Justin Paul’s life sounds like the plot of a play. He’s racing to finish his latest project on a tight deadline — while simultaneously welcoming his 1st child into the world.
The “play” metaphor is apt. Justin and Benj Pasek — America’s hottest young songwriting team — are putting the finishing touches on an exciting new off-Broadway production: “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Justin and his wife Asher’s baby was a couple of days late. He calls those extra hours of morning-to-late-night rehearsals, rewriting and tweaking “a gift before my world turned upside down.”
Boom! On Thursday, Emerson arrived. Only a new baby could divert Justin from the manic process of bringing a new show to New York.
Here’s the back story.
Justin — a 2003 Staples High School graduate — met his songwriting partner at the University of Michigan. They earned a 2007 Jonathan Larson grant as voices of a new generation, then went on to compose music and lyrics for “A Christmas Story,” “Dogfight,” “Edges” and “James and the Giant Peach.” Their songs were featured on NBC’s “Smash.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” is nothing like those.
The production notes say:
All his life Evan Hansen has felt invisible. To his peers, to the girl he loves, sometimes even to his own mother. But that was before he wrote the letter — that led to the incident — that started the lie — that ignited a movement – that inspired a community — and changed Evan’s status from the ultimate outsider into the somebody everyone wants to know. But how long can Evan keep his secret? And at what price?
Evan Hansen is a lonely, isolated high school kid. His social anxiety is magnified by his hyper-connected digital life. But that’s not his only connection. The show is about the importance of connections during tragedy.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is complicated and intriguing. It is also, Justin says, “darkly funny.” The advertising tagline is: “A new musical for the outsider in us all.”
The book was inspired by an event at Benj’s high school. The pair kicked the idea for a play around in college, but could not figure out how to turn it into a musical. Now — with the book by Steven Levenson — they’ve done it.
Justin and Benj were high school students during 9/11. Justin remembers the urgent need during that awful time for people to come together, feel community, and examine their humanity. It’s a theme he’s wanted to tackle ever since.
“The chance to write an original story and musical is very rare,” Justin says. “The chance we get to tell this story — in our voice — is great. We have incredible freedom, and it comes from our hearts.”
Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul.
Impending fatherhood intersected with the premiere of his new show in fascinating ways.
“Being a father for the first time is frightening,” Justin admits. “And the story is about a boy and his mother who don’t really connect. They’re pulled in different directions.”
This winter — during the sold-out run in Washington, DC — Justin and Benj were struck by how often a parent would see the show, then return later with a child. Or vice versa.
The Washington Post called the play “entertainingly smart … radiating charm, wit and humor.”
One song was written during a tough time for Justin and his wife. Hearing it each night during rehearsals, those raw emotions return.
A scene from “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Previews have already begun. “Nothing crashed to the ground,” Justin says with relief. “We’re on our path to opening night.”
That date is May 1, at Second Stage Theatre. The cast is rehearsing 5 hours a day. They take a break, then perform for audiences at night. Each day, there are script and lighting changes.
“The ground constantly shifts,” Justin says. “It’s topsy-turvy, but fun. It’s musical theater boot camp.”
And for the next act — add a baby!
(For show times, tickets and more information, click here.)