When I first heard the premise for what would ultimately become the Tony-, Grammy- and Olivier Award-winning original musical Dear Evan Hansen, my heart sank and my head set off all the alarms: FAILURE ALERT, FAILURE ALERT. THIS COULD BE YOUR MOOSE MURDERS. (Moose Murders being a producer’s worst nightmare—the notorious Broadway flop that opened and closed on the same day.)
Here’s the scene, set in 2007: I was lunching with two young composers, as was my routine, in my search for the Next Great American Musical. They were just 24, recent graduates from the University of Michigan’s esteemed musical theatre program, and they were bouncing out of their seats with unbounded enthusiasm for a piece that would entail grief, anxiety, loneliness, dare I say suicide, and how all these are painfully exacerbated by social media. This was, at the time, largely unexplored material on a Broadway stage. They described the digital world as the musical’s “ninth protagonist.” They used the word “authenticity.” A lot.
Their piece would center on a boy who was unsuccessfully balancing precariously on the tightrope of emotions of teenage life with a single mother and was clearly headed for disaster after telling a gobsmacking lie. Furthermore, in terms of structure, there would be no usual overture, and, in fact, no first big musical number to set the scene, like Fiddler’s “Tradition” or Oklahoma!’s “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” In fact, for this boy, there would be no beautiful morning in Act One at all. That is, until he tells that lie.
What Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (and soon after, Steven Levenson and Michael Greif) put forth felt familiar, eerily so. As a mother of three sons making their own way through middle and high school at the time, it all hit home. The first time I heard the show’s Act One, Scene Two song, “Anybody Have a Map,” sung by two mothers after a typical morning of missed connections with their respective children, I accused the authors of spying on my own breakfast table. I knew those moms. What they said could have come from my mouth. Furthermore, I knew Evan (and Connor, Zoe, Jared, and Alana). He lived next door, he attended my sons’ schools, he was the neighbor, the nephew, the boy from nursery school who threw the printer at Mrs. G. There were parts of him I saw in everyone I knew, including my kids and myself.
Evan was all too real, painfully so. And like many of us humans, he was also a bit of a mess. But could a commercial theatre project succeed by featuring an anti-hero? My last go-round with that kind of character, in a musicalized version of Catch Me If You Can, didn’t work, as the audience wasn’t rooting for Frank Abignale Jr., the real-life con artist made famous by Steven Spielberg, and the lies he told, despite actor Aaron Tveit’s winning smile and gorgeous voice. In the early days, despite my faith in Pasek and Paul’s vision, Steven Levenson’s way with words and Michael Greif’s nuanced directing talent, DEH’s success still seemed unlikely.
Evan’s relatability seemed to have come at just the right time in our culture. The show indeed struck a surprising chord almost immediately at our out-of-town tryout run at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. I would stand in the back of the sold-out theatre, night after night, and discover a warped joy at watching the multigenerational audience begin to cry—ugly-crying-blowing-into-tissues kind of crying, with occasional accidental outbursts of loud sobbing wetness all around, strangers-grasping -hands kind of crying—during “So Big, So Small,” the final song sung from mother to son.
After the performance, the authors, the actors, and I were often approached by strangers who cornered us outside the theatre to confess intimate, deep, often dark stories about socially anxious children: suicides hidden in family histories, friends stymied by depression, or exquisitely painful loneliness, and an inability to connect with others despite the fact that we live in such a hyper-connected society. It’s surprising to me, still, that we are closing now—at a time when we are, as a culture, more alone than ever.
In 2011, when we held our first small reading of the musical, I don’t think any of us could have predicted how relevant the lyric “tap tap tapping on the glass” would be to our lives heading into, and certainly during, the global pandemic. Today I marvel at how prescient Pasek, Paul, and Levenson were in creating this musical. In fact, one of our most bitter arguments came when they cut a song called “Goin’ Viral” at midnight on the eve before a much larger and more important reading—a reading at which I had high hopes for fundraising the show’s $9 million capitalization.
“Goin’ Viral” was a hysterically funny, on-the-nose number that mentioned in rapid-fire lyrics almost all of the funny/embarrassing moments from our culture (does “Charlie Bit My Finger??” ring a bell?) that went, well, viral. I loved it; felt we needed it desperately to brighten up a dark onstage journey. But PPL, as I call them, were right, understanding all too well that the number was politically incorrect and perhaps too on the nose. Thank God we cut it out then.
Yes, on Broadway, timing is everything. By the time we opened in 2016 (that’s how long it takes to make an original musical!), we were featuring a titular character who emits a rapid stream of untruths on the eve of Trump’s nascent presidency. (Moose Murders!) But this was also the moment when mental health became more of a de rigueur dinner table topic. In Time magazine, Susanna Schrobsdorff’s cover story “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids are Not Alright” published the year we opened, reverberated through the nation…and gave us more confidence in our little-musical-that-could.
In fact, the relatability of Pasek, Paul, and Levenson’s characters was uncanny to these strangers in the audience who became our momentary intimates over the many years of our run. A fellow producer once stopped me in front of Sardi’s to blurt out a painful childhood memory of being thrown into a trash can at lunchtime in his high school cafeteria. “I,” he said dramatically, as we producers are wont to do, “am Evan.” My dental hygienist interrupted a tooth cleaning mid-rinse to share that she was Zoe, growing up largely ignored by her parents, because her troubled sibling provided much greater challenges.
A Manhattan father, so moved by the show, called my office in our inaugural year on Broadway with an offer to fund audiences filled with parents and children. His dream, he explained, was to have them experience the show together and then hold a post-show discussion with psychologists who could help improve their parent-child communications. I dubiously gave the okay—then watched in amazement as he pulled this off, several weeks in a row. Mind you, he had no connection to the show at all.
When Dear Evan Hansen opened on London’s West End, the more naturally reticent British were just having an awakening about their own mental health, with Kate and Will leading the charge by sharing their own honest revelations, and a foundation, Heads Together, geared to start conversations on the topic. Around the same time, superstar Hugh Jackman included our Act One finale, “You Will Be Found,” in his world concert tour, telling a story about himself that cast him as an Australian Evan. (Jackman was a regular figure at the Music Box when we first opened.) The fact that inside a hunky global superstar there lurked a trace of Evan was heartening, to say the least.
Most interesting to us were audiences’ diagnoses of Evan. The authors had been very purposeful in the writing to leave Evan’s actual diagnosis unscripted. But audience members were certain that he suffered from OCD or Asperger’s or social anxiety, just like their own sons or daughters did. True, he might have—or he could have been a lonely boy, struggling to fit in, like so many of us. Either way, a mental health initiative for the show became a responsibility.
We had the potential to do some good, and though our initial mission was to simply put butts in seats, we quickly pivoted. In early marketing meetings, we had stayed away from terms like “depression” and “mental health” for fear of being known as “the suicide musical.” Not exactly an incentive to buy a ticket, is it? But as we became more comfortable in our role (and, admittedly, noted that ticket sales only kept climbing), we partnered with six of this country’s leading mental health/wellness institutions: The Child Mind Institute, The Trevor Foundation, Crisis Text Line (741741), The Jed Foundation, Born This Way, and The Loveland Foundation.
We combined efforts for years, from speaking on panels together to finding innovative ways to honor Mental Health Month, and we put forth positive messaging via our large following on social media. Dear Evan Hansen may have the interesting distinction on Broadway of being the only show to have a resident psychiatrist onboard the team. Dr. Victor Schwartz, originally of the Jed Foundation, has been there for us in the middle of the night when our actors received messages asking for help from struggling teens and adults alike. Be it a tweet, a DM, or a note at the stage door, the message was often sadly the same: “I feel like letting go of the tree.” The euphemism for ending one’s life, coming straight from our script, was frightening and sobering. But partners like Dr. Schwartz reached out to parents, DM’d kids, and stayed connected until local help was found.
What we’ve all learned from having the privilege of bringing this beautiful story to the stage is the simple, universal truth that I tell my youngest son often enough: Everyone suffers from something. And everyone is looking for someone to tell them that it’s going to be okay and that they are not alone in this feeling. For a while—through story and song—our show told people just this.
Then COVID hit. And while this treacherous pandemic has sucked the joy and the normalcy out of life for far too long, it has especially devastated theatre, and ultimately our beautiful musical. Whether it’s the expense of hiring the vital COVID safety monitors (two per production) or the cost of regular testing, or audience pushback on both masking and unmasking, times are tough for live entertainment. And forgive me if I don’t care to recall those last-minute performance cancellations because there was simply no one healthy enough to cover a particular role.
Though we at DEH joyfully reopened after almost two years of being dark last December, we never truly rebounded. And I’d like to blame it on COVID, I really would. But perhaps our story was too emotional for these already difficult times. Perhaps the poorly reviewed film of the same name diminished our audience. Perhaps it was just our time.
Now it’s time for new musicals to break new ground.
We leave behind a forever changed Broadway landscape—changed by COVID and changed by a fierce and important equity, diversity, and inclusion movement throughout our community that came far too late and yet still remains in a nascent phase. Hopefully we also leave a legacy for up-and-coming producers, writers, and directors to keep pushing the form, keep persevering even when others tell you “it will never work,” and to keep seeking stories from different points of view. Our show proved that musicals don’t have to be frothy and “happy” (not that I don’t know all those scores by heart) as long as they provide catharsis in the end.
From the creative team to the carpenters, the box office to the band, the making of our musical has employed hundreds over the course of its 1,678 performances at the Music Box Theatre. We’ve seen 1.5 million audience members enter the building. We’ve won six Tonys, three Oliviers, and a Grammy. Thousands and thousands of arm casts have been applied to Evan’s arm before Act One and removed (with a saw) at intermission. And more than half a million fans are vocal on our Instagram account alone. From Beyonce to Barbra to the aforementioned Aussie (rumored to have seen DEH nine times), we have been graced by celebrities in our audiences and our “Blue Room” all these years. But it has been the IRL fans (self-proclaimed “Fansens”) who have meant the most to me and to our actors and creators.
Two of those Fansens—twin sisters in their 50s named Martha and Julie Stroud—have seen our show (clad in their blue-striped polos or logo hoodies from the merch booth) hundreds of times in multiple cities and countries. I have to admit, they kept better track than we did of how many performances each of our Evans played. They would tweet congratulatory messages about the 100th performance, the 200th performance, becoming a two-person cheerleading squad that managed to quickly capture our attention. They encouraged understudies with love and faith upon their debut performances. On every important milestone for our show, from Broadway to Toronto to London to the changeover from one Evan to another (“the passing of the polo,” we call it), I’d train my eye on the orchestra seats from my perch at the back of the house, and…there they were.
And while we may have achieved some notoriety for a short time for helping millions of people feel that they were not alone, it was Martha and Julie—symbolic of so many of the audience members who touched our lives over the years—who made us feel that way ourselves. We were okay. Our show mattered. We were not alone.
Stacey Mindich (she/her) is a theatrical producer whose company, Stacey Mindich Productions, in addition to nurturing Dear Evan Hansen to global success, has produced more than 20 other plays and musicals on and Off-Broadway.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!