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Book writer Steven Levenson on the power of moral tension
In some ways, "You Will Be Found" is just a moving song. The power ballad that closes act one of Dear Evan Hansen, it marks the moment when Evan, a socially anxious teenager, delivers a heartfelt speech about a friend, Connor, who has recently met with tragedy. Shaking with emotion, Evan recalls a time that Connor helped him, and he reminds everyone who's listening that no matter how lonely they feel, someone will always come when they fall.
In this new Broadway musical, which is now at the Music Box, Evan's speech hits the internet and goes viral. By the end of "You Will Be Found," on stage screens are flashing with social media updates from around the world, all from people who are moved by Evan and Connor's friendship. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul invite us to share those feelings, matching Evan's experience with stirring chords and lyrics.
But it's more complicated than that. Unlike Evan's fans and family, we know there's a lie inside Evan's story. So even while we're getting moved by his song, we can't quite shake our awareness that it's a little... off.
Steven Levenson, who wrote the musical's book, relishes this contradiction. "The story gave us – and especially the composers – permission to go to really soaring places emotionally, but hopefully without risking sentimentality," he says. "People are able to tell their truth and get at their truth through something that fundamentally isn't true. That's part of what was fun for me about writing it. There's constantly a negotiation between what the characters know and what they don't know."
This isn't to say Dear Evan Hansen is a dark or cynical show. The characters – including Evan's mother and Connor's family – go through enormous, meaningful change, and their growth just complicates the moral picture.
The creative team has been refining this tension across several productions. Before Broadway, the show played last year at D.C.'s Arena Stage, and earlier this year it was Off Broadway at Second Stage. In each case, the balance of love and deception has been carefully tweaked. "In D.C. we had a much darker song there [at the end of act one]," says Levenson. "It felt more ominous and more colored by the lie, and what we discovered is that it was better to let the two things just coexist. It allows us to have that moment with the characters – and especially with Evan – feeling this soaring triumph, with us knowing that it's not true. But without us having to point to the idea or signal to it. Because it's there."
The tone of the show is also aided by the cast, many of whom have been involved since the initial workshops almost three years ago. As Evan, for instance, Ben Platt conveys a rush of teenage emotion that makes it clear he didn't mean to become a liar and that he is desperately searching for connections to other people. He also gives the character a distinct way of speaking – words tumbling out in a jumble, like he's always nervous and never quite sure if he's saying the right thing. This reminds us that for everything he's set into motion, he's still just a kid.
Platt's performance has inspired Levenson's writing. "I did a bunch of research on social anxiety," he says. "It can be silence. It can be people that are just so shut down they don't speak, or it can be the way Evan speaks, with that endless halting, that endless correcting and going back. So for me, that voice was there from the beginning. But Ben is so facile with language and so in tune with the character that it gave me permission to keep going with that. I feel like the character has gone more in that direction because of Ben."
He continues, "In my experience, the best writing always has an actor's voice in it. It's that paradox of 'the more specific, the more universal.' So I shamelessly write to Ben's voice. He does it the way I hear it in my head, which is really exciting."
Follow TDF Stages editor Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photos (taken from the Second Stage production) by Michael Murphy. Top photo: Ben Platt as Evan.
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