When hit Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” turned a spotlight on teen suicide and the challenges of responsibly telling stories about it, Broadway fans took note, because “Dear Evan Hansen” — the musical that has looked like a Tony Awards favorite since its fall opening — also revolves around a teen suicide. In the musical, protagonist Evan lets what he thinks is a white lie about his relationship with Connor, the classmate who took his own life, spiral out of control. The show’s Tony-nominated songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, sat down with Variety to talk about the care they took in writing about the issue.
Mild spoilers for “Dear Evan Hansen” follow.
What did you find to be the challenges of writing about teen suicide as you were creating “Dear Evan Hansen”?
Paul: We wanted to make sure the subject was treated thoughtfully and sensitively. There was vetting of the script and of the story with mental health professionals, to make sure what we were telling felt truthful and honest, and like we weren’t trying to sugarcoat things, but that also wasn’t trying to provoke anything. There’s a small change in the show that we made between Second Stage and Broadway, the addition of two little lines toward the very, very end of the show, that we added after some feedback that we’d gotten from families of teenagers or people who had taken their own lives.
Which lines in particular?
Paul: Our story necessitates that Connor — the real Connor — leave us very early on, and then he becomes peoples’ versions of him.
Pasek: He becomes an extension of Evan.
Paul: And other peoples’ versions of him. That’s a big point of the story. But there was a worry about making sure to humanize Connor, and making sure we didn’t just brush away that suicide. So when we came to Broadway, [book writer] Steven [Levenson] had the idea to add a line about Evan finding a list of Connor’s favorite books in an old yearbook, and Evan about trying to read all those books.
Pasek: To get to know who Connor really was. And between the production at Arena Stage and the one at Second Stage,we made it much more overt that Evan had tried to take his own life. That allows the audience to recognize that this invention of Evan’s was really to save himself, and I think that fundamentally changed the audience’s ability to understand or sympathize or empathize with why he did what he did.
What kinds of responses have you gotten from audiences around the subject of teen suicide?
Paul: People reach out to us, and people reach out to the show. The producers have partnered with The JED foundation, the Child Mind Institute, The Trevor Project — some of them were involved in the show even before we first put the show up professionally.
Pasek: Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, Crisis Text Line. There are all these mechanisms set up that if someone reaches out about that, in a very personal way — which people have been doing — they are immediately reached back out to by a professional.
Paul: People come up to our actors after the show, and it’s wonderful that they have this sort of identification with these characters, but the actors don’t have the tools to be able to guide someone. So our producing team has figured out ways to be able to connect people to mental health professionals.
This is the second time you’ve been part of the Tony race, after “A Christmas Story.” How awards season treating you?
Pasek: The best part is getting to hang out with all these people.
Paul: We were at an event last night with other Tony nominees —
Pasek: I was seated next to Condola Rashad [of “A Doll’s House, Part 2”] and Cynthia Erivo [who won a Tony for last year’s “The Color Purple”].
Paul: And I was with Rachel Chavkin [the director of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”], who I didn’t know at all until last night. I got to have a wonderful, deep conversation about religion with her.
Pasek: We went to the Drama League lunch and we talked to Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole. People we would never have permission to talk to otherwise.
Paul: A lot of the writers in our category, we’re right now organizing our own little writers’ dinner.
Are you working on your next stage musical?
Pasek: We’re talking about some things.
Paul: We were actually just talking about this yesterday.
An original story again?
Pasek: I think so. Writing an original musical was the scariest thing we’ve ever done, because the story keeps changing. We’ve written an entire score that’s been thrown out. But getting to go through that process, it’s been very exciting and rewarding.
Paul: We’d love to do it again. Or at least give it a try.