WASHINGTON — Growing up in the age of social media, dealing with the drama of high school and feeling like an outcast all at the same time will provide some key ingredients for a new musical being developed in Washington.
The new show, "Dear Evan Hansen," has a powerful creative team from Broadway and a cast starring Ben Platt from "Pitch Perfect" fame. But does it have an equally strong story? That's the question audiences at Washington's Arena Stage will have to answer to help determine whether the project could have a life in New York City or beyond.
The show began previews Friday and has its opening on July 30. It's set to run through Aug. 23.
The idea is years in the making. Young songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, now both 30, began thinking about the concept in college, inspired by Pasek's remembrances of high school. Teaming up with writer Steven Levenson, they began thinking about how people use social media to involve themselves in tragic situations.
In the story, Evan Hansen is a soft-spoken, lonely misfit who has difficulty connecting with people. His therapist tells him to branch out more, be more outgoing. He ends up writing a private letter to himself but is thrown into the center of attention when that letter is accidentally made public. Everything gets blown out of proportion online, and Evan's letter is read by the grieving parents of another student who has killed himself — and they mistakenly believe Evan was their dead son's best friend.
Suddenly Evan is living a lie. But he's also found a family that cares about him.
It's a story about the dangers of looking elsewhere for validation — especially in social media where everyone can pass judgment on what you post. It's also a story for the age of the misfit getting his day in the sun, said Platt, 21, who has taken on similar roles as Benji in the "Pitch Perfect" movies and as Elder Cunningham in Broadway's "The Book of Mormon."
"I think that I understand people who march to the beat of their own drum," Platt said. "I guess what made me most excited right away was just getting to play somebody that felt like I knew him and that he was a real guy and was as funny and as anxious and quirky as he was. He felt like somebody who everybody knows."
It's a character and a story with dark elements — morally murky, Levenson said, but emotionally vibrant.
Pasek and Paul said they developed the show with Platt in mind after he auditioned for another of their musicals.
"I think you fall in love with him on stage very easily," Paul said.
"Ben straddles both worlds of what is perceived to be right and wrong beautifully and balances it really, really beautifully," Pasek said. "That ability is rare."
The songwriters wanted to create something fresh that would feel relevant but still in keeping with a traditional musical format. So it was a challenge to create characters who felt true to life but then would break into song, Paul said.
They began with the theme of the human need for connection and acceptance — especially in a digitally connected world that can feel isolating.
"We wanted to write something that felt contemporary and something that felt like it spoke about our generation in a way that we had the opportunity to do, being the age that we are," Pasek said.
The story began to take further shape when director Michael Greif came on board. Greif directed Broadway's "Rent," ''Next to Normal" and "If/Then" — all contemporary musicals. He brought the latter two shows to Washington for development before their Broadway debuts as well because he likes the audience.
Greif said he was drawn in to "Dear Evan Hansen" by the writing team, the subject and the story's emotional credibility.
"I'm always looking for musicals in which there is something to sing about, and the sort of levels of despair and levels of joy that this musical attains, I think, really sing very beautifully," Greif said. "It's always a good time for a great story like this."
Now he'll be looking to Washington's audience to see how the story needs to evolve as "Dear Evan Hansen" is tweaked and honed on stage.
Arena Stage: http://www.arenastage.org/
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