Break a leg? More like break an arm. How a crack creative team's big gamble launched a Broadway hit.
Like so many great notions, this one began over food. Broadway producer Stacey Mindich was looking to sink her teeth (and money) into a new show, and she had her sights set on two young songwriters she had previously commissioned to adapt the 1991 film Dogfight. “I knew they had more talent in their fingertips than some people have in their whole bodies,” she says of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (now 31 and 32, respectively). She was right: The duo just took home a Golden Globe for their work on La La Land.
Mindich had long been “obsessed” with the pair’s song cycle Edges, which they wrote as undergrads, but the three didn’t necessarily start off on the right foot. Before they ever worked together, “I was a fan and sent them a check to buy a demo from their website — but I never got it,” Mindich, 52, says with a laugh. “When they realized that I was a producer, they freaked out.” (Apparently they didn’t freak out that much: To this day, she has never received the demo.) The trio reconvened in spring of 2009 for a meal on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — “They were very hungry in those days,” Mindich says — and she asked if they’d been sitting on any passion projects they simply didn’t have the means to pursue. That’s when Pasek and Paul first shared their idea for what would become Dear Evan Hansen.
Now that kernel has grown into a bona fide Broadway hit, complete with stellar reviews, more than $15 million in advance sales, and a whole lot of Tony buzz. But it took nearly eight years to get there.
When Pasek was in high school, a fellow student died of a drug overdose, resulting in Pasek and his classmates inserting themselves into the tragedy in an attempt to feel closer to the deceased. The story had been in the back of Pasek’s and Paul’s minds as a possible musical since meeting at the University of Michigan as musical-theater majors. There, they bonded over the fact that perhaps they weren’t the most favored actors in their class — in a production of City of Angels, Pasek was “Man With Camera” and Paul was a coroner with one line. (Full disclosure: This writer is a friend of Pasek’s.) After hearing their pitch, Mindich says, “on the outside I was smiling and thinking, ‘I’m gonna do this story no matter what.’ But on the inside I was thinking, ‘What?! How am I going to make this happen?'” Paul was thrilled by her leap of faith: “It was a risky move on her part. You can’t just sit around and write a passion piece! I mean, you can, but it’s hard to…survive.”
Mindich drafted playwright Steven Levenson (The Language of Trees), a musical novice, and he wrote a 10-page treatment. “None of us really understood what we were undertaking,” says Levenson, who worked tirelessly with Pasek and Paul to flesh out the world of Evan — an outsider with a crippling secret that snowballs thanks to social media and the desire to connect. “It was like holding hands with your collaborators, jumping off a cliff and saying, ‘I hope we land together,'” notes Pasek.
That landing wasn’t exactly smooth: Only two weeks into their work, Levenson scored his first TV gig, as a writer on NBC’s The Playboy Club. He moved to L.A. and spent the next year flying back to New York City every few weeks for coffee-fueled brainstorming sessions in Paul’s apartment. “Inevitably, we would start by throwing out whatever we had discussed the last time,” says Levenson, now 32. “The whole thing was really intense and feverish.” Between trips, Mindich and the creative team researched troubled teens and consulted with adolescent behavioral psychologists, and the songwriters emailed videos of themselves at a piano with the beginnings of what would become their gut-wrenching score. There was also the time that Levenson played hooky from his TV job, feigning food poisoning, to meet with his co-writers while they were in L.A.
With a first act in hand, Mindich invited renowned director Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal) to her office for a reading in 2012. Pasek and Paul sang the songs, and Mindich herself read the part of Evan’s mother. (“It’s never been played so poorly,” she jokes.) Notes Greif, “I don’t think any of the songs I initially heard remain in the show, but it struck me as very exciting and original. There was fantastic juxtaposition and tension in the material.” With Greif on board, the show started to seem like a real possibility. “There were times when we felt we were wandering in the wilderness,” remembers Paul. “To have Michael come in and say ‘I will guide you, my children’ was a huge relief and inspiration.” Now it was time to find a cast.
Though he became known more widely as Pitch Perfect‘s magic-wielding Benji, Ben Platt had already made an impression on theatergoers with his turns in Book of Mormon and Caroline, or Change, and he was Pasek’s first choice for the anxiety-riddled Evan. Greif was a fan as well — Platt had auditioned for Next to Normal as a teen but was too young at the time. Now 23, Platt jumped at the chance to have first crack at a character. “To be originating a role is a lifelong dream,” he says. “This is something I needed to invest my time in, and I’m very glad that I did.”