Onstage at New York City’s Town Hall at a splashy event hosted by Queer Eye stars Antoni Porowski and Tan France, the creative team of Dear Evan Hansen, including creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and Steven Levenson, are celebrating a milestone: the release of Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel. It was a project that came to fruition as the solution to a problem many playwrights can only dream of.
“We were so completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and realized that there were so many people who hadn’t even gotten the chance to see the show,” says Levenson of his hit Tony-winning musical. “We wanted to find a way to get this story to more people and get past the barriers the Broadway theater ticket puts up. Aside from the touring productions, we can only get 1,000 people a night inside, so there’s a physical limit to who can get inside.”
While seeking to both reach a wider audience and expand on the show’s rich characters, the idea of releasing a book came up. “It felt like a novel was a way to deepen and broaden this story and explore new things, so we started to talk about it from there.” Now, two years after the show became a breakout hit on the Great White Way, Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel provides another aspect of the experience. Spearheaded by Levenson, Pasek and Paul, the three recruited novelist Val Emmich to expand a story first brought to life onstage.
“We had a lot of material we had written for the show about the characters, which gave you a backstory that never saw the light of day,” explains Paul. “Having gone through the process of the show with all of the actors and director, there was so much discussion about why the characters are the way they are and what happens offstage beyond what you see in the show.” Emmich joined the fray after Levenson, Pasek and Paul began researching novelists. “We didn’t have the expertise to put pen to paper to write this, so we started reading a lot of novelists and found Val,” says Levenson. “We just really responded to his work and felt that his voice was the one we were looking for.”
Despite having a rich amount of source material, Emmich was initially intimidated by the task of transferring the beloved Broadway musical to the page. “After seeing the show, it was like, ‘How am I going to do this?’” Emmich explains. “I felt a lot of pressure, but the guys and the story were there to guide me. I didn’t have to reinvent anything, I just had to sort of deliver it in a gentle way.” Adds Paul: “We had a lot of strong opinions we didn’t even know we had. Val would write something and we’d say, ‘That’s totally the character!’ Or, ‘No, no, no — he would never say that.’ One of the greatest joys and discoveries of the process was when we said to Val to push it a little bit.”
The launch event — which also featured guest star Darren Criss performing the musical’s signature “Waving Through a Window,” and current Hansen cast member Alex Boniello and former cast member and current star of Be More Chill Will Roland crooning “Sincerely Me” — is just one of the end results of a process that’s taken over a decade.
“We’ve been working on this show for a hot minute,” laughs Pasek of its slow evolution, which originally began when he and Paul began plotting in 2006 while attending the University of Michigan. “We didn’t meet Steven until late 2010, and from there it was a six-and-a-half-year process getting it to Broadway. These things take a long time.”
For Pasek, the experience has been worthwhile. “I think the most important part is that we hear from both younger and older people that this show matters and has meaning for them. It sparks conversations between parents and kids and helps them understand each other better, with kids saying, ‘Oh, now I know what my mom is sacrificing in a single-parent home’ or parents saying they understand their children, shedding a light on really difficult topics like depression or suicide or anxiety. So I think for all of us, we feel very lucky to have written something that has resonated with people and to get to hear back from the people who it’s affecting is a thrill in and of itself.”
As the night wrapped up, actor-singer Mykal Kilgore delivered a rendition of the heart-rending “You Will Be Found,” which was met with a standing ovation. Along the way, he too expanded on the themes of the show with a poignant riff: “Do not give up.”