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Themes of bullying, loneliness and suicide may not sound like the makings of a hit musical, but those are the elements that make "Dear Evan Hansen" this year’s hot Broadway ticket. The show is striking a chord and inspiring audiences.
The story centers on the suicide of a high school outcast, and a misunderstood letter written by the protagonist of the story, who then becomes close with the deceased's family and, inadvertently, a viral social media sensation.
"I thought it was brilliant; the acting was amazing," said theatergoer Mavis Baynard of the show. "The singing was fabulous. The story was fabulous, and I just cried all the way through the end."
The show is the brainchild of playwright Steven Levenson and songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are also up for an Oscar this weekend. They scored two "Best Song" nominations for writing the lyrics for the Academy Award-nominated movie "La La Land."
But with "Dear Evan Hansen," the duo has created a story centered on an isolated and anxious teenager, longing to be seen.
"I get a lot of letters from young people who have struggled with similar things and who felt sort of seen by this character."
In the second number of the show, Evan Hansen, played by Ben Platt, sings his interior monologue of feeling like an outsider.
"When you see it on stage, you're seeing a boy almost be swallowed by social media, images," Pasek said. "And all he wants is to feel like he's not invisible."
The seed of an idea for this show's conception originated long before its Broadway debut, initially stemming from an actual event.
"There was a kid who I didn't really know very well, and a lot of people didn't know well, who went to my high school and over a summer he passed away," Pasek said.
"And when everybody came back to school this kid, who sort of was to me more of an anonymous student and to a lot of people who didn't know him well became this sensationalist figure. And everyone started claiming they were best friends with this kid who had passed away ... I remember speaking with Justin in college about how interesting that experience was.”
Levenson, who wrote the book for the show, discussed how that initial experience of second-hand loss developed into the show they have today.
"When we started talking the idea was always not to satirize that or to poke fun at it, but to really try to understand what is it in us that wants to be a part of something terrible — because it affirms us somehow or gives our lives meaning," Levenson said.
"We knew from the beginning we wanted the show to be about connecting, because that's sort of what we thought was at the heart of it, was an inability to connect and people using terrible circumstances as an opportunity to connect," he said.
Part of the way that "Dear Evan Hansen" explores its theme of connecting is by incorporating social media into the show, both in the story and physically on stage.
"I think social media has amplified this sense that we are connected, but ultimately we are doing it in front of a screen and we are in these isolated pods ... but our generation and the time we are living in now, people are lonelier than they have ever been," Pasek said.
The show’s success can be seen not just by the sold out audiences that pack the Music Box theater eight times a week, but also from the way that fans are reaching out following their experiences.
"I get a lot of letters from young people who have struggled with similar things and who felt sort of seen by this character and the show in a way that they haven't otherwise," Platt said. "I just don't think it's a character that's been represented in musical theater this way."
Rachel Bay Jones, who plays Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mother, said that she often hears from mothers after seeing her character’s journey and relationships explored on stage.
"You will see the mothers behind their teenager with red eyes, beaming at you and saying thank you thank you thank you," she said.
The cast and creative team have been working with numerous nonprofits that focus on mental health and suicide prevention, including Child Mind Institute, The Trevor Project and The Jed Foundation.
Schools are even bringing their students to see the show and its take-away message of tolerance is striking a nerve.
"This story itself, it's so relatable to almost everyone in the audience," said Tate Gillie, a student who came to the show with a school group. "I felt like every single person in the audience could relate to something."
The leader of a student group, Meredith Boyan, was encouraged to use the show as a teaching tool after taking her students to a performance.
"I think we're gonna probably have a lot of conversations about feeling alone and how to reach out to people," she said. "And I know I'm definitely going to highlight the resources we have at our school for kids to get help if they're feeling like they need help, and I actually have a sign on my door that says it's a safe place for kids to come to talk — so I think that's going to be a highlight in our school.”
The show’s inspiring anthem resonates, as it tells all that even if at times you feel invisible, you will be found.