These Songwriters Are Spreading The Empathy We All Need Right Now

There is a moment in Act 2 of Dear Evan Hansen when the sound of sniffling in the audience nearly overtakes the dialogue between the actors onstage. It comes shortly after the titular character, played by Ben Platt, has a tearful breakdown, and the crying grows louder with the gut punch of “So Big/So Small.” As Evan’s mother, Rachel Bay Jones sings the bittersweet number about how Evan’s father left and why she never will. By the end, many are audibly stifling sobs.

Songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul swear they’re not trying to make anyone cry, but their catalog — which is both lengthy and lauded for a pair of 31-year-olds — reveals plenty of tearjerkers. There are the heartrending lyrics of “Lying There,” a love song about not being in love, from their first collaboration Edges: “I wish I could love you, but wishing I could love you isn’t really loving, I suppose.” The Act 1 closer of their off-Broadway musical Dogfight, “Pretty Funny,” includes the lines, “Pathetically naïve and desperate to believe you can always find some good. Well, you misunderstood.” And in the film La La Land, for which Pasek and Paul wrote the lyrics, Emma Stone sings, “Here’s to the hearts that ache, here’s to the mess we make” in the stirring but painful “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul at the premiere of La La Land in Los Angeles. Kevin Winter / Getty Images

“We don’t think about [people crying],” Paul told BuzzFeed News backstage at the Music Box Theatre on New York City’s 45th Street, where Dear Evan Hansen is currently moving audiences to tears eight shows a week.

“I know this sounds like a bullshit answer, but it’s real,” Pasek conceded. “We’re just trying to get to as true of a moment as we can, and we’re attracted to material that’s emotional and that feels authentic.”

Dear Evan Hansen follows the cripplingly anxious title character as his lie about a close friendship with a classmate who killed himself spirals out of control. What begins as an innocent misunderstanding and his attempt to assuage a grieving family becomes darker once he’s drawn into their world and grows closer to his crush, the dead boy’s sister. But while the specifics of Evan’s complicated story are unique, his larger existential questions and anxieties are familiar to anyone who has ever felt alone.

For all the eccentricities of his story, Evan Hansen emerges as one of musical theater’s most painfully relatable characters.

“We’re always striving to find authenticity in [Evan’s] voice,” Pasek said. “And hopefully, if that voice feels authentic, then people who also have the same struggles and questions and life view can feel like they relate to the character.”

When the audience first meets Evan, he’s sitting with his laptop on his bed, alternating between talking a mile a minute and stammering; he can scarcely get his words out. We learn quickly that Evan has long struggled with issues of depression and anxiety. As an assignment from his therapist, he writes daily motivational letters to himself (hence the show’s title).

“What we talked about doing was writing a show that has a story where people have a real inability to connect,” Paul said. “If the kid has a really difficult time talking out loud, one of the powers of theater and musical theater is that you’re allowed to get inside someone’s head,” Pasek added.

This, of course, is hardly a revolutionary idea: Musical theater has long allowed characters to express what they otherwise couldn’t through song, the same way classic works of drama used soliloquy.

“We attempt to mine parts of ourselves and bring elements of the questions that we have.”

But for a character like Evan, who represses everything, those unspoken truths are particularly rich. The power of the show is in its carefully constructed balance of Evan’s neuroses with stunning lyrical gems that reveal what’s really going on. In songs like the gorgeous outcry of isolation that is “Waving Through a Window,” Evan can make himself heard. “I’ve learned to slam on the brake before I even turn the key,” he sings. “Before I make the mistake, before I lead with the worst of me.”

The music of Dear Evan Hansen is essential to its central character, who is shut out by those around him when he’s not actively pushing them away. In exposing Evan’s interior life, Pasek and Paul help create compassion for a protagonist who makes a series of morally fraught decisions.

In the development of the musical, the songwriters worked with book writer Steven Levenson to include moments that ensured there was enough sympathy for Evan. But after watching the response to the first performances at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage in the summer of 2015, they found that the audience was rooting for Evan from the beginning — his plea for connection in “Waving Through a Window” allowed them to understand what led Evan down his questionable path. The emotional honesty they imbued in their young leading man made him instantly lovable. If the audience can believe Evan, they can feel for him.

“In the writing, we always were trying to walk a very fine line between understanding why Evan would do something and feeling like it was true and real,” Pasek said. “A lot of the decisions that we make are morally ambiguous and sometimes not nice and not good. But we always wanted to understand why the character of Evan was making those decisions.”

From left to right: Paul, Levenson, and Pasek. The Washington Post / Getty Images

Like their characters, Pasek and Paul are overflowing with things to say. They talk over each other constantly, frequently picking up each other’s sentences and carrying on the conversation simultaneously.

They are sharp and insightful, and their easy rapport — which, yes, can be slightly overwhelming for outsiders — comes from more than a decade as best friends and songwriting partners. Since meeting at 18 at the University of Michigan, they have collaborated on Edges, Dogfight, and musical versions of James and the Giant Peach and A Christmas Story, the latter of which was their first show to hit Broadway and earned them a Tony Award nomination. They contributed songs to NBC’s Smash and another to this year’s Trolls. Next, they’re following up La La Land with the scores for The Greatest Showman on Earth, in movie theaters next Christmas, and Disney’s recently announced live-action remake of Snow White.

So, it’s only natural that Pasek and Paul have been labeled the up-and-coming composing team. But they chalk up their big few months to something of a coincidence: In the space of just over one month, Dear Evan Hansen opened, La La Land and Trolls hit theaters, and Disney announced their involvement in Snow White.

The duo is not putting too much stock in the hype. Yes, they’re taking more meetings these days, but they’re choosing their next work carefully. “The first thing that we look at is, Do we think that we could do a good job on this, or that we have a way in and we could bring a perspective to it?” Paul said.

They return to the distinctive approach they’ve nailed down — writing the way people talk, and finding passion and pathos in lyrics that feel grounded in reality. The success of Dear Evan Hansen, for example, hinges on its protagonist sounding like an actual 17-year-old kid — albeit a deeply troubled one.

Of course, the writers’ youth comes into play — and Levenson is barely older than the composers at 32. But Pasek admitted that they still do some fact-checking with actual teens. “When 15-year-olds come to the show, we’re like, ‘This sounds authentic, right?’” he said.

“I don’t think that’s limited to being a kid — I think it’s limited to being a human.”

As much as they want teen approval, the 51-year-olds in the audience are just as important to Pasek and Paul. They knew the subject matter of Dear Evan Hansen would draw a youthful audience, but they wanted to include themes that would be resonant with people of all ages.

“We attempt to mine parts of ourselves and bring elements of the questions that we have. A lot of the things that this kid, this 17-year-old, is going through are things that I think about every day in terms of searching for identity and my place in the world,” Pasek said. “I don’t think that’s limited to being a kid — I think it’s limited to being a human.”

The response that Pasek and Paul have gotten from audience members suggest their approach is working; they said some have found common ground across the generational divide. “People have told us that seeing the show has facilitated conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” Pasek said. “Their kid can see their parent with a little more humanity, or the parent can understand what’s sort of happening in the secret life of their kid.”

Evan bonds with Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and Larry Murphy (Michael Park), the parents of a boy who killed himself. Matthew Murphy

Parents’ lack of understanding when it comes to their kids’ lives often stems from the way young people communicate, which is sometimes more on Snapchat than it is IRL. It’s no accident, then, that the internet plays such a big part in Dear Evan Hansen: For adults, trying to keep up with what the kids are doing online can be hugely alienating, but ultimately they’re just tools for connection.

“The people who feel like they’re lonely or that they don’t have a voice … whether it’s real or not, [the internet] gives them a voice and it gives them a way to feel like they’re a part of something,” Pasek said. “And they reach out and they talk and they speak and they shout, and there’s someone on the other end who hears them.”

That is the crux of Dear Evan Hansen. The song “You Will Be Found,” which closes the first act, is an anthem dedicated to the idea that someone will respond to every cry for help, even if it’s just in the form of a hashtag. And that idea should resonate to everyone, including those who don’t know what hashtagging is.

“To be an audience member, it demands that you be empathetic.”

Whether the character they’re writing for is a depressed teenager or a struggling actor or a shy waitress, Pasek and Paul expose an inner life through song that is equal parts familiar and unique. No, their goal isn’t to make audiences cry; it’s to get them to care.

“If you’re someone with a bit of a closed mind about a certain type of person and you see that type of character sing a song, I think that can pierce someone’s heart,” Paul said. “When you’re hearing a character’s deep emotions and feelings, to be able to put someone up on a platform and for someone with a closed mind to watch that, I think that can be more effective than a lot of other things.”

In the midst of our particularly contentious and divided times, Pasek and Paul are realistic about what their work can do — they can’t fix everything. But as they continue to capture emotional truths, their ability to foster empathy is significant.

Theater, as Pasek pointed out, “is a place where empathy is required, and to be an audience member, it demands that you be empathetic.”

“There’s an incredible opportunity to represent people that someone might never meet, or show humanity in a type of person that someone might never understand,” he added. “I think representation and illuminating who we are as people — that’s necessary.” ●

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