‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is the first true social media musical and it finally comes to San Diego this month
The Tony Award-winning show, directed by UCSD grad Michael Greif, makes its local debut on New Year’s Eve
In an early scene from the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” there’s a number that sets an email to song. Among its lyrics: “All you gotta do is just believe you can be who you wanna be.”
The sentiment behind the line might be real, but the sender’s identity is a fiction.
And the song’s title? “Sincerely, Me.”
The impulse to construct and curate an idealized version of the image one presents to the world — and how that clashes with a hunger to connect with actual people — is at the heart of “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Broadway hit that will get its first San Diego production when the Broadway tour lands at the Civic Theatre on Dec. 31.
And while the show made a catchphrase (not to mention a hashtag) of another song title, “You Will Be Found,” its central characters find themselves adrift in a social-media sea, and getting further and further away from anything authentic.
“I think social media has kind of blown up this perception that everybody else has got it all figured out,” says Stephen Christopher Anthony, who plays the title role in the touring show. “Because it’s such a carefully curated version of yourself that you’re projecting into the world.
“So if there is that moment where you’re sitting at home and you’re feeling a little alone or a little misunderstood , there’s this little tool right in your hand to kind of prove that to yourself — to go, ‘Yeah, look, everyone else is perfect, everyone else is having a great time.’ And it’s just not true.
“For all the ways that it has made us more connected, it has crippled us in our ability to communicate in the present moment, and say, ‘This is what I’m going through.’ And to let go of the need to present this identity.
“Because no one’s got it figured out. For a kid (like Evan) who’s trying to construct their sense of identity — I mean, I’m an adult and I still don’t know exactly who I am! We’re all just waking up every day and doing the best that we can, and I think that’s part of what makes this show speak to people so well.”
Those ideas struck a chord when “Dear Evan Hansen” hit Broadway three years ago this month. Praised as the first true social-media musical, the show was embraced by a cross-generational audience and went on to win six Tony Awards.
The show’s success also dovetailed with the rise of its young composers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who not only earned Tonys for their score but won an Oscar for a song from the movie “La La Land” around the same time (and were nominated for a track from “The Greatest Showman”).
And “Dear Evan Hansen” has had the guiding hand of a seasoned director in Michael Greif, the University of California San Diego grad and former La Jolla Playhouse artistic chief who has helmed seven Broadway shows.
Among those are a pair that seem in particular to share DNA with “Dear Evan Hansen”: The musical sensation “Rent” (1996), about a group of young artists and bohemians in New York City; and the tough but compelling “Next to Normal” (2009), which explores mental illness and its impact on a suburban family.
Under Greif’s direction, those two shows each earned the best-musical Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. And their thematic threads of young people’s struggles and mental distress likewise loom large in “Dear Evan Hansen” — as do different and shifting definitions of family and its importance.
Greif says he was struck from the start by how conscientiously Pasek & Paul — as they’re commonly called —and their collaborator, writer Steven Levenson, etched the characters of not only 17-year-old Evan and his peers, but also of their parents, who are in some ways just as unmoored as the kids.
“There’s an incredible generosity in their work, and a wisdom that really defies their ages,” Greif says of the writing/composing team. “All three of them have enormous capacities for empathy and understanding.
“I saw how multifacetedly they portrayed the parents right from the beginning. It was always important that it be a family show, and not just a show about kids and for kids. It’s about family relationships.”
At the start of the story, Evan is an insecure high-school senior who takes meds for anxiety and has no close friends. Then, a chance encounter with a troubled classmate named Connor Murphy — whose sister is Evan’s dream girl, Zoe — causes a letter to fall into the wrong hands.
And when a shocking tragedy takes place soon after, the letter unwittingly becomes Evan’s chance to shape a new self-identity. His efforts are meant, at least initially, to lend solace to a grieving family. But they are built on a lie nonetheless.
Greif says the divergence between real and constructed identities that has become so prevalent in social media was the idea that spurred the writers’ initial work on the musical more than five years ago.
“I think the authors’ original intent was to find a story that contrasted the authentic self with the manufactured self,” he says.
And today, “the vitality (of that idea) doesn’t seem diminished at all. The urgency of that message seems as true as always. The ways in which families are talking as they leave the theater, and they’re anxious to talk to me and the company about the play — nothing feels past or done about it.”
For Anthony, who’s been touring as Evan since September, the show also seems to be attracting a new audience.
“We see a lot of people at our show who say they’ve never seen a musical before,” he says. “I think it’s partially because of the message. But I also think that the way it’s presented is really beautiful in its simplicity.
“It’s very honest. There are no overblown dance numbers, there are no kick lines, there’s no glitz and glamour. It’s really just about human beings talking to each other, and how things can go wrong.”
Long before joining the show, Anthony saw the original cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway, and he remembers how the show “just absolutely moved through me like a train.”
“I think what was going through my mind was, omigod, if this had existed when I was teen-ager, what it would have done for me, the way it would have spoken to me. I would’ve clung to it like a lifeboat.”
Anthony actually had worked with the original Evan, Tony winner Ben Platt, in “The Book of Mormon” previously, and visited him backstage after seeing “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“Now I’m laughing about this, but I remember sitting in his dressing room and going, ‘How do you do this every single day?,’” Anthony says.
“Now, I’m figuring it out.”
And now he’s the one whose arm is fitted with Evan’s cast — the one that Connor signs in a huge scrawl, and that takes on a more freighted meaning with fresh revelations late in the show.
“It’s a real cast,” Anthony notes. “They put a real cast on me every single day. I spend some time with it before the show. The cast is hugely symbolic for me, and I think probably for fans of the show, about what that moment of Evan’s life was like.
“And for me, just watching the Evan Hansen cast go on my arm every night is kind of surreal. It just reminds me of what I’m about to do. I’m just kind of pinching myself every day.
“I can write a book about the reasons Evan does the things that he does. I don’t know if that makes him a good person or a bad person. But one of my favorite things about it is that he is imperfect. He’s not this shining example of a perfect citizen making perfect decisions for three hours.
“He messes up a lot. Everybody in the show makes a lot of mistakes. And I think it gives us an opportunity to say, ‘What do we do with our mistakes?’
“It’s not often as actors that we get to do something that really feels like we’re helping people in a tangible way. That we get to see right in front of our eyes that it’s kind of a transformative thing for people to hear: ‘You’re not alone in this.’
“It’s the honor of my lifetime to get to share messages like that with our audience.”
An ‘Evan Hansen’ notebook
Broadway opening: Dec. 4, 2016
Creators: Steven Levenson (book); Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics); Michael Greif (director)
Tony Awards: Six, including best musical (2017)
Current productions: Broadway, North American tour, London
Broadway revenues: About $227 million to date
“Dear Evan Hansen”
When: Opens Dec. 31. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 12.
Where: Broadway/San Diego at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown
Tickets: About $45.50-$195.50 for non-resale tickets, subject to change and availability
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100