Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are perhaps best known as collaborators on the phenomenon that was La La Land and amongst other things an insidiously memorable little ditty called “City of Stars” (with composer Justin Hurwitz). But despite the best efforts of the media and a string of misinformed critics La La Land was in no sense a musical but rather an homage to an age of innocence and romance where song and dance served as a kind of escapism from reality.
By contrast, their smash hit Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen (music and lyrics this time) could hardly inhabit a more different world. Where La La Land invokes the past and embraces a rosy nostalgia, Dear Evan Hansen chimes with the present and anticipates the future; a “virtual” reality. It could hardly be more of a “now” show. It begins not with music but with the roar of the internet and it centres around a latter-day “everyman”: young Evan Hansen, a high-school senior with a social anxiety disorder. His therapist suggests that he writes letters to himself expressing why every day will be good day and one of these letters inadvertently becomes the catalyst for a chain reaction of misunderstandings and untruths. We are in a world of instant and often false gratification where a “like” on Facebook is sometimes all that stands between one lonely individual and another. In short, the social interaction that is as feverishly proactive as it is inconsequential.
One song introduces and defines our eponymous protagonist and indeed the Tony Award-winning actor who plays him – Ben Platt. It’s called “Waving Through a Window” and it is quite simply one of the most brilliant contemporary show songs of recent times. It’s brilliant because it presents Evan’s isolation and agitation in such a way as to invite us to share it. It conveys the desperation of his misdirected energy and in the “tap-tap-tappin’” refrain (once heard, forever in your head) the world’s keyboards desperately seek a connection that may or may not exist. There are wild switches of register from full voice into anxious falsetto – instability in musical terms – there are frenetic repetitions, and the shock modulation towards the close is an exhilarating cry from the heart.
Where do you go from there? Well, pretty much everywhere. Evan’s near-catastrophic journey to self-recognition and acceptance is chronicled in a terrific set of songs (texts included) each a true amplification of Steven Levenson’s painfully topical book. “For Forever” is a peach of a song, the friendship, the kinship that Evan so craves played out in his imagination while we the audience will it to be so. There is humour, too, to leaven the ache of the score and the number “Sincerely, Me” amusingly apes the world of internet deception.
But what really sets Pasek and Paul’s work apart is the emotional resonance of their melodies. The pop-rock nowness is painted in a contemporary funkiness, keyboards and guitars, acoustic and electric, dominating – but the soul of these songs is personal and timeless. I’ve been hooked since first hearing.