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Theatre & Performance How the songwriters behind Dear Evan Hansen create sympathy for an online liar

The United States of America is a land that loves its liars – and you could argue that its greatest original art form, the musical, has played a major role in making that the case, with its long history of charming dissemblers singin’ and dancin’ and lyin’ their way into audiences’ hearts.

From the conscious con artist of The Music Man to the deluded missionaries in The Book of Mormon, a recurring message of many a Broadway hit has been that, sometimes, falsehoods can bring genuine joy to a small Midwestern town or a war-torn African village. A metaphor for musicals themselves – or, perhaps, the American Dream.

Dear Evan Hansen, the smash hit about to open its first international production in Toronto, is the latest musical to take on the topic – but audaciously updated for our times and placed in a recognizable, modern social-media landscape where fabulists are more pervasive than ever.

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Its titular teenage anti-hero – whose escalating lies in the wake of a high-school classmate’s suicide transform him into an inspirational YouTube star – is the creation of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the suddenly ubiquitous Oscar-winning and Grammy-winning songwriting team also behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman.

On a visit to Toronto earlier this month, there was no shortage of fuel for discussion about the relevance of the themes of the Tony-winning musical – whether the collective online grieving of former 90210 star Luke Perry, or the reactions to the airing of the Michael Jackson documentary Finding Neverland on HBO.

“We were interested in … how we feel when something beautiful grows out of a lie,” says Paul, sitting next to his partner in rhyme at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

“How are people going to respond to Michael Jackson after the last two days?” Pasek asks.

Watching Pasek and Paul energetically debate the question, bounce ideas off each other and finish each other’s sentences, you can understand how the hyperintelligent pair were identified as the next big thing even before they had graduated from the University of Michigan, where they met and began collaborating.

Less than a decade after the composer/lyricist team won the Jonathan Larson Award (named after the late creator of Rent) in 2007, however, they became an even bigger thing than had been foretold, all at once, on both stage and screen.

In the same year Dear Evan Hansen hit Broadway, La La Land, which featured songs they wrote with composer Justin Hurwitz, landed in cinemas – and won them an Academy Award for best song (for City of Stars).

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Those two pop-culture phenomena quickly brought Pasek and Paul, then barely into their 30s, three-quarters of the way to “EGOT” status (all that eludes them is the Emmy in EGOT, Dear Evan Hansen’s original cast album having won them their Grammy).

But their influence only continues to increase, seemingly always two steps at a time: A Christmas Story Live!, based on an earlier, more conventional Broadway musical they worked on, was broadcast on Fox in late 2017, and that same month The Greatest Showman opened in cinemas.

That movie musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum looked as if it was going to finally humble Pasek and Paul when it had a soft opening and received mixed reviews (or, in the case of The Globe and Mail, a rare zero-star pan). But, instead, it only made them seem like an unstoppable force as the Hugh Jackman vehicle became what Forbes called “one of the leggiest movies ever,” eventually earning more than US$400-million worldwide, based mostly on Pasek and Paul’s addictive pop anthems such as This Is Me.

Partly because of that cognitive dissonance between critics and cinemagoers, and partly because the La La Land versus Moonlight Oscar showdown was a flashpoint in the culture wars, Pasek and Paul now are considered divisive artists in some corners. (“We were there,” says Pasek, seemingly still stunned, of that astonishing best-picture mix-up in 2017, as if it were his generation’s Woodstock.)

But the songwriting team doesn’t take it personally – and have an old-fashioned view of themselves as craftsmen writing tunes to serve projects. “We are writing for particular worlds, for particular stories, and some of those stories or some of those styles appeal to certain demographics and don’t appeal to others,” Pasek says. “We’re trying to be more invisible as artists.”

Dear Evan Hansen, however, is really their baby – the story of Evan (played in Toronto by the Stratford Festival’s Robert Markus) and the way he uses a tragedy to boost his sense of belonging, based on their own observations about their generation.

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While in high school, a classmate of Pasek’s died – and he was astonished by how other students, including those who didn’t really know him, started to talk as if they had been close friends with the deceased.

Similarly, when Paul was in college, someone he knew from high school died – and he was surprised to find people who had bullied his old classmate among those posting messages on Facebook about how much the person would be missed.

Says Paul: “There was this eerie thing where people were having this need to glom on to a tragedy."

Having come of age as artists alongside social media (Facebook first showed its face in their freshman year; YouTube the next), the two have always been fascinated by what Pasek calls “this moment when the bifurcation of who you are in the real world and who you are online was beginning.”

The interest is there in their early song cycle, Edges, which included a tune poking fun at poking-era Facebook called Be My Friend, which, somewhat ironically, spread widely online. “Though I don’t like you, we’ll pretend that we’re close,” is one of the lyrics.

That’s sort of Dear Evan Hansen in a single line – and Pasek and Paul’s first attempt at writing the show was similarly dark and satirical about behaviour on social media, and it didn’t work. “We started writing a version of the show … that was unappealing, that was cynical, just a heavy-handed condemnation,” Paul says.

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“We weren’t doing our job appropriately as writers or people who are supposed to empathize with characters, to get beneath an image of why someone does this,” Pasek says.

Once they hooked up with producer Stacey Mindich, the director Michael Greif (best known for another hit popular with youth a generation ago, Rent) and the playwright Steven Levenson, however, the two shifted gears to try to understand a character who would lie to the parents and sister of a dead child – and discovered the story of a son who needs a family, and a family who needs a son.

That they ultimately did such a great job of making audiences empathize with Hansen, ironically enough, has led to a different kind of criticism. The culture writer Jason Zinoman, for instance, wrote a counterpoint to the many rave reviews in a Slate essay headlined, Dear Evan Hansen, You Are A Creep: “[T]here’s something myopic about the biggest hit of the Broadway season celebrating a massive online fraud that helps a kid learn to be true to himself.”

Likewise, in a bizarre case of life imitating art, the inspirational song You Will Be Found that Evan sings, based on his non-existent friendship with Connor, his dead classmate, and which goes viral in the show – now pops up as an inspirational song online with the hashtag #YouWillBeFound. “There are a lot of people who know the song because they listen to the cast recording and then they come see the show and they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it is ironic,'" Paul says. “There’s a weird parallel."

For Dear Evan Hansen’s creators, however, the slipperiness of their own songs and the differing points of view about Evan – who they say they didn’t talk about in relation to The Music Man during creation, so much as Stephen Sondheim’s murderous barber Sweeney Todd – is all part of the project. “The intentional irony and the intentional push and pull, the moral ambiguity, is something we want audiences to walk out of the theatre and argue about," Pasek says.

"We’re living in a time where there’s so much anger that we want to hold people accountable for bad actions, as we should,” he says. “What the show is trying to present is that we are all, in different ways, broken in some ways and need to be healed.”

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Dear Evan Hansen opens March 28 at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre and is now in previews.

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