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Dear Evan Hansen Is a First for Writers Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson

This very contemporary new musical is gearing up for its world premiere at Arena Stage.

Over the past several years, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have made names for themselves with their acclaimed stage adaptations of the films Dogfight and A Christmas Story. At the same time, playwright Steven Levenson has been on the rise as well, with works like Core Values and The Language of Trees. Currently joined together, the trio are boldly going where they've never gone before. They're writing a wholly original musical.

That musical, Dear Evan Hansen, begins previews tonight, July 11, at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Levenson has not written a show with songs before, and with the exception of their acclaimed song cycle Edges, Pasek and Paul have never worked on a project that comes without source material. They haven't exactly chosen the easiest subject matter, either: the musical takes a look at contemporary teenage life through the lens of Evan Hansen (Pitch Perfect's Ben Platt), who's got the girl of his dreams, the family he's always wanted, and a secret that could destroy his chance at connection.

Working on the musical since 2011, Pasek, Paul, and Levenson are relishing this opportunity, which they've always longed for, but they've also learned it's a lot harder than they ever imagined.

Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson are the writers of Dear Evan Hansen, which is having its world premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
(© David Gordon)

Benj and Justin, this is not only your first wholly original musical, but it's also your first piece set in the present day. Were those two things that you had on your musical-theater bucket list?
Benj Pasek: We definitely wanted to tell a contemporary story and write a contemporary score for an actual musical. We've written contemporary songs for Edges, which is now ten years ago. We wrote a little on Smash, but it's not part of a whole musical. We wanted to write about our generation while we are still relatively young and have something to say about being alive and growing up when we grew up.

Justin Paul: We really wanted to start something that felt like it was in the same family of the songs that we listen to on the radio. Not in a super-poppy, 2015 way, but a singer-songwriter kind of vibe. One of the things that's so strong about the book of the show is that it's incredibly contemporary and fresh, so it forced us to make sure that we were creating songs that felt really authentic to these characters and this world. It pushed us to write stuff that could exist now.

This seems to be the summer for that, what with plays like Significant Other and The Spoils and Gloria, all of which are extremely relatable for people in their twenties and thirties.
Benj: Our goal for this show was to write something that felt like those kinds of plays. Gloria and Significant Other are super-contemporary, which is why we were so excited to get Steven to write the book. He writes plays like that, fresh and original, and feel like they really are about our generation. He was at the top of our list when we were reading all of the young playwrights who were coming out of places like Ars Nova. His writing really popped.

Steven, this is your first musical. What's it like to make the transition after writing nonmusical plays?
Steven Levinson: It's been a whirlwind. I'm so used to writing plays in isolation that it's exciting to work with other people from the beginning and shape a story collectively. I know musicals not as well as these guys, but I love musicals. I feel like, honestly, this has been a crash course in just throwing things at the wall and seeing what's worked and what hasn't. It's been hugely educational. I feel like I've learned how musicals work by trying other things and seeing how those rules really do matter.

Ben Platt as Evan Hansen and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage.
(© Joan Marcus)

Benj and Justin, you've been writing songs together since college, and have worked with outside book writers on all your projects. In that respect, which came first, the songs or the text?
Steven: What was so scary at the beginning was that, because we didn't have anything to go on, it was a game of chicken. Who starts? I think we decided the smartest thing to do was for me to start writing it as though it were a play, to give us the feeling that there is some ground beneath our feet. From there, we've gone back and forth, somewhat organically, and I'll take a stab or vice versa. Because Benj and Justin have been working together for so long and have such a shorthand, definitely at the beginning I felt a lot of "How will I penetrate that?" I hope now, after all these years, we're comfortable throwing things back and forth.

Benj: It's inspired by real events that happened in my high school, but that's theme as opposed to the actual plot. Everything that we did we invented, and we had to figure out a way to communicate it. Having Steven as a collaborator is amazing, because the way that we really approached it is like a play that we then adapted. It's an ever-shifting, ever-changing play.

Justin: Steven really helped us transform what was just a general sense of "What if it was about this?" into a story about a character and a family.

What pros and cons have you discovered about writing a musical from the ground up?
Steven: You have such tremendous freedom when it's an original idea. We can change anything, and we're not beholden to any preexisting material, characters, plot points, and that freedom is both intoxicating and terrifying. Because yes, we can change anything at a moment's notice, but what we have in place we have no reason to believe is solid. Nobody else has already proven that it's already worked.

Justin: If we change one small thing about a character, it could unravel their whole arc, which has happened, many times. This song they sing and that song they sing don't make sense anymore. We had major, major things that changed even in the last couple of months, major things about who these characters are, that have had huge ripple effects that forced us to rewrite songs and write totally different songs. It's constantly changing.

Benj: People talk about musicals being hard to write. It was totally new and scary and a really exciting experience for us.

Top: Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena in Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan's musical Dogfight at Second Stage Theatre; bottom: David Morse and Rich Sommer in Steven Levenson's drama The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin at the Laura Pels Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)