On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Kara is joined by the producer and book writer of the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” Stacey Mindich and Steven Levenson talk about how the show reflects on how social media has changed the nature of community, and why it is still important to get people into a space where they can unplug and see live theater.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the director of the hit off- off- off-Broadway musical, “Dear Mark Zuckerberg,” but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas in how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode anywhere you listen to a podcast. We’re on Apple Podcast, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher, SoundCloud and more, or just visit recode.net/podcasts for more.
Today in the red chairs are Stacey Mindich and Steven Levenson, the producer and book writer of “Dear Evan Hansen.” It’s a musical about a high school student with social anxiety disorder struggling to connect with people around him, including his crush, Zoe, and her social outcast brother Connor. It’s also a lot about the impact of the internet on teens and everyone. Here’s a clip from the show.
Stacey and Steven, welcome to Recode Decode.
Stacey Mindich: Thank you for having us.
Steven Levenson: Thanks.
It was a wonderful show. I saw it recently, and it’s about isolation. That song is about isolation and about being on the outside looking in, which a lot of musicals are about really, but this one had a really big element of what social media does to us, and that was a very big plot point in the play. We’re going to talk about, the musical, that and more, but first let’s about a little bit of your background, each of you. Why don’t we start with you, Stacey? Talk about how you got to “Dear Evan Hansen” — which, by the way, I don’t want to call it the “Hamilton” of this season, but it kind of is. It’s the hot ticket on Broadway right now.
SM: Well, it’s good to hear you say that. I was a journalist first. I started producing about 12 years ago, and had a real passion to find young authors, and pair them with some of the veteran directors of our industry. I first met Steven’s colleagues, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and fell in love with their music, and really took them out to lunch one day, came with a whole bunch of ideas from my older-generation head, and within five minutes at the lunch table realized that they would never want to do a musical version of Edith Wharton’s something -something, but I didn’t want to leave without working with them.
I asked them what they wanted to do, and Benj Pasek told me a story that was just the germ of what happened in “Dear Evan Hansen,” but it was something that happened in his high school life where a senior, they were all in the senior class, and a senior passed away from drugs. Benj was astounded that basically his whole class identified with it, wrote their college essays about it. He wanted to write something about his generation. It sounded like a crazy idea for a musical, but so does everything else when you put it on paper first. I said yes. Within a couple of months, we found Steven, who had the right voice to create a musical that the three of them really wanted to be as authentic as possible.
It started with the idea of a high school experience, that you had this high school experience, and then how it iterated itself.
SM: It did, but for me, immediately, when you tell me that there is a boy who is in trouble, me being who I am at this part of my life, I immediately said, “Well then, there has to be a mom.” It within moments became a multi-generational piece.
That’s what was strong about this, was it?
You got involved with this, and what were you thinking, Steven?
SL: I was struck immediately by this whole concept of the voyeurism and exhibitionism of grief, which was really what I think Benj was so interested in. Why do people, especially our age, feel the need to broadcast their sadness and their mourning? Something we talked about really early on was this was like six years ago, so Facebook and Twitter were really coming into their own, and it felt like whenever there was a natural disaster or a celebrity passed away, there would be the strange public ritual of people going on social media and somehow identifying with the tragedy. Everyone seemed to have a ...
“This is about me.”
SL: Yes, exactly, everybody wanted to star in the tragedy of the day. That was really where we began, was with that phenomenon, and I think what the three of us all found interesting was instead of parodying that or satirizing that, trying to look at what is underneath that impulse, and why do people feel the need to connect in that way, what’s propelling that on a human level.
Then also how connection isn’t connecting.
SL: Exactly, yes, the paradox of a world where we are incredibly interconnected and yet isolation feels at an unprecedented level.
Stacey, why don’t you go through the story so people get a sense of what happens. Go through it just basically to give people an idea of why and how important a role, I guess, it would be Facebook and Twitter and others play in this, this idea of social media plays in this.
SM: It does start with a 17-year-old boy alone in his bedroom scrolling through social media. He is, within his opening monologue, portrayed beautifully and poignantly as somebody who is literally on the outside looking in — as you can imagine on social media, but also in life.
Yeah, but also, it is the agony of social media, and now you can see it. When you were like that before, you didn’t see it, and now you see the entire thing and what everybody else is doing.
SM: It’s so universal, because I think we all feel that way. His life is compounded by the fact that he has social anxiety, although I think we have found that people look at him and bring their own problems to him. People have said to me, they’re sure he has Aspergers or something else. People bring whatever they have themselves or they know about to him, but he’s lonely and isolated. He has a single mom who is trying her best, but not perhaps succeeding. He is counseled by his therapist in order to build himself up to write a letter to himself, that self-help letter, Dear Evan Hansen. Do you want to take a little plug, Steven?
SL: Yes. He’s told to write these daily affirmations, “Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a great day, and here is why.” That is the beginning of our story, is him writing one of these letters, and it’s the first day of school. He goes back to school. Essentially, what ends up happening is there’s Evan Hansen on the one hand and there is another boy, named Connor Murphy, who has his own complicated relationship with his parents and his own inner turmoil. Essentially, this other boy, Connor Murphy, ends up through a strange series of circumstances taking the letter from Evan, and later offstage, Connor ends up killing himself, and the only thing that his parents find on his person is this letter to Dear Evan Hansen. They mistakenly believe that it is a letter that Connor meant to write to Evan.
About his own life?
They were trying to find reasons why he killed himself.
SL: Exactly. They didn’t know that Connor had any friends. In fact, he didn’t, but they presumed that Evan was his only friend. Evan, in an effort to assuage their terrible grief, finds himself inadvertently claiming that he was his friend. What begins as a little white lie becomes a way of comforting this family. The family needs this story just as much as he does. He finds a family with them. They find their son through him, and then this story snowballs from there.
Snowballs, and then social media is the key snowball, or as it amplifies and creates the situation that improves his life, and also makes the horrible situation worse. Is that true?
SL: Yes, it improves his life, and what becomes impossible for him to stop is how much it improves other people’s lives. It becomes a way of bringing people together, of making everyone feel less alone, and yet it’s all premised on this lie.
Right, and they’re all telling each other stories that aren’t true, which I think is fascinating. Steven, you’ve hit the meme exactly at the right moment, which is ... Did you think about that before? How long have you been developing it, Stacey? How long does it ...? Explain to me how long a show takes to get through?
SM: Every show is different. This one took a long time because it was not based on a book or a movie, or anything at all except perhaps a moment that Benj Pasek had in high school, except for the fact that Steven Levenson turned that all around. Then we brought in the great director, Michael Grief, who’s done “Rent” and “Next to Normal.” He also brought in his own interpretations.
I think what took so long — from launch to the Music Box Theatre was actually eight years — but it was crafting of what we call our underlying rights. We didn’t have to buy the rights to a book to make this. Steven and the authors and then Michael crafted this story. That requires a series of readings, workshops and developmental productions outside of Broadway to really see what you have and to learn from audiences and all of that. That process has taken us a long time.
But I think what’s interesting is the fresh trends of what’s happening now, because eight years ago, Facebook was not as big as it is [now]. Snapchat didn’t exist really. We didn’t have Uber. It sounds crazy, but there’s all kinds of things that weren’t happening in that time period. How did you glom on to this idea, because at the center of most shows, it’s the human heart essentially, but this really does ... the trends of the day do matter here in terms of what’s happening to us is becoming a lack of interconnectedness?
SL: From the beginning, we decided we wanted this to be a contemporary musical. That meant that we would have to find some way to communicate the ubiquity of technology as it is in our lives into this story. We felt like we actually hadn’t seen a lot of theater doing that. It’s difficult to do because ...
There’s always like an Uber joke or a Twitter joke, but that’s it.
SL: Exactly, and then what we wanted to avoid was ever commenting on the technology, but rather allowing it to be part of the fabric of the story, exactly, because we don’t comment on the fact that we’re on our phones all the time as we’re on our phones all the time, but it’s become our way of being in the world.
SM: I will say, though, that there has been a wonderful conversation going on these eight years about this, because Steven and Benj and Justin are from one generation. Michael Grief and I are from another. I don’t believe Michael Grief is on social media at all, and I only joined the world of social media, and I’m now slightly addicted not in posting but in ...
What’s your favorite?
SM: I love Instagram, but I only joined it because of this show, because I literally had them telling me every day, “You won’t understand your own children and the way they live and the way they’re liked if you don’t participate in some way.” This conversation has been going on, and my notes on the show sometimes have questioned this backdrop. We call the social media aspect of the show either the backdrop of our show or the ninth character sometimes. I think, from scene to scene, that changes, but I think Michael Greif and I have represented the parental point of view here, and there’s a line that ...
A lot of confusion over it, go over the confusion, and what is this, and what does it do, and I don’t understand it, and it’s technical. What I found interesting — maybe you want to talk about is — I don’t want to get to the idea of where shows are too like what’s at the heart of all these shows and these connections is that you don’t insult technology. I was expecting that. I was like, “Oh, they’re going to do another ‘bad Facebook.’” By the way, Facebook is bad in many ways, and as you’re seeing with a lot of things that are happening right now from the murder to the suicides that are happening, not just that but fake news. This has been a bad year.
SL: That was our initial ... Just thinking about the story, we knew that that was the easy obvious way of doing social media and of telling the story would be to poke fun at our using this technology to post as something that we’re not, but we felt like that was obvious. That’s the surface story.
That’s the oxygen.
SL: Yeah exactly.
Technology is the oxygen of the world now.
SL: Exactly. The more interesting thing was to explore, even when it’s fake, which it is by definition, can it reach something real in us? It was interesting, too, because the show opened on Broadway right after the election.
It had been before where?
SL: It had been off Broadway last season at Second Stage Theatre, and then it had been in D.C. at the Arena Stage the summer before. In the wake of the election and people feeling all sorts of feelings and trauma, there was ... Social media actually did become a refuge for a lot of people, and a place to feel. I remember going on social media that night, the night of the election, people saying, “Get in touch with me if you need somebody to talk to.” It was actually genuine. It was actually really meaningful. That’s the part of the story that’s interesting to us.
Right. Well, it’s also become a war zone too, I mean, at the same time like a hellscape, like sometimes this was a ...
SL: Yes. This was a day off. Then the next few days, it changed.
Yeah, I often called it, Twitter, a hellscape. How Trump uses it is fascinating. I like to insult him, but he’s a genius on Twitter. I’m sorry, there’s just no other way to put it.
SL: No. It’s fascinating. He uses it as an art.
Right. Absolutely. Well, something, and that’s your weapon.
SM: As a device.
Just weaponize. That’s one of the things ... let’s talk about how you weaponize social media. It went from off Broadway, and then you developed it over time, and added to it. What’s important now when you’re doing that as you’re moving to Broadway? What’s happened is there’s dozens of shows. Not all of them hit. Why do you think this resonated? I don’t think it was the tech. I mean, of course it’s the heart of ... Any show with heart does resonate, and obviously, it becomes a phenomenon. How did this become a phenomenon?
SM: Again, that’s good to hear. I think that we do like to say that the story could have happened in ancient Greece. It could have happened 100 years in the future. There’s always an outsider, and there’s often a story with a moral tale that has a lie, and then the truth comes out, and the catharsis of that, and the redemption and the forgiveness is what makes audiences feel very good. I think it goes back to this authenticity. This show is really depicting the way we live in America now, the way we are at our breakfast tables with our families.
When I first heard the song “Anybody Have a Map?” which was our third or fourth opening number to the show. We’ve gone through quite a few in the years, and it really is basically the two mothers in the morning dealing with their respective families not so well, and then feeling at a loss. When I first heard the lyrics, I could have sworn that these guys were sitting at my breakfast table, that they had literally just taken notes and written a song about me. Only, I think, every other person who comes there feels that they can relate to the eight characters on the stage.
As a producer who’s had some successes and a lot of what I call glorious failures ...
What have you done before that musical?
SM: My last musical that I lead produced was “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Oh, that worked out.
SM: Sort of, but the thing that you’d try so hard to do when you’re marketing a show is create a way for word of mouth to happen. My lesson here that will change my life forever was that this kind of word of mouth, you cannot manufacture. It is the need to leave the show, and call. I start Talkbacks now by saying, “We’re going to keep our Talkback breath, because I know that you want to go home and hug your children, forgive your mother and perhaps download our CD,” because that is the universal thing. We have seen kids leave. We had bands of teenagers come in the beginning who loved Ben Platt, our star, from the “Pitch Perfect” movies, but they want to come back with their parents, and talk to their parents afterward.
We have parents who come with each other on their theater date night, and they come back and they bring their kids. We have friends calling friends. You see it outside the theater, I have stood at a matinee and seen the people leaving get back online to buy more tickets. It is a conversation starter.
Absolutely. I brought my son, who’s 15. The unfortunate thing about my kids is both their parents are highly technically literate, and so they can’t fool us or anything. It’s super hard for them to do anything good online. Talk about that idea of how you get that, because it does. I was looking at the social media on the show. It’s quite enormous in terms of how it gets known. I think it did happen with “Hamilton” for sure. When I was talking to Jeffrey Seller, and he said that he thought that online had so much to do, the conversation that’s just continued on and on and on about this show.
SL: Absolutely. That is something as Stacey said that is organic and then we can’t control. What’s been interesting to me is there is something about these characters in this world that, especially young people, really want to engage with. I think, a lot like “Hamilton,” they don’t ... I guess it shows the way people are interacting with culture today. It’s not what I would have done when I was a kid. It’s really interactive.
But they want to continue the relationship.
SL: Yes, so people are writing fan fiction, and making fan art. If you go on Instagram, you’ll see all sorts of drawings and poems and songs. That’s super interesting. They want to continue the story, and they want to embellish the story. That’s something that I do think is new to social media.
An interesting thing is he started with “Rent” in a lot of ways. “Rent” was one of those choices, and “Angels in America” I would say, probably, are two shows that the conversation had to continue after.
SL: Yes, “Rent” was very big for all three of us.
We’re here talking with Stacey Mindich and Steven Levenson, the producer and book writer of “Dear Evan Hansen,” the hit musical about a high school student with social anxiety disorder and social media problems.
Today in the red chairs are Stacey Mindich and Steven Levenson, the producer and the book writer of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which is an amazing musical right now on Broadway. It’s about a high school student with a social anxiety disorder and a problem with the internet. That problem, it’s the plot point. We were just talking about that idea. Can you talk about each of the characters? Each of you take one and talk about what they mean and what you’re trying to do. Obviously, your star is well known from “Pitch Perfect.”
SL: Yeah, Ben Platt who plays Evan Hansen, who we’ve been discussing.
He’s the most awkward 17-year-old ever, I’m going to have to tell you. I was like, “Aww.”
SL: He is an open wound of a person ...
That’s a very good play, or a delicate flower.
SL: ... or an exposed nerve.
Yes, open wound it is.
SL: Yes. Evan was the beginning of our story. When we started talking about this idea and trying to abstract it and think about what was at the heart of it, we started to think about the idea of connection immediately, that all of this had to do with the desire and the need and the hunger to connect.
SL: And loneliness, and so we immediately thought in a dramatic sense, “Who would be the person who is unable to connect? Who would find that most difficult?” Evan was who we eventually created. He is somebody in a world of connections who is completely disconnected and desperate to connect, and also terrifying to connect too.
And doesn’t know how.
He’s always socially awkward.
SL: Yes, and he looks around as I think many of us do at social media, and sees the world of people who are fluent and who seem to be able to navigate this world of communication that he finds baffling.
They look happy as ever. Everyone’s happy on Instagram, and everything is ... All food is delicious. Everybody is super happy. I had someone who is a millennial who was saying, “Oh look, I’m not as happy as my friends.” I’m like, “They’re not happy. You don’t know they’re happy.” Then a week later, two of them divorced. I’m like, “I told you.”
SL: That’s the thing. Benj and Justin and I were just talking recently about how when we were in high school, we assumed that everybody was having more fun than we were, but now if you’re a high school student, you have proof every day that everybody is happier than you are.
I can tell you, because I’m a super old person, it was so great not to know anything or have a phone around.
SM: You found out on Monday morning at the locker, but you didn’t in real time experience that live-action pain.
Live-action pain, I love that.
SL: But I will say that’s the substitute of our musical. I do think, though, that the weird thing about social media is we’ve all become high schoolers now. We are all looking and seeing how much fun everything else is that’s happening.
SM: I have to tell you that I literally went on Instagram to post about a month ago, and I was getting 21 likes here there basically from people who know me really well, and then one day, Laura Dreyfuss who’s in our show liked one of my pictures, and I understood everything. It was like the most thrilling moment of my social media life that somebody I thought was cool and young liked my picture, so it works.
Okay. Talk about the other characters, the mothers, both parents.
SM: Heidi is a single mom.
This is Evan’s mom.
SM: Heidi Hansen, yeah, Evan’s mom. I think she is an incredible depiction of contemporary motherhood, whether you’re a single mom or not, busy, under pressure, trying hard, absolutely love your child, but in the daily rush of things doesn’t always get everything right.
SM: She is also lonely. Sometimes when you say “I love you” to your child, it means 10 things. It means, “Do your homework, brush your teeth. I hope you’re okay. I don’t have time, but I will catch you later.” I think Steven in less words than more actually captures that in Heidi.
I think she’s a very important character for some reason, being a mom to ...
SM: Very, very, because she is the one that he comes home to in the end and discovers his, I hope spoiler alerts are okay, but discovers he has something that he didn’t realize before. Cynthia Murphy, who is the other mom, Connor Murphy’s mom, is equally as relatable, and I think it takes us part of her journey to really come to understand her and her fortitude, because she goes through the grief, the absolute horror, the last thing that any mother or father ever, ever, ever wants to go through, and yet she’s so admirable because she keeps finding ways to lift herself up and to keep life going.
She’s a true survivor. It actually took me a couple of years of watching the show every night to really understand her plight. At first, you don’t want anything to do with that mother, but then you realize that there are people who are like that walking around our world today, and they have picked themselves up and kept going.
And especially with the pain. And the father?
SM: The father is an interesting nut to crack, because he at first doesn’t emote about his pain. Again, it just gives credit to Steven’s real knack for credible, authentic characters, because I think that is so true of so many men. There’s a line in the show about how he didn’t even cry at the funeral so that when he does crack at the end of Act One, it’s an incredibly potent, emotional moment.
SL: Larry and Cynthia and Zoe, who is their daughter and Connor’s sister, are all really ...
And Evan Hansen probably more who really ...
SL: Yes exactly. They’re all ... by the time we meet them at the beginning of the show, they have been through hell already. They have a son, Connor, who has been trouble for a very long time.
Who they don’t like.
SL: Yes, and they’ve gotten to that point that a lot of parents get to with their troubled child, where your affection for them has begun to even go away or you don’t know what to do.
Well, you do the I-wish-you-were-dead-but-not-really thing. That’s to me, I think, the difficulty they had is they didn’t like him.
SL: Yes, and Cynthia is still, I think, struggling and fighting and searching for a way to get through to him, whereas Larry has by the time the show started just written him off, and so has Zoe.
Zoe, again, is another strong character.
SL: Yes. Zoe is a survivor, really. She is a child that has grown up out of the spotlight because her brother took up so much of the oxygen.
Sucks up all the oxygen.
SL: Exactly. She has a very bitter sense of humor. I think she’s a really funny, dark person. She acts a lot older than she is. She has a lot of wisdom from all of those years of pain and family therapy, a jaundiced view of the world.
Absolutely. Then your other extra characters are also very interesting, like the girl who ...
SL: Alana, who is our voice of social media in a lot of ways.
Yes, she is. Oh my God. I’ve met Alana a hundred times. I don’t know, if you don’t live in Silicon Valley, but I, like, oh my God, her.
SL: No, Alana is ... She is desperate to keep a bright smile on and to show everybody how great she is. I always say about Alana, if you ask her, she has a million friends. She is surrounded by friends, but really, she doesn’t have many. Even in the show, she likes to refer to them as acquaintances, because we like to think that she didn’t know how to describe all of these people who she doesn’t really know, and then she heard the word “acquaintance” and thought ...
But once she gets on the blog, she blossoms.
SM: But it’s a great symbol of the need for community because she uses knowingly, unknowingly, the experience of Connor’s death and Evan’s decision to create the Connor Project, to create a community and a role and a life for herself.
That’s right, and when she gets it, boy, it’s interesting. Then once she gets the letters, she uses them like she’s almost a journalist, like, “I got the memo,” or something like that.
SL: Totally, and she also represents someone who doesn’t believe in privacy. There’s a moment where he says those were private, those letters, and she has no idea what he even means by that. We don’t really live in that world anymore.
Because she wants to use it for that, she wants to use it for advantage.
SL: Yes, and she actually ... We always try to be careful that’s she’s never a villain. She’s always trying to help people. She’s trying to reach people. She just goes about it perhaps the wrong way.
Then last, you have the geek.
SM: The comic Jared Kleinman, who together with Alana are also, they’re our great chorus. They’re our community, because this show actually started out with a little bit of an ensemble that got cut after our workshop, but Will is the comic relief. He plays off of Evan.
SL: He is Evan’s family friend in quotes, which according to Jared means they’re not really friends. Jared pretends to be the guy who’s got it all figured out, but all of these characters are lost and alone in different ways.
SM: Yeah, highly cynical.
SL: Yes. Jared is also our truth teller. Jared is often the voice of the audience, pointing out what we’re thinking, so he serves a really interesting and useful purpose.
But yet he goes along with it, he goes along with the lie.
SM: It gives him something fun to do too.
Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that I think is really striking is despite this awful situation, you’re very kind to their characters. You know what I mean? A lot of musicals recently, they’re not kind. You know what I mean? I guess, every Steven Sondheim movie, you feel bad for everybody in it at — I mean musical. But it’s very kind to these people who are struggling to each of them in a different way, which I think is an interesting way to do that.
SL: We always wanted to thread that needle.
SM: I think if we want people to relate to the show, then the idea really is that I always said, “If every mother in that audience doesn’t ultimately want to hug Evan, then we’re not doing the right thing.” We want everyone to essentially be kind and feel a warmth about our show.
SL: Everyone in the show is doing things for the right reason.
The next thing I want you to talk about is where theater is going. When you’re trying to get to what Evan does, it is an awful thing he does. It is an awful, awful thing he does. Then he uses it, the social media, to amplify that awfulness. What do you think of what he did, because he’s a fictional character but he’s not?
SM: He’s not fictional to me anymore, because not only have I lived with him for so long, but I stand in the back of the theater. I have been for so many years, and people come up to me and say, “I’m Evan. That was me in high school.” Maybe they didn’t tell the lie. Maybe they didn’t have the tragic events, but we’re all a little bit like that. I’ve had people say, “I’m Heidi,” or, “My nephew is Evan,” “My nextdoor neighbor ...” And so he is just one of those absolutely, utterly relatable authentic characters. Yes, he did a horrible thing, but it has become so apparent for me in knowing the script by heart now that ...
How many times have you watched it?
SM: Every day.
SL: So many times.
So many times.
SM: But it’s all been deeply pleasurable. You see how this kind of thing can actually happen. I think that is the beauty of Steven’s writing. He captured something that maybe it even did, maybe it does in smaller ways less musically accentuated, but it is something that is very believable in America right now.
Do you have children, you have kids?
SM: I have three kids.
They’re how old?
SM: Almost 15, 17 and 19.
Have they had their social media horror shows yet or not?
SM: We’re struggling and learning. I think not just in my family but every family.
My son had one with a bad video, and it went up. He had another one on Snapchat, which is interesting. It was interesting because the schools are trying to struggle with these things too once things become apparent. I remember the school saying it wasn’t terrible like this, but it wasn’t one where she shouldn’t have been in the video, and was, and this and that. The school said, “Well, we don’t want to be punitive.” I said, “No, we want to be punitive. We actually do. We want some cause for what they’re learning, the things.” Can you talk about that idea of do you think he pays enough for what he’s done, or does he have to pay? Social media now let’s you have ... People put up that video. They put new pictures, there’s all these things. The teens are doing revenge porn like Evan.
SL: Evan, if you track his journey, if you look at the granular level, the first time that the parents come to Evan and say, “This letter, we found this letter with our son,” the first thing he says is he didn’t write it. Evan actually tells the truth for a long time, but the family doesn’t want to believe it. Nobody in this world wants — or rather, everybody wants to believe the story that he tells. Of course he is the ringleader of that and the instigator, but there is some complicity. It’s an interesting question, because throughout the preview process and throughout the out of town production in off Broadway, there were always a certain number of people who’ve thought he didn’t suffer enough for what he did.
Right, I was thinking that.
SL: There are always people who thought he suffered too much for what he did, so it ultimately comes down to me to some of the ... There’s a song, “Words Fail,” that Evan sings. It’s a beautiful song that Benj and Justin have written. In that song, which becomes really a soliloquy, we see this person Evan, just ... his soul is bared. It’s like somebody without skin. To me, having seen the misery and the depths to which this character falls, I feel by the end that he has paid a terrible price, and he has come out on the other side and realized what he has done.
They’re all better for it.
SL: They are all better for it.
SM: It is the beauty of the show, I think, and the reason why people do want to talk about it when they leave the theater, that you can interpret it the way you want to. Someone who’s not a parent might look at him and say, “He hasn’t paid enough,” but as a parent, I look at him and think — especially because of the “Words Fail,” he has been absolutely tortured. You see why this happened to him, and this probably will never happen to him again because he learned the lesson.
Then last in this section, one of the things that’s interesting — because you did hit a meme with fake news and things — that we think we get so excited about something that’s real and genuine. It turns out to be false, or an advertising or a marketing thing. This election, fake news everywhere kind of thing, and now the president just uses it as a catch phrase. How do you feel like you can work into that, because he sells fake news? This is fake news, either of you.
SL: It’s incredible that that has been happening and happened around the show. We couldn’t have predicted that, but there was certainly ... The thing I feel about the relationship between the show and what’s happening in the world is, I remember we had rehearsal the day after the election, and showing up to rehearsal, everyone was so depressed. There were something about this story we were telling that ... I was so happy to be in that room telling the story about people rising above the lies and finding unity together. There’s something about this story.
But the lies are precisely what happened. Do you know what I mean, like that’s what we got. We’re all paying for that.
SM: And yet the final scene of our show set in an apple orchard that was planted in Connor’s honor, and not exactly in a straight-line way, but yet as Evan says at the end of the show, “He was memorialized,” and there is this moment to step out into the sun. Sometimes, people will say, “Is it a show about death?” I always say, “It’s absolutely not. It’s a show about life and how we live it.” I think for all of us on that dark day that we came to rehearsal, being in the theater where we all have the license to be the people that we are, the little strange quirky Evan-like people that we all are ...
Everyone in theater is like that.
SL: Pretty much.
SM: It’s a good place for people. I hope more people will listen to this and come.
Then at the same time, when you have this going, this fake news and where it leads to, how do we get back to community? I think that was really what I took away from it, and it’s interesting that Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook did a 6,000-word essay about this, essentially saying that the solution to an over-Facebook of the world is more Facebook. But the idea that we need to get ... There’s no more offline communities, and we’re not connected offline anymore. What happened in your play is the online frenzy created an offline community of the families and everything else. It led to offline, which was interesting.
SL: Yeah, it begins with the boy in his room with his computer, and before the orchard, it ends with him finally face to face with his mother, no screens between them, really having to tell each other the truth. I think what’s interesting about the fake news is clearly, facts don’t work to dispel it. That’s not going to work.
You can’t keep doing that. That’s why people get frustrated.
SL: It feels like what all those fake news things are hitting on is a true emotion that people are feeling. I think that’s what Evan taps into is, even though what he says isn’t true, there’s something that feels true about it. It feels like somewhere, that’s the solution to the fake news is to reach people in their core.
To make actual connections, no, because you do make actual connections by the end from fake news, which I thought was really, it’s kind of a mind fog, but it was interesting to me.
We’re talking right now to Stacey Mindich and Steve Levenson, the producer and book writer of the hit show on Broadway, “Dear Evan Hansen.” When we get back, we’ll talk about where theater is going as we move forward in the digital age.
We’re here today on Recode Decode in New York City, and we’re talking to Stacy Mindich and Steven Levenson, the producer and book writer of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which is a show I saw. It’s fantastic. On Broadway. It’s the hardest ticket to get right now. Everybody wants to go. It’s a musical about a high school student with social anxiety disorder and social media problems. We’ve talked a lot about the show itself, but let’s talk about doing theater now. I had Jeffrey Sellers and Richard Hamilton on, and I’ve been fascinated with theater my whole life. I’ve gone to theater in New York my whole life.
What’s it like to create theater in this age, in this age of digital? Because how you market the shows has changed, the way you sell tickets has changed. Everything has done that. Stacey, why don’t you start talking about that idea of how you create an analog experience of just one place and mostly New York City or wherever to reach audiences, especially young ones?
SM: The extraordinary thing that happened with this show right from our very first production at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., was that people organically found us. They may have started finding us because Ben Platt was about to come out in the second “Pitch Perfect” movie, or because Pasek and Paul had a following of millennials who were very adept at social media. We found that we gathered fans very, very quickly, and they stayed with us, and so one of our approaches in, not really selling tickets, but in keeping our own community alive was really to talk directly to the fans, to always give them something first, because we believe that they are part of the reason why we were able to go from Arena to Second Stage, and Second Stage to Broadway.
They have filled our theaters in broad groups. We know that because we hear from them. As Steven said earlier, they write to us in droves. We have a contact list from our website of multiple thousands and thousands and thousands of people that most shows don’t have. When we announce a new block of tickets on sale, we give the fans a two-hour heads up, because as you said, it is hard to sell tickets, and that hurts us in some ways. As much of a blessing as it is, we want the people who love our show and loved it first to be able to come. We give them a heads up.
We have an ad campaign. We haven’t really made a big deal about it right now, but our key art shows Evan’s torso with his arm in the cast. You don’t see his head, but you see a sea of faces surrounding him. In the beginning of the ad campaign, those faces were actually stock faces that we bought. We actually went out to our fans, and we told them exactly how to take a picture of themselves, and send their faces in to us. Now, that mosaic as we call it in our key art is all 100 percent our fans’ faces. I don’t know if they’ve discovered it yet. They might after hearing this. We weren’t going to do a very big thing about it right at this moment, but we did that.
On our stage at the end of Act One, in our Act One finale called “You Will Be Found,” the projections which basically is the internet goes viral. It goes wild with people holding up signs that say, “#youwillbefound,” supporting the Connor Project and Evan, and the idea that this boy made a friend and all of that. All of those people are actually real people too that we asked just among our fan group to send us videos of themselves. We have people from the age ... Well, we weren’t able to take people, I think, under the age of 18, but these people are from the age of 18 to the age of 80, from all over the country and actually all over the world, and they’re in our show.
You did a super effective job at depicting how something takes off virally, and you used the set design where the information is just cascading and flooding down the picture of how it feels like your phone is.
SL: It’s really a credit to our director, Michael Grief, and our designers Dave Korins, and Peter Nigrini was our video designer. He has just done incredible work, and it’s so exhaustive and so detailed.
It is. It feels very much like a phone going up.
SL: Partly because we see the shows so many times, so we get really granular, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s not quite right.”
What were you going for to create that feeling of being on the phone or being assaulted by media?
SL: Even though the show isn’t explicitly this, it feels like it’s from Evan’s point of view, I think, in a lot of ways. I think that’s how the world feels to someone like Evan. It’s just assaultive.
It also was refresh, refresh, refresh.
SL: Yes, absolutely, it’s just never-ending. Then there are those moments where it goes quiet, which is ... those are generally the emotional moments in the show.
Then also, the hashtag, my favorite expression is hashtagavism, that we get these hashtags. Some of them are very funny, but a lot of them are very earnest and horrible in some way, and that’s what you do. You don’t actively participate in the world, but that’s how you comment. You talked about it at the beginning, but your show has benefited from that too. I’ve seen so much stuff that is very earnest about the show in the way that the stuff about Connor’s aren’t.
SL: It’s a very weird net of thing where people are really, really responding to that idea of you will be found, which is actually when Evan is saying it in the musical, it’s not true. He’s making up a story, but it’s a story that actually becomes true for him and for all of these people, so it’s like there are so many weird layers, and then you start to feel a little dizzy.
On that stage, and you also used it in your own marketing, you had Twitter, Facebook, what else?
SL: Instagram, I think.
Instagram was there.
SL: Then there are a lot of expressionistic approaches to the internet, which is like fractured images and text.
YouTube seems to be. YouTube is the beginning.
SL: Yes, absolutely.
SM: That was never meant to be literal, because we hope the show will live for many years, and these things may become dinosaurs. It was really just meant to surrealistically portray the way we are all brushed.
Then you Snapchat though, that was interesting of course I noticed that, of course it’s Snapchat.
SL: That’s been a constant negotiation with how specific do we want the technology.
Or something like a Snapchat, of course the filters would be tasteless, like, “Hey, let’s make everyone’s face funny.”
Getting back to how you do theater, do you feel good about theater now that people ...? There’s been some shows that have been real touchdowns, like “Hamilton” and some others that have been really ... There’s a new, I can’t remember the latest one, but there’s a bunch that ... Maybe it’s “The Grand Hotel,” one that seems fantastic in some ways. At that time when people are going less and less analog and experience everything online, there’s been some real cultural touchdown shows now.
SM: Shows have changed so much. Some of them are still about something fantastical, but they’re so much more rooted in reality. I look at “Rent” being really a grandfather to “Dear Evan Hansen” happening. We happen to have the same director also, but “Rent” paved the way for skipping some in between, and “Next to Normal” paved the way for “Fun Home.” “Fun Home,” I remember the season of “Fun Home” was just starting, and I was watching it so closely because I knew if they could tell that story, then there was so much hope that we could tell our story. I think each one really leads the theater world to be a beauty, to do more and to be more honest.
Of course, they still owe one to common, be entertained. I can’t wait to see “Hello Dolly.” I cannot wait to just delve into that beautiful history of a musical, but the new theater that is exciting to me is being created by young people who have something very interesting to say about the way they’re seeing the world.
How about do you feel about this, Steven? I just did an interview with Alison Bechdel. I love her because she’s amazing.
SL: They must be cyclical, but it feels like there are a few things going on, but one of them being the pervasive irony and sarcasm, for lack of a better word. Over the last several years, people have grown a little tired of that I think, and there’s a real hunger for art that’s sincere and that is heart-filled. I see that with even the show “This is Us” on NBC. People want to feel something. “Hamilton” absolutely is similar, and I also think that there is something in a world where everything is digital. People are going back to handmade in some ways, and people are really hungering for ...
That’s just Brooklyn.
SL: Exactly. I do feel like people are hungering for something that is ephemeral and something that’s just here and now, because everything else is permanent and online. It feels like people want ...
Is theater retro? Is that retro like, “Hey, let’s put on our cashmere sweaters from the 50s,” or not?
SM: I think theater is just ...
SL: Sorry, I don’t think it’s retro. I think people are hungering to feel a part of a community, and to be sitting in an audience with other people. Maybe that does feel retro, but it’s something that people are missing. I heard this interesting statistic the other week, which feels related somehow, that young people are buying more books. Book sales are going up, and Kindle and eBooks are really being bought by middle-aged people.
Yes, that’s true.
SL: It does feel like there is something, especially with younger people wanting something unique and something you can touch.
I do think you’re right about books. When I was younger, I was like, “Oh, I’ll just put this book on my physical book,” like, “What?”
SL: Yeah, they are buying books, because I think they’ve grown up with screens and iPads, and it feels like they ...
The idea of getting people, especially younger people.
SM: It’s actually so much simpler then that. Where else do you actually have to put your phone away? Where else do you have to shut it off?
Maybe you don’t.
SM: If you don’t, somebody might throw it at you, but you have to. People always say to me, “Just take an hour. Put your phone away. Get away from it all. Take a phone vacation.” It’s impossible. I used to tell my kids to take it off the dinner table, but sometimes I have to have it at the dinner table. There’s just nowhere except the theater where you really do. You are instructed to turn your phone off, and so it is an hour or two hours where you get into a story in a way that you can’t anymore when you’re watching television or even in a movie theater, because you can be rude like that in the movie theater.
Yeah, you can. I call it sometimes movies are three-text movies or no-text movies, because I’m not going to be able to text until I’m done with this movie.
SL: Sarah Ruhl, the playwright, had a play called “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” where she had a line where she said, “The only two places that are safe from cellphones now are theaters and churches.”
Right, and not even then because you start looking up things.
SL: Oh absolutely.
It’s so funny when you’re looking up things, like, “What is that, or what is that?” I was at a party the other night, and someone’s like, “What do you think happened in his first night?” If only we had a device that we can search and find things out, but then I remember dinner parties where you just didn’t know. You just ended up arguing about it, and then you went home. You didn’t have the answer, which was, I was like, “Remember when you didn’t have the answer, and you just argue, you get drunk, and that was it?” That was the entire thing.
To get to the point, do you feel like when I say retro, I’m talking about the ideas? What happens to theater going forward then? It just continues. It gets the people on an analog. You can only reach so many people. It’s not scalable, as they say. It’s not scalable.
Do you feel like you should have “Evan” online? I know “Hamilton” didn’t put things online, like a ton of stuff. They purposely didn’t. They were holding back the stuff. They did obviously make a CD, and they’re selling. Music sales now go through individual songs, although, I think, probably cast like theater sale whole much better. Do you not do that? Do you not put stuff online? What happens?
SM: We don’t have a current plan to do that.
Like tape it and put it up on YouTube?
SM: No, as a matter of fact, we spend a lot of our time trying to get bootleg tapes of it off of YouTube. Oh very much, so no matter what you do ...
People bringing, it’s like an old “Seinfeld” episode, remember?
SM: Terrible, terrible, but no, we’re in a tiny theater really, and we very much want people to come and see us.
See you, rather. But would you have plans to do that, to have a digital version of it after?
SM: Not in the immediate future.
Because you just don’t want to?
SM: I think the power of live theater is very potent, especially with a tale like this. Certainly, if the show continues to do well, it’s something we’ll entertain, but right now ...
More likely, you’ll go out and do shows all over the country?
SM: Yes, that will happen.
Do you imagine a future where that doesn’t have to be what we do, like tape it and make it? So feeling like I was telling you earlier that Dave is working on a VR version of “Othello.” I’m thrilled “Othello’s” going to get to people, so I’m not adverse to that idea.
SM: The whole business of theater is about putting butts in seats.
What if you could VR put them in seats?
SL: It feels like there must be a middle ground, because I do feel like ultimately what is going to separate theater from everything else is not the content. It’s the experience, sitting there in that theater in that one place with that one performance. I’m friends with the director of “Hamilton,” who was saying ... I was just talking to him about the phenomenon of “Hamilton” and what it’s like, and as he pointed out, “Hamilton” ultimately is just the show that’s going to happen at 8pm tonight. That’s all there is. There is nothing else.
It’s also a very traditional show, if you think about it.
SL: It is, but that idea that these shows, all they are is the next performance. There is no thing. I think that’s what makes it special.
SM: It is, although I must say, to me, “Hamilton” is a movement, a phenomenon, something that is ...
About politics, about civics.
SM: It is. If you have the good fortune to become successful, you do become something more, but the essence of it is sitting in that theater.
SL: That’s got to go back to that.
Right now, I was just invited to a showing in San Francisco where we will be wearing VR headsets during the show, and it’s going to be ...
SM: That’s the Encounter Within Broadway. It’s quite extraordinary.
What do you think of things like that? You could see as experienced, everyone’s got to have the heightened sense of experience all the time. You have to up the game.
SM: To me, that feels more like an event than the theater that I grew up on, and it may very well be a very generational thing. I’m in my 50s. I want to continue to have that experience that I saw “A Chorus Line” 28 times, not on VR. I wanted that tradition to continue where you have that collective live experience, where the turntable might stop, or just the experience that real actors are acting on their guts and instincts right in front of you.
SL: There is something about “Hamilton” being a prime example of, there is something so old-fashioned about it, and yet something that is drawing people to it that I think has to do with seeing actors right there in front of you, seeing them sweat, seeing them spit, feeling like you were having this visceral experience in this room, and there’s something quite special and intimate about that.
I’m going to keep pushing this because you got to see something in the new VR. You feel like you’re there. There is haptic touch. There is feeling like ... It’s disturbing how real it feels.
SL: I think storytelling is going to continue to evolve into different forms and formats. Perhaps the story of Evan Hansen could fit into that format, but I feel like what we have, the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” is just that. I feel like it’s hard. I have mixed feelings about filming shows, because you lose something. Whereas if you adapt a musical into a film, or adapt it into a TV series or a VR, then it becomes that. It becomes something else.
I’m only mentioning VR because it’s different than film or television. You do feel in this thing. Your show, which you can’t get tickets to or someone in Kansas can’t see it, some lonely teenager, it’s a very different thing that you could instead of reaching ... How many people fit in your theater every night?
Good to know. You go to 10,000 rather at once, and it’s people sitting in the theater, and then 10,000 others.
SM: But for us, what serves our show so well is the intimacy of those 984 plus 16 standing room possibilities.
At a low, low price.
SM: It really is the intimacy of it. I wouldn’t want to lose that. I wouldn’t want a device on my head or my eyes to take me away from that. That is cool. That is an event. That may be something else I would pay money for, but for me ...
SL: But it’s different. It’s got to be something else. That’s all I mean. I think it’s going to be that experience could exist, but it won’t be the same. It will be its own thing.
Where do you see theater going? Is it this one square mile abroad or whatever?
SM: For me, I like to think of it in a less logistical way. I think theater is going forward in the kinds of stories we can tell. Being as authentic as possible, realistic, organic, the way that you can depict things on the stage, the projections we have on our show are not something you would have seen in a show even two or three years ago.
They’re an important part of the plot.
SM: They’re an important part of the fabric of the whole thing.
SL: There’s going to be a moment when those feel like dinosaurs. I do believe that we’re going to look back and think, “Oh my goodness, projection, that is so old-fashioned.” I think we have no idea yet what the next thing is going to be.
SM: Think about this, Steven, if they do a revival of this show in 25 years, they could do it in a retro way with no projections.
SL: I actually have in my mind the minimalist version of the show with no projections and no ...
Oh no, no, I think you need projections.
SL: It could be interesting, so I agree.
SM: The words, the score, and the actions.
No, I get it, but you have to feel the panic of social media. That’s why I think it’s a character.
SM: But in 25 years, they may have all been over and done with that panic.
You’ll have it in your eyes. You’ll have it. Sorry to tell you, but they’re coming. You’ll receive a black mirror, where you’re going to have that.
SM: I’ll probably have glaucoma by then.
When you think about that, it’s an interesting question whether you do do that. Your director Michael did “Rent.” I remember when “Rent” came out. It was mind-blowing to see “Rent” at that time. I don’t know how old you are, but it was mind-blowing, and I went a dozen times. I saw the early versions of it. It was that and “Angels in America” were very big deals. I just saw it in San Francisco. They have their 28th anniversary revivals of that. It was so fascinating because it was so old and so relevant at the same time, so you felt the age of it because it felt old, like what you’re talking about. Doesn’t this acquaint? You had the memories of when you saw it, when you didn’t feel acquainted, but you couldn’t revive those feelings. Then it was so relevant to today at the same time. It was fascinating to have all that going on at once.
SL: For some reason, we always talked about the beginning of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Do you know that musical, and with the telephone chain, and how that is inextricably links to that technology of just an old-fashioned phone?
Of course I do.
SL: Yet, watching it now, you don’t feel like it’s old-fashioned, or you feel like the technology is old-fashioned but the emotions are real and the story, you can follow. It feels like the forms are changing but the ideas underneath them are not.
SM: “Waving Through a Window” is the telephone song from “Bye Bye Birdie,” without a doubt.
Right. Well, I had to explain the telephone to one of my kids recently, like a payphone because they saw a payphone. They’re like, “What’s that?” I’m like, “Oh, okay, let me just break it down for you.” It was fascinating. Just even the handset was like, “That’s interesting. What did you use that for?”
SM: I had to explain to one of my sons how to actually call someone’s home, because they’re so used to calling someone directly. They don’t ever have to say to the mother, “Hi, it’s Danny. Can I please speak to ...?”
Or even knowing phone numbers, but that’s another thing. We’re sounding old.
SM: That’s angry old men shaking their fists at the internet.
I want to finish up on what do you hope where to go, where it happens, because you definitely, you’re very current. This is a very current show, and also just like you said, a traditional story of loneliness. So many shows and movies and everything else, a lot of literature about that, finding connection, or you try to make people feel better about the idea that you can be connected in this interconnected world, where I think nobody has felt lonelier than ever before. What do you hope to accomplish, each of you?
SL: That’s a really good question. I do hope — and it seems to occasionally work this way — that people are leaving the theater, and at least being more mindful I think of the way that they use technology. It’s certainly done that for me. It’s just made me more aware of when I’m using technology as a crutch or as a way of avoiding interactions.
Have you stopped using this?
SL: No, not necessarily, but I’m definitely more aware of using it, and I’m trying to be ... I hope that the show makes people more present hopefully with the people that they are in the room with.
What about you, Stacey?
SM: I just think it’s an incredible conversation starter, and when you start talking about these things, all kinds of good can come from it, not just in terms of being mindful, and maybe you’re too disconnected from the world by being on your phones, but also, we have issue of loneliness, and people bring what they’re going through to the show, so mental illness, suicide prevention. I hope it’s a conversation starter about so many issues, but mostly I hope it’s a catharsis for the people who come to see it, because it’s a catharsis for me every night. There’s not a night where I don’t shed a tear sometimes at a song, I’m surprised, that never made me cry before.
You’re also not trying to do lesson learning. Sometimes, lessons were learned, and you’re like, “Oh.”
SL: No. I hope that people who have felt like Evan and who have felt like everybody else is having a wonderful life except for them. Do see it, and see that beneath the façade, we’re all searching for the same things. We’re all feeling the same insecurities.
SM: The song literally says “you are not alone.”
Hashtag you’re not alone. My very last question which I ask everybody, and maybe here we’ll do it a little differently. What’s the worst social media thing you’ve done? I talked about mistakes. I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs, and I always say, “What’s the mistake you made that you could have corrected or that you learned from?” I don’t mean a learning moment, but it’s something you’d advise people to pay attention to.
SM: I’m still new to social media, so I don’t think I can do that. I can only tell you the funny story that we all just do things too quickly, and we make silly mistakes all the time. I will email my husband, “Chinese for dinner?” His name is Eric, but a different Eric will email me back, and say, “Sure, Chinese works for me.” We just do things in a haze. When you do that, you can make silly mistakes that give you a laugh, and horrible mistakes that ruin your life.
I hate that lady.
SL: Never send an email when you’re angry has been the best lesson. It’s never a bad idea to wait. You will never regret having slept on it. That’s been the lesson I’ve learned.
Texting is even ... There’s not a thought that doesn’t go down.
SL: Because I get so riled, and then ...
SM: What about all the angry people who’d tweet?
SL: You just got to take a moment.
Are you big Twitterers?
SL: Too much pressure.
Too much pressure?
SM: I have 100 followers on Instagram.
All right, I’ll follow you. Are you private?
SM: I’ll accept you.
Okay. If you’re not that private, that’s why you have that many and stuff like that.
This has been really fascinating. It’s a wonderful show. I recommend it. I hope it goes on forever. I hope it goes ... Is it coming to San Francisco? I’m just curious, for the Silicon Valley ...
SM: We believe it will.
It should go everywhere, because I think it’s real. I do think you should get some of it a little bit online, because I think certain parts of it are really resonant in this age, and really talk about things in a really fair way. That’s what I really appreciate is it wasn’t an attack. I thought it was going to be an attack on technology, which I don’t mind by the way, but it was really smart. It was a smart way to talk about hard things. Thank you so much for making it.
SM: Thank you for having us.
Stacey and Steven, thanks for coming by. It’s great to talk to you.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.