How We Wrote It: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on Imagining a 'Dear Evan Hansen' Anthem

Dear Evan Hansen
Dirty Sugar Photographer

Dear Evan Hansen's Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul.

It's near impossible to imagine Dear Evan Hansen, the breakout hit musical nominated for nine Tonys, without its rousing first act closing number, "You Will Be Found." The song arrives at a pivotal moment in the the show, when Ben Platt's Evan finally overcomes his crippling social anxiety -- but also begins to wholly buy into a lie he's crafted which underlies the show's plot.

But there was a time a couple of years ago when the song didn't exist, and composer/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul had to totally reconceive the previous act one closer.  

On the eve of their own nomination for best original score, Pasek and Paul told Billboard about how they put together the song that would come to represent Dear Evan Hansen so well that now, it's become a hashtag, too.

At what point in the process of writing the show did “You Will Be Found” come along?

Justin Paul: It came pretty late. It was basically the second to last song we wrote, between the D.C. and off Broadway productions. After D.C. was our first chance to see what was working and what wasn’t, and we felt like the end of the first act wasn’t reaching its full potential. The drama didn’t feel high enough, it for some reason felt murky. We had a song in place called “A Part of Me” that was like a vestige of an old approach we’d taken, to comment on the peculiar and slightly disturbing nature of people grabbing on to a tragedy, especially on social media -- the idea of “This thing’s now a part of my life…”

Benj Pasek: And I’m a part of it.

Paul: It was a slightly cynical point of view on our part, pointing a finger at the weirdness of it. We left D.C. planning to write something new.

Pasek: But we didn’t really have clarity; there wasn’t the moment that exists now in which Evan gives a big speech. We realized we were looking for an event that would happen where once Evan did something he could never go back. So with Steven Levenson [the book writer] we came up with this dramatic moment when he drops his note cards and pulls himself up.

Paul: As songwriters, our job should be to take the most emotionally potent moment and make a song out of that, and we were sort of glossing over this moment -- it’s a huge deal when Evan gives a speech for the first time in public. He almost retreats back into himself, and he ends up touching a nerve and going viral. It’s an exciting, juicy moment, and yet we’d done a bad job.

Pasek: This is when he begins to believe his own lie. But by singing this song, he’s also kind of saving himself from a similar tragic fate. We wanted to write something that for Evan and the community was really uplifting.

Paul: We thought we had to write something really dark sounding because there’s so much irony happening. But the context gives it the irony; we don’t have to put it into the song. Maybe we can have a richer experience by going to the positive emotional place, and at the very end, don’t forget there’s a lie -- and curtain.

So many of the songs in the show have a very confident pop sensibility, and this one almost reminds me of “Like a Prayer” in how it just keeps building up to the end.

Pasek: This is less of a traditional theater song than I think we’ve written in the past. We were nervous because it leans toward more of a hybrid, an inspirational anthem.

Paul: People have reached out to us like, “We listen to ‘You Will Be Found’ and it’s so inspiring,’ and we find that really interesting  and ironic. I mean, we love that, but also come see it in the show, it’s not exactly what you think it is! It was always meant to play on those two levels. 

How does the process usually go when you two sit down to write?

Pasek: Bloodbath. Broken chairs, broken mirrors! [laughs]

Paul: A lot of times, we frontload the writing/conversing about what the content of the song is. We knew Evan is going to sing this, it has to be in his voice, in a tone that works for that character. Then we’ll try and zero in on some sort of something we can tether everything to -- the all encompassing idea, like the hook in a pop song. So “You Will Be Found” -- that encompasses everything Evan wishes were true. 

Pasek: Hopefully you find a phrase that works with the literal and also with the metaphor. And then we tried to consider its reprise later in the show, what could we use lyrically and musically? That the opposite could be true -- you will be found out.

Paul: Then we’ll start to musicalize that phrase. If we can find a way to tuck it into a chorus, or some musical phrase, when we’re staring at the blank page it helps to have something. And we build out around that; I’ll start to fill out some music around the chorus, Benj will fill in some lyrics, we go back and forth. This song, because the beginning comes out of a speech and Steven had written us up to that moment, [Evan’s] kind of speak singing. It can be hard to say, “Let me write some music lines that are speak sing-y.” It’s hard to find a shape to that. For this kind of song, it helps to musicalize and lyricize in the moment.

How does hearing Ben Platt sing it affect the writing?

Paul: I mean, we wrote it for him… for his voice.

Pasek: We’d been working with him for two years; we definitely had him in mind.

Paul: He brought his own little special flairs, and such emotional honesty to it. At this point in the process, the cast was pretty much the same all the way through, and that was such a help. You can do the test in your head of, can I hear Ben Platt’s voice? Or I don’t buy it.

This song is a great example of one of the more impressive feats of your songwriting -- turning internet chatter into music.

Pasek: Very technically, for musical theater songs, you’re trying to write songs that progress lyrically. We were able to have something that got in someone’s head quicker because the lyric repeats. And we got away with that because dramatically, the song grows because the visual world is getting bigger, the digital component of it, the images scattered around the stage, the building voices helps it feel anthemic and musically theatrical at the same time.

Paul: There was something we liked about “Part of Me” in the piano figure, a constant percolating thing, and we wanted to have that same thing in the vamp “You Will Be Found” keeps coming back to, that constant motion, things are happening. It’s like Evan gets the seed of the idea and it just grows and grows, and by the bridge it’s a wall of sound , like the whole internet is resounding with this idea. Big unison vocals, big gospel kinda harmonies -- like, ‘Oh my gosh, the whole world has opened up and it’s a new dawn.’

Tony Awards 2017


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