“Ok Michigan Daily! We see you!” was the greeting Benj Pasek and Justin Paul welcomed me with in a spare moment of their busy lives as burgeoning Broadway legends. To my elation, the University alumni were thrilled to converse with a fellow Wolverine.
Coming off of their 2017 Tony Award for “Dear Evan Hansen,” 2018 Oscar for Best Original Song for “La La Land” and 2018 Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album for “Dear Evan Hansen,” the pair is on the precipice of embarking on a national book tour, following the release of a “Dear Evan Hansen” novel.
Their acclaim, fame and popularity run rampant in mainstream pop culture and the theatre world alike these days. Writing the score for 2017 smash hit “The Greatest Showman,” Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” and Oscar-nominated “La La Land” certainly fostered quite the following. In addition to a resume stacked with film and stage musicals, the duo has also written original material for NBC’s “Smash” and the 2012 Off-Broadway musical “Dogfight.”
Their newest project takes them away from their home in musical theatre and into the literary world, pairing them with author Val Emmich and “Dear Evan Hansen” writer Steven Levenson to create a novelization of the cherished Broadway musical, allowing the musical to fill the minds of those who don’t have access to seeing the musical live.
When asked if he anticipated that “Dear Evan Hansen” would blow up the way it did the duo and writer Steven Levenson laughed.
“If we said yes, would you believe us?” Levenson asked, pausing. “No, we didn’t know. All three of us can confirm that when we began working on this show, we knew it would be incredibly fulfilling in the process of writing it — but we didn’t know the world would gravitate toward it.”
The world is more than gravitating toward “Dear Evan Hansen” — they are ravenous for it. This past week the New York musical grossed $1,444,251, with average ticket prices at $181 and the top ticket going for $488.
The audience reaction was nearly immediate — when the team saw the audience respond to the out-of-town tryout in D.C., they realized that people were going to truly fall in love with the characters they had created.
Putting characters that have been created for the stage on the page is unusual in the theatre world. Society is familiar with page-to-screen adaptations, or even page-to-stage, but the concept of transforming a musical into a novel is uncommon.
When the team first brought the show to Broadway, they started to notice that people were really connecting to the story and wanted to make it their own. People were hungry to dig into these characters and go deeper into their journey. And that’s the moment the team knew that the piece would thrive in a variety of mediums.
They wanted to expand to reach more people — especially those who do not have access to seats in New York’s Music Box theatre or the newly-launched national tour. They had to stop and ask themselves how they could reach a wider audience and go deeper — finding pieces of the story that were lost in the process of writing it. This in and of itself is a thrill –– being able to find nuggets of story and character they had to omit in the musical, and breathe them back to life. They wanted to make this story as accessible as possible, and that’s just what the novel seeks to do.
Responding to questions with a synchronized passion and heightened enthusiasm, it is clear that the three creators are mastering the art of collaboration. Where one leaves off, the other picks up seamlessly — almost sounding like one mind. For them, working together is a special alliance.
When Benj Pasek and Justin Paul went looking for authors who could work with them on the novel, they looked for the same things they had found in Steven Levenson (who wrote the book of the musical). They wanted to find someone who was in the world of Evan Hansen with them, who had the same language, who found the same things funny or ironic or sad. And that’s how they found author Val Emmich. They wanted this story, in all its forms, to fit together seamlessly — to feel like it has one voice.
After having the privilege to see the musical, it certainly feels as though the piece has one voice, and the novel is no exception to this sentiment. One thing that truly sticks out to me as exceptional in the musical is the dialogue. Pasek and Paul give the credit of such wonderful dialogue and character development to Levenson.
“‘Dear Evan Hansen’ the musical is basically a play with songs,” Pasek said. “Steven is a master of dialogue and character and relationships, and that guided how we created the musical. We created it in a way that lends itself to having a strong story at its core that has the ability to be adapted — hence the novel. So much so that during the process, sometimes Justin would say, ‘Are we sure we want to make this a musical and not a play?’”
The path of sharing the story with the world at large begins in early Oct., when the creators will embark on a 10-day book tour to speak to audiences and promote the book. On Oct. 11, the duo will return to Ann Arbor, the place where it all began. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek met in Ann Arbor, where they both studied for a BFA in musical theatre, and feel very passionately about coming back to the place where it all started.
“I think it’s a really sweet time because as we look back on everything, it reminds us how it isn’t that far away — college and learning things and our very early, mediocre, sloppy attempts at writing songs. That all happened in those practice rooms late at night. Our first songs together started in our friends’ apartments in Ann Arbor, in Kerrytown Concert House performances. This is all the beginning of what has led us to come back and speak to students,” began Justin Paul, sentimentally.
Benj Pasek picked up his statement with similar emotive feeling.
“It feels like such a long time ago, but it also feels so grounded, and it gives us so much hope for people. This is what happens when you’re surrounded by incredible people who are passionate about collaborating and learning. That’s what we learned at Michigan.”
It’s a really special thing to think about the places that we, as University students, go every day: the practice rooms we play the piano in for hours, the lecture halls where we learn and the studios where we create. We think about the potential before us, and about those who have been here and gone on to achieve greatness.
As a huge fan of Levenson, Pasek and Paul, I was curious as to what advice they have for young people interested in a career in the creative arts.
“Before you can be a theatre major, you need to be a theatre watcher. So much of the curve you go on as an artist is to find what electrifies you. Get as many free tickets as you can. See as much as you can. Read as much as you can,” Paul said passionately.
Pieces of art like “Dear Evan Hansen,” a musical where story makes love to melody and lyric, electrify so many of our tired, trying, anxious artist hearts. In the last moments of such a fervent conversation, I was excited to find out why the creators believe the book is a necessary installment in the modern American literary world.
“I think we’re really struck with the fact that we’re living in a time that people don’t want to speak to each other. ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is about our desire and our ability to connect with people,” Pasek claimed, and without missing a beat, Paul picked up smoothly mid-sentence:
“We all feel a little bit lonely. We all feel a little bit detached. And we all feel a longing to be a part of a community. We see these characters having to cross difficult lines or have difficult conversations. That’s the message of this piece.”
The novel is guaranteed to open the door (or window, rather) for difficult conversations, inner exploration and eye-opening truths. It is a truly sensational addition in the world of young adult fiction, a piece of art that will last in our minds and our hearts “for forever.”