Like Rent and Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen has become that rare Broadway phenomenon, a hit musical that has entered the popular consciousness in a big way. It’s the story of Evan Hansen, a high school senior with severe social anxiety. After the death of a classmate, Evan lies about how close they were, which has profound effects on his place in his community and his sense of himself. The musical has broken new ground in musical theater by dealing with the topic of mental illness head-on and presenting a story set entirely in a teenage world.
The story is based on an experience that cowriter Benj Pasek (along with Justin Paul and Steven Levenson) had in high school. “A kid that I did not know very well had passed away. And I remember the entire school community kind of glomming on to his tragedy, and I glommed on to it, too,” says Pasek. In their early conversations about creating the musical, Paul pointed out that a similar kind of response occurred among his fellow teenagers after 9/11. Pasek says their conversations hovered around “wanting to understand why in particular our generation was so eager to find a place for themselves in a tragedy that they had no part of and didn’t earn.”
“What was intended as a condemnation of our generation,” Paul continues, “becomes a look at what loneliness, especially in contemporary society, might drive one to do.” While that may sound like an unlikely premise for a musical—though Dear Evan Hansen proves it’s not—it has the obvious makings of a novel.
The huge success of the show was a surprise to its creators. It began in Washington, D.C., then came to New York off-Broadway. “Then,” says Paul, “as the momentum grew, we were able to bring the show to Broadway, which was the dream of a lifetime. Once that happened, there was the question of what could happen next with this story, and these characters, and this little world that had been created.”
The inspiration for the novel came from an unlikely source. Levenson chimes in: “What we discovered, much to our surprise, was that people really related to these characters and this show, and the score. We started to find fans of the show who were creating their own narratives about the characters. There was a lot of fan fiction emerging. And a lot of imagining what these people are like outside of the events that we show.” Even more surprising was that many of these fans hadn’t even seen the musical. “It began to occur to us that you can only get a certain number of people into a Broadway house every night,” says Levenson.
Suddenly, a novel seemed like the best way to bring Evan’s story to a wider audience. “It turned out that there were publishers who were interested in going on this journey with us,” Levenson continues. “The first thing we knew we needed was somebody who actually knew how to write a novel, which none of us did.”
Enter Val Emmich—songwriter, actor, and author of the 2017 novel The Reminders. Could there be a more qualified person to novelize a musical than a singing actor who writes? According to Emmich, after seeing the show for the first time, “I thought, man, this is going to be hard to do. It’s a credit to the story the guys created that it can sustain a novel. A novel has different limitations, just like a musical has its own set of limitations.” And while the novel follows the story of the musical closely, Levenson says Emmich has been able to follow threads the musical couldn’t get deeper into, like particular characters and backstories, and “add completely new layers.”
As for whether “the guys” would prefer you to see the show or read the book first, they don’t really care. Once the book has made its way in the world, says Pasek, “We don’t want the audience to know which came first, whether it started with the stage show or whether it started with the novel. I think Val has done what we had always hoped for, which was really almost lead you to believe that the musical could have been adapted from this. That is really exciting for all of us.”
Today, 12:15–1 p.m. the creators of Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel will appear on a panel together in Room 1E10.