ber­ing up his voice, a full two hours be­fore the mati­nee.

“He has enor­mous emo­tional ac­cess,” Greif says of Platt dur­ing a sep­a­rate in­ter­view at Bar Cen­trale, a pop­u­lar mid­town hang­out for theater peo­ple. He men­tions oth­ers he has worked with — Adam Pas­cal in “Rent,” Alice Ri­p­ley in “Next to Nor­mal” — with sim­i­lar fa­cil­i­ties. As to how that might be passed on to an­other Evan, Greif says: “We have to find out. I can only say the ma­te­rial is in­cred­i­bly strong.”

It’s per­haps too early in the com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment of “Dear Evan Hansen” to think that far ahead: “We’re still in the pinch­ing-our­selves phase,” Mindich says. And it’s fair to add that with the show’s ac­claim still on an up­ward tra­jec­tory, other strengths of the work have yet to be fully com­pre­hended by the pub­lic. In par­tic­u­lar, the per­for­mances of Rachel Bay Jones and Jen­nifer Laura Thomp­son, as the two moms in the story, and Park, as the dad of the de­ceased teenager, are bound to at­tract more at­ten­tion. That is, in part, be­cause their por­traits of par­ents over­whelmed by grief or the task of rais­ing a child with pro­found emo­tional scars also are vis­cer­ally pow­er­ful.

The show has af­fected Park, a fa­ther of two daugh­ters and a son, in un­usual ways. The let­ters he gets from par­ents can be touch­ing. He pro­duces one from the fa­ther of a boy with mild autism and so­cial anx­i­ety: “Ev­ery time you were on­stage,” he wrote, “I saw my­self.”

His own son, Christo­pher, at­tended the mu­si­cal early on and said af­ter­ward, sim­ply: “Thanks, Dad.” Park re­calls, “It made me a lit­tle emo­tional.”

Then there are the moms and dads and daugh­ters and sons lined up for him and his cast­mates out­side af­ter ev­ery show.

“We don’t get paid to talk at the stage door,” Park says. “But I don’t find it to be an obli­ga­tion. I want the chance to con­nect with them about their own rides.”

BRIAN BRANCH PRICE FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Michael Park, who plays the fa­ther of a de­ceased teenager in the Broad­way mu­si­cal “Dear Evan Hansen,” greets the show’s fans af­ter a re­cent per­for­mance at the Mu­sic Box Theatre in New York.

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