How did you become involved in the show in the first place? After working with Lin-Manuel Miranda on several shows -- In the Heights, Bring It On, Hamilton -- were you looking to do something that felt different?
I wasn’t actively looking. Being a music director, you’re essentially a freelancer and things happen when they happen. [Dear Evan Hansen] was actually workshopping before Hamilton. But there was really a mutual admiration between myself and Justin Paul, and we had dinner once when I was in previews for Bring It On and just kinda hit it off. I got to see [Pasek and Paul’s musical] Dogfight after that, which I loved, and not long after that I got a call saying there was a show they were working on, and they didn’t send me a script or a demo or anything: Justin just came to my apartment and sat at my piano and described the show and played the songs. Very old-school dog and pony show.
How did you know it was the project for you?
The first song he played for me was "Waving Through a Window," and all I know is I heard that and was like, "Sign me up." Many of the songs he played for me actually are in the show to this day. On the strength of the music, I knew I wanted to work on it. There came a point when we had a meeting after a reading and were discussing the timeline of Dear Evan Hansen, and I had to raise my hand, saying, “Hamilton is coming at just around that time!” Fortunately, they were very cool about making the space for me. When the show started out in D.C., I was able to bring a friend of mine in to help them get the show up and running while I had Hamilton; he kind of held the chair for me so I could revisit that after Hamilton.
You have a lot of experience working with composers who take a more pop-oriented approach to Broadway music. What to you was unique about Benj and Justin’s sound on this show?
What’s amazing about them as composers is no two shows sound the same, and their penchant for pop is really strong. “Waving” is just so hooky, that melody is so perfect. It hews toward just the right amount of pop. That lyric “tap tap tappin’ on the glass,” that is a lyric that would have as perfect a home in a pop song you’d hear on the radio as it does in a musical theater song.
And another thing is a lot of the songs have a trance-like, calming feel, a meditative quality, very centered while being very tense and yearning at the same time, a really wonderful mix of stuff. [Pasek and Paul] take their craft really seriously. They really work relentlessly to make sure the music is as good as it can be. The level of quality in the melodies, the chord progressions, the writing is just at a really high level.
After Hamilton, the music for Dear Evan Hansen must almost feel like chamber music -- it’s a fairly small pit, with lots of guitar, piano and strings.
It’s funny, I actually did look at Hamilton like a chamber piece. It was a little more electronic in its chamber-ness. But Dear Evan Hansen is much more chamber-like, in that it’s mostly acoustic piano, not a lot of synth, the strings do carry a lot of the emotion -- which, actually, is also a lot like Hamilton. I was told by one of the string players in Dear Evan Hansen who played in both pits that the string parts for Dear Evan Hansen are actually harder! I just love how expressive strings are; they can be very sweet and romantic, but also very aggressive and crispy and staccato when you need. When Justin and Benj write their songs, they actually write a lot on acoustic guitar. That feel was very present in the song variety. It became very much the background for a lot of the songs.
For a long time you led and played in the pit for Hamilton -- why did you choose not to for Dear Evan Hansen?
The main decision just had to do with having the chair at Hamilton and wanting to stay there. Before Hamilton, I hadn’t held a Broadway chair since 2009, about six years, and between that I supervised a lot. Supervising gives you a lot more freedom in having a global picture of the show; you’re not tied to the pit, you have the audience perspective, and when you make changes you have a little more time because you’re not also worried about playing the piano part correctly. [Laughs] When Hamilton came along, that was the show I was waiting for to get back into the saddle to conduct full-time. I did that about a year and a half, and my choice to not conduct Dear Evan Hansen was mostly to finish my term there, and also to have that global picture. To have that bird's eye view. And a little more objectivity. You’re not the lobster inside the pot, where you can’t really tell what’s going on because you’re so in it.
The songs in this show, more than most shows other than Hamilton, come as close as I’ve heard to sounding like pop songs I could have heard on the radio; some of them call to mind Ben Folds, Billy Joel, early Sheryl Crow…
Yeah exactly right. I know Benj and Justin love Madi Diaz and Sara Bareilles, that very writer-y, honest, melody-based music. They’re very drawn to that, and also to really special sounds of voices, kind of an alternative voice, for lack of a better word, to stuff that doesn’t sound common. When I’m listening to music for myself, I like left-of-center alternative stuff. I love Radiohead, Dirty Projectors, Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles, but I also love Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Adele -- pop stuff. I love Bon Iver and Led Zeppelin. My taste is pretty eclectic.
There are so many very unique voices in this cast, starting with Ben’s. Does that affect how you approach the arrangements?
That all just happened the way it happened. Benj and Justin will write around a certain voice; that informs them as composers. I’m sure they had Rachel [Bay Jones]’s voice in mind when they wrote “So Big, So Small,” and then Ben Platt can just sing anything, and you utilize that how you can. The actual orchestration felt very organic; it flowed out of me in a really good way. I felt like I knew what these songs needed and sounded like. I feel like I’m in tune with Justin and Benj in that respect. With Hamilton I demo’d every song, played every instrument at my computer so I could hear it back, so I could get it right before I even had the band in the room. The instrumentation on Dear Evan Hansen was much simpler: I didn’t have to go fishing around for cool sounds, I just knew what that acoustic guitar was going to sound like, so I could just write.
This seems like a fairly quick turnaround time to put out an original cast recording -- was there a feeling of wanting to ride the wave of the viral success the show is having?
It’s funny, it wound up being about the same amount of time as Hamilton. I would say in terms of time to turn around a cast album, it was just about right. Justin and Benj are perfectionists in the same way I am, so we had to check in with each other a lot. We recorded over the course of a week, and we did it in sections. Rhythm by itself, strings by itself and most of the vocalists separately. In a song where everyone sings like the finale, there were no more than three people in the room at the same time. We had Ben in one day by himself, the moms in one day by themselves. It was all spread out, again so we could really focus on getting good takes and good performances. I did that method on Hamilton and it was incredibly helpful in terms of getting really clean, really powerful, emotional performances from both the vocalists and the band.
You’re executive producer on this album -- what does that mean in terms of your duties in the studio?
It was my job to actually call Atlantic and get them to be supportive, but also to draw up the schedule, to say who we record when, to just kind of make sure we were on schedule, confer with our mixer in L.A., listen to his tracks, give my notes to him from afar, organize what day we listen to the full album. Giving notes between takes to the singers and to the band, compiling the director’s and composers’ and my notes so they don’t feel everyone’s ganging up on them, creating a fun environment in the studio. Listening to vocal takes, polishing everything up. Very hands-on.
You worked with Atlantic on the Hamilton original Broadway cast recording as well. What do they get about Broadway right now, and about doing an cast recording the right way?
It’s been brilliant. I have to hand it to Pete [Ganbarg, Atlantic’s head of A&R]. I had a dream of working with Atlantic, and when we were off-Broadway, they asked. I emailed Pete, and he saw it, heard it -- he already knew about Justin and Benj because they’re putting out [the upcoming movie] The Greatest Showman [for which Pasek and Paul wrote music]. It all just kinda made sense.