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The Real Story Behind ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

In anticipation of the movie version, we look at the inspiration for the Broadway musical and the real impact the show has already had.
Dear Evan Hansen true story
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on July 8th, 2021

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story that informed the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen and its upcoming movie adaptation.

The Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen is about a teenage boy who suffers from social anxiety. Per the advice of his therapist, the titular Evan Hansen writes a daily affirmation letter to himself. Another boy, Connor Murphy, commits suicide and is found with Evan’s letter in his pocket. Evan forms a bond with Connor’s family, lying to them that he and Murphy were best friends. The lie unravels as Evan goes from a shy nobody to one of the most well-known kids in school.

Stephen Chbosky’s movie adaptation of the show, which stars Ben Platt reprising the lead role he originated on the stage in the Broadway version, follows the same plot. But where did that premise originate? Is Dear Evan Hansen based on a true story? Not quite, but the musical was inspired by actual events.

Here’s all you need to know about the real story behind Dear Evan Hansen:

Inspired by a Traumatic Event

The script for Dear Evan Hansen was written by Steven Levenson, who also handled the screenplay for the movie version, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. As initially reported in a 2015 Washington Post profile on Pasek and Paul, the plot of the show “emanates from a traumatic event” that occurred at Pasek’s high school in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

In 2019, Levenson specified this event involved a student who died tragically of a drug overdose. “It was someone who had been sort of a loner, didn’t have a lot of friends or status at school,” he explained during a New York Comic Con panel (via Playbill), “but suddenly in the wake [of] the death, Benj watched as everyone wanted to claim that they had been friends with him and claim that they had been a part of this person’s life.”‘

Pasek shared his memory of what happened with Levenson, who then wrote a treatment and script based on the story.

“This show started as a seed, and we never thought it would grow into anything more than that,” Pasek told the Toronto Guardian the same year. “The show talks about the complicated nature of when you’re not always so truthful. But it grew to something we did not expect.”

The Social Media Generation

The impact of social media on high school students — and our society more generally — figures prominently in Dear Evan Hansen. In the musical, Evan gives a speech about his “friendship” with Connor that goes viral. In the trailer for the Dear Evan Hansen movie, we can see Evan’s classmates filming him on stage and then posting the video to social media. As another student tells him, “People started sharing it; it’s everywhere.”

Dear Even Hansen reflects on the ever-growing role social media plays in our lives. In particular, how people use social media to respond to tragedy and present an image of themselves to the world. In the Washington Post piece, Pasek states that the show is “about how the person you project to the world is not the real you.”

As they were writing the show, the creators of Dear Evan Hansen began to see that the response by students to the tragedy at Pasek’s high school was not a singular occurrence. “We all [noticed] a really fascinating, bizarre phenomenon of public grieving [on social media],” Levenson said during the New York Comic Con panel. “Whenever a celebrity would die or something really tragic would happen, there was this outpouring online of people kind of making it about themselves.”

The Real Impact of Dear Evan Hansen

While the real story behind Dear Evan Hansen may only be a “seed” from which the larger plot grew, the truth of the story has made a real impact on fans since the show’s 2015 debut. “I get so, so, so many letters sent to the theater of young people telling me their story,” Alex Boniello, who played Connor on Broadway, told STAT in 2019. “I get people tweeting at me or Instagram messaging me. I sometimes get people at the stage door telling me about something they have gone through.”

Cast members received so many messages that the production company trained them on how to respond. They also developed a system for handling replies in partnership with medical experts. Boniello admitted he experienced symptoms of an anxiety disorder himself. He hoped the show could reach young people in need of “some sort of validation and help.”

Perhaps the movie might do the same and inspire people to talk about their mental health with someone. “I think that starting a conversation is ninety percent of the battle,” Boniello told STAT. “So many people don’t even know where to begin.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.