In 2015, “Dear Evan Hansen” premiered at Arena Stage before becoming a Broadway smash that won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actor for Ben Platt.
This Friday, the musical hits the big screen directed by Stephen Chbosky, who adapted “Rent” (2005) for Chris Columbus early in his career before finding a knack directing such coming-of-age flicks as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012) and “Wonder” (2017).
“I’m incredibly jealous that you saw the D.C. production,” Chobsky told WTOP. “I never actually saw Ben Platt perform it on stage, so for me, it was like being front-row-center on opening night every take. … I saw it three years ago after he’d left the company, but I still loved the show, the music, the writing was great. … The story was a surprise a minute.”
Adapted from stage-to-screen by Steven Levenson of Bethesda, Maryland, the story follows awkward teenager Evan Hansen (Platt), whose single mom (Julianne Moore) agrees with his therapist that he should write letters to himself to cope with his anxiety.
When one of these letters is mistakenly found in the pocket of his classmate Connor, it’s interpreted as a suicide note from Connor to Evan as part of a secret relationship. Enjoying the attention, Evan pretends that he and Connor were best friends, winning the love of Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) and grieving parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino).
“To make a movie about all these themes: depression, social anxiety, suicide, or even the lighter parts of the film about first love … the more light it gets, the better people’s lives are,” Chbosky said. “I consider it a real pleasure and honor to make these kinds of movies, because Hollywood doesn’t make them often and I’ve got to make them three times.”
He, of course, is referring to his breakthrough indie “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, as well as the successful book-to-screen adaptation “Wonder” (2017), starring the great Jacob Tremblay (“Room”).
Such coming-of-age casting chops led him to cast Kaitlyn Dever of “Last Man Standing” (2011), “Short Term 12” (2013) and “Booksmart” (2018) as Zoe in “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“We saw a lot of great actors that day, all of them singing different songs,” Chbosky said. “She came in, she had one song, she sang ‘Only Us’ and she made me cry. There was a joke on set: ‘What is the opposite of a diva? It’s a Dever.’ She is that nice, unpretentious and just brings the talent every take. … I would work with her again on anything I do.”
As for the lead role, Chbosky stuck with Platt, who originated the role but is now 27 years old playing a high schooler. The age controversy sparked a Twitter backlash, causing the filmmakers to consider using even more digital de-aging technology similar to Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019) to enhance the movie for its eventual streaming release.
“It’s only an issue to me because I really love and respect Ben Platt,” Chbosky said. “I have cast people of similar ages to play high school my entire career. The fact that we have tape of him singing at the Tonys years ago, maybe there’s a comparison? … Go see the movie. If by the end you’re still not convinced, then it wasn’t for you, and that’s fine.”
Either way, you’re guaranteed to have the songs echoing in your head as you leave the theater, particularly “Waving Through a Window” by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the Oscar-winning songs for “La La Land” (2016) and “The Greatest Showman” (2017).
“These songs are catchy, there’s a pop element, they’re memorable right away and the lyrics are genuinely profound,” Chbosky said. “It’s like great folk art, it’s this thing that speaks truth, but it doesn’t get too ahead of itself. It’s not too fancy to be understood by everybody. They’re great populists and very nice guys. Working with them was a pleasure.”