The Washington Post Sunday
Why ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is a Broadway must-see
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.”