‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Oral History: How Broadway’s Biggest Hit Since ‘Hamilton’ Became an Awards Season Movie

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In these deeply cynical times, the terrain is tough for an open-hearted movie musical. Indeed, within seconds of the trailer for Dear Evan Hansen dropping on May 18, social media was ablaze with snark about 27-year-old Ben Platt playing a high-school student and sporting a new hairstyle. Before you knew it, Twitter trolls had widely perpetuated a narrative that the film — which none of them had seen, as it doesn’t open until Sept. 24 — is a write-off.

But given that the two key constituencies that Universal most hopes the film will resonate with — young people and Academy members — aren’t particularly well represented on Twitter (remember the same studio’s other Twitter darling, Green Book?), I would encourage everyone to wait and see the film for themselves before espousing an opinion about it.

After attending a screening of Dear Evan Hansen earlier this summer, I came away with a very different opinion of the film — namely, that it is an extremely impressive adaptation of a massively acclaimed stage production, which I was lucky enough to see Off Broadway in 2016 and on Broadway in 2017, and that it is about as timely as any movie could be. Perhaps these are among the reasons why Dear Evan Hansen has been chosen from amongst hundreds of films to open the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9.

Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of a high school student suffering from extreme social anxiety whose desperate desire for acceptance leads him into a web of lies following the tragic death of a classmate who was battling his own inner demons. The story — which is told through incredibly catchy songs (good luck getting “Waving Through a Window” or “You Will Be Found” out of your head) and heartfelt performances — is ultimately about what it’s like to feel isolated and to crave connection, things virtually all of us have experienced over the 16 months since COVID changed our lives.

This is an oral history of Dear Evan Hansen‘s odds-defying creation, stage success (it was Broadway’s biggest hit since Hamilton) and screen adaptation, featuring the participation of Ben Platt, who has played the title character in every incarnation of it; Steven Levenson, who wrote the book of the stage production and the screenplay of the film; Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the stage production’s music and lyrics, and two new songs for the film; Stephen Chbosky, the director of the film version; Marc Platt, the producer of the film version (and Ben’s dad); and Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, all of whom play key supporting roles in the film version.

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The concept

JUSTIN PAUL  Benj and I thought we were going to be actors, so we went to Michigan as BFA musical theater performance majors and met at our freshman orientation. We were both from the east coast and quickly became friends. That was June or July of 2003. We realized pretty early on that we’d had similar experiences in high school.

BENJ PASEK  There were many kids who passed away during the time that I was in high school, and the same thing happened in Justin’s school, as well.

JUSTIN PAUL  Also, 9/11 happened when we were in high school. And Columbine happened when we were in eighth grade. We observed that many folks in our generation, who were young people at that time, felt incredibly lonely and were really desperate for connection. With the advent of social media, it has only gotten worse. But I think we were both struck with how desperate folks were to find any excuse to come together, whether over a tragedy or not. But when tragedy did strike, it became this permission-giving moment for a lot of folks to sort of justify their sadness and find each other. So we wanted to sort of explore that.

BENJ PASEK  Yeah. I remember even in our junior year of college, we were beginning to talk about it.

JUSTIN PAUL  We had written a song cycle at that time and just were learning how to write theatrically-minded songs, so we were looking for an original story that we wanted to tell that spoke to us. And something that kept coming back to both of us, while taking creative writing classes in college and stuff, were our high school experiences.

BENJ PASEK  Obviously things morphed and changed, and when we first got to the city after graduating, when we were learning how to construct a musical, the very good advice that we got was, “Start with an adaptation.” So we kind of put the seeds of any of this on the backburner. We worked on the James and Giant Peach musical and A Christmas Story musical, and then a producer in New York, Stacey Mindich, said, “Hey, what’s something that you might want to work on that’s not an adaptation?” And we thought, “Hey, this could be something would be interesting to explore.” And it started from there. Very quickly, Steven Levenson and Michael Grief became a part of the journey. Steven may have been one of the names that Stacey brought to us. We had said to her, “We’re curious about exploring playwrights, not necessarily musical book writers,” because somewhere in the back of our heads we always thought about this being a drama and wanting to feel very low to the ground, in the sense that it’s not a heightened musical or world — you want to feel it.

STEVEN LEVENSON  My agents asked me if I knew a Benj Pasek and a Justin Paul, two songwriters. I had heard of them. I hadn’t written a musical at that point; I was just a playwright who was really eager to write a musical, and I was telling anyone who would listen how much I wanted to write a musical. My agent told me that they had this germ of an idea and that they had begun working with a producer named Stacey Mindich, who was basically supportive of anything they wanted to do, and they really needed a book writer to come onboard and figure out if there was an idea here and, if so, how to turn it into something. So I jumped at the opportunity.

JUSTIN PAUL  We were drawn to Steven’s work because of the subject matter of his other plays, which we loved. The language and the subject matter both felt very relevant to what we were wanting to explore.

STEVEN LEVENSON  We met for lunch and started talking. What they told me at that first meeting was that Benj had this story from high school where a classmate of his had died of a drug overdose. It was a terrible tragedy, and in the wake of that tragedy, Benj watched as everyone in the school suddenly became — posthumously — this kid’s best friend. They didn’t really know him. Nobody had been friends with him — that was part of the problem. But, all of a sudden, everyone was glomming on to this tragedy and making it about themselves. And it had always stuck with Benj, particularly the fact that he, too, had joined that train and found himself trying to insinuate himself. He was curious about that impulse in himself. And then, as the years went by and social media exploded, that phenomenon seemed to only grow and become more present in our lives, this attaching ourselves to tragedies and making them first-person stories about ourselves. So that was the germ of the idea. They basically were like, “Does this sound like a musical to you? Because we’re not sure.” And I was like, “It definitely sounds like a musical,” which I had no right to say because I had no idea what I was talking about. But I just wanted to stay in the room.

JUSTIN PAUL  It turned out that Steven had a very similar sort of high school experience and life experience that he brought to the project, so there was an immediate clicking and it made sense to move forward with him.

STEVEN LEVENSON  At that point, I went home and wrote — I call it a ‘treatment,’ but it wasn’t really, it was like a four-page thought-dump of all of these ideas I had, a kind of story that could tackle these themes. It was very different from what the show ultimately would become, but I’ve looked at it subsequently and there’s a kernel in it of this idea of loneliness and connection, and the thing that we were scratching at from the very first time we talked, which was, “What would cause somebody to lie about a tragedy in order to be a part of it? How lonely would you have to be to do that? And how lonely must we all be because we all do that in a way?” We started working together officially after that — and then two weeks later I got my first job writing for TV and moved to LA. It was for The Playboy Club, a short-lived NBC drama. Everyone was super-nervous — we hadn’t even really begun to work together — but I assured them I could make it work. I started flying to New York once a month, and we would do these marathon 72-hour sessions where we would throw ideas out. We were building together the skeleton of what would be the story. It’s impossible to just start writing a musical, so we had to build this skeleton together of, “What’s the basic story?” And it was more or less the story of Evan as you know it — ish.

BENJ PASEK  Honestly, before Steven we didn’t have a plot and we didn’t have characters. So really getting to talk those things out together and having him kind of guide us as to how one creates a structure for a story and then coming up with that structure — that was hugely helpful. That lasted for a good several months, if not longer, before we even attempted to write songs.

STEVEN LEVENSON  As we went along, we talked about, “Oh, this feels like there might be a song here” and “There might be a song like this in this moment,” and so we sketched that into our little treatment, which was very bare-bones. And yeah, the question was, “Who’s going to jump first?” We decided it made the most sense for me to just start writing. So I started to write a play, basically, and in the spots where we had talked about songs, I would generally write long-ish monologues where I was trying to get inside the characters’ heads and, in overwritten text, say what they might be feeling. Then there came a moment in the process where I handed that to them. And then it all becomes a blur of where my work stopped and theirs started and vice-versa. Because then they’d say, “Oh, you know what? That song that we talked about doesn’t work there, but it might work here,” which changes the scene, which then changes the song.

JUSTIN PAUL  For every song in the show, there’s a trashed song somewhere, because we replaced basically all of the songs. “Waving Through a Window” is the only song remaining from the first batch of songs. Once we wrote that song, it felt like, “Oh, this is what that character wants to sound like. And if that’s the case, then all these other songs have got to go and we have got to write all new ones.” That song sort of became our North Star, in terms of the balance of poetic and specific, the balance of pop and theater, and sort of finding our way to how specific we wanted the songs to be versus how thematic and touching on emotion and feeling we wanted them to be.

STEVEN LEVENSON  I remember we used to get into these philosophical debates, the three of us, all the time about whether or not this was a musical. Benj and Justin would often go, “This feels like an indie movie. Maybe this should just be a movie. Maybe you should just write a movie of this.” Obviously, we kept going, but in the background it always felt like there was something weirdly cinematic about it.

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Ben Platt
Pooneh Ghana/Universal Pictures

* * *

The evolution

BEN PLATT  My involvement began with me auditioning for Pasek and Paul’s musical Dogfight when I was 17. I was deemed far too young, but I had a really great audition and they both reached out to me on social media afterwards to say, “We are a fan of yours and we’d like to work with you in the future on something else. Stay tuned.” That was really nice, but I figured that was sort of the end of what I would hear from them. But then they really did follow through. When I was doing Book of Mormon on Broadway, they came to see me. After the show, they told me about a project that they were going to do a preliminary reading of. At the time, it was called The Pasek and Paul/Levenson Untitled Project, and I came on to do the first reading. They didn’t give me any information going in because they wanted to see what my cold read would be like. And so I sat down on the first day with Michael Grief and Rachel Bay Jones and Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson and some other people who ended up being replaced over the years, and read the script, and there just was a kind of instant synergy between me and the character. I think it was clear to everybody, myself included, that it was a really great match. And so I then developed it with them through all of the development readings, through the workshops, through the [Washington, D.C.] Arena Stage-financed workshop, and then the Arena Stage initial production, and then the Off Broadway production [at the Second Stage Theatre], and then the Broadway production [at the Music Box Theatre] for a year. So all in all, it was about three-and-a-half years.

BENJ PASEK  I’ve got to say, we had no idea whether this would be something that would resonate with people at all. But in Washington, D.C., after each of the first couple of previews, there were a lot of young people lined up to get tickets—

JUSTIN PAUL  And to meet Ben Platt.

BENJ PASEK  Yeah, a lot of folks wanted to engage with the actors, too. They felt like they saw a piece of themselves in some way in this story.

STEVEN LEVENSON  People started to like it and respond to it and share their stories with us. It was incredibly gratifying and it’s something I’d never experienced as a playwright. People don’t connect that way to a play, people don’t get tattoos of plays — at least my plays.

JUSTIN PAUL  For us, it was all happening at the same time. The Greatest Showman we started working on in 2013 and La La Land we started working on in 2015, before Evan Hansen was even on Broadway. It all kind of ended up colliding in an unexpected way. Evan Hansen took a long time to get from us talking about it in college to the Broadway stage, with a lot of stops in-between. La La Land was on a quick course once it got cooking at Lionsgate. But Greatest Showman took a little while. It was good for us because we knew we had the opportunity to bounce around, and the world of Greatest Showman and the world of Evan Hansen couldn’t be more different; if things got too intense or heavy or challenging on Evan Hansen, we could pop over to the circus of Greatest Showman or the elegant beauty of La La Land.

MARC PLATT  I knew that Ben was working on something that involved Pasek and Paul, whom I knew from their earlier work, particularly Dogfight, and then was working on the film La La Land with. But my first real encounter with Dear Evan Hansen was a reading workshop that a bunch of Broadway producers were invited to. I am a father of a bunch of kids who like to act and sing. I’m also a film producer who has been lucky to do a number of films that are musical films, rather successfully, for many years. And I’m also a Broadway producer, so I live in that community and have been fortunate to have success there. So my invite to that workshop had as much to do with being one of many Broadway producers invited as it had to do with my kid being in it.

STEVEN LEVENSON  We did a workshop and then we made drastic changes. We were very unhappy with where we were, as is not uncommon in this process. The musical that people saw that day versus the musical that went up in D.C. several weeks later were totally different shows. We had an ensemble in the workshop — we had six kids that were part of it — and there were all sorts of things that didn’t work. It’s one of those things where the process is very slow, and then you start to put dates on the calendar and it becomes exponential. I remember Lin-Manuel Miranda telling me that when he wrote Hamilton, it took a year to write “My Shot” and it took a year to write the next song, and then the third year it was like 12 songs. It starts to pick up momentum.

MARC PLATT  It evolved so much from that workshop to The Arena Stage to Second Stage. A number of things evolved in that process, actually — everything from the opening of the show, which was always hard to find in a musical where scenes and songs sort of blend together, to the end of act one, which was always a very big challenge. Where does that story go at the end of act one and what should the music be and what should the music be about?

STEVEN LEVENSON  In the process of creating and developing the show, we formed a relationship with Marc Platt. When we started the show, I didn’t know who Marc Platt was and I didn’t know that Ben’s dad was a producer. I found out as we were doing it and it was like, “Oh, he might be someone helpful to talk to.” And so we started to talk to him, and he was incredibly generous with the three of us and with Michael Greif [who was brought on as the director] and Stacey. He just has an incredible mind for story and an incredible intuition for musicals, in particular.

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Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones in the Off Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen
Matthew Murphy

* * *

The triumph on stage

The show became a critical and commercial sensation Off Broadway and then on, with The New York Times’ theater critic Charles Isherwood reviewing the Off Broadway show as a “superb production” and Platt’s performance in it as “wonderful,” and later writing of the Broadway version, “Never have I heard so many stifled sobs and sniffles in the theater,” while describing Platt’s work as “a performance that’s not likely to be bettered on Broadway this season.” The show eventually was nominated for nine Tonys and won six, including best musical, best actor in a musical (Ben Platt), best book of a musical (Levenson) and best original score (Pasek and Paul).

MARC PLATT  Ben had always wanted to act and sing since he was a little kid, and there he was getting to do it, and doing really well. So for my wife, Julie, and myself, it was overwhelmingly satisfying to see our child live out his dream.

JULIANNE MOORE  I saw it right when it opened. feel so lucky to have seen it when I did, too. We brought our daughter, who’s 19 now, so she would have been about 14, right in the sweet spot for this show. I remember Ben started singing — that opening number, when he was down center stage — and he opened his mouth, and I’d never heard anything like it before. He was so original. He was so alive. I was absolutely stunned.

MARC PLATT  Ben was enormously disciplined during that whole time period. He lived almost in isolation because he wanted to protect his voice and the emotional energy that he had to expend each performance.

KAITLYN DEVER  I saw it on a trip to New York with my mom — we were literally just doing a quick girls’ trip — and I actually have a photo of me and my mom holding our Dear Evan Hansen souvenir cups. Unfortunately, I never got to see Ben’s portrayal of Evan Hansen — it was after he had left.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  I first saw the stage version about three years ago. I was in New York at the time, working on my novel Imaginary Friend, and I was just curious. It was after Ben had left the show, but the rest of the original cast was still there, I think. I had heard through the grapevine that The Perks of Being a Wallflower was an influence on the authors of the show — that was a rumor I’d heard. I supposed with the title Dear Evan Hansen, and the fact that [Perks protagonist] Charlie’s letters all began “Dear friend,” it seemed possible. I knew the song “Waving Through a Window,” which I thought was terrific, because I’d seen Ben perform it on the Tony Awards. But I otherwise knew nothing about it going in. I thought it was a great, great piece of material.

AMY ADAMS  I was late to the party — I didn’t see it until summer 2019, because when I went to New York I’d always seen things that were appropriate for my daughter — but I finally saw it and I freaked out, I loved it so much. I was going around like, “Oh my gosh, have you guys seen Dear Evan Hansen?!” And everyone was like, “Amy, we saw it years ago.” I brought my husband and my daughter, who was nine, a month later. And then I called my agent and said, “If they ever make this into a movie, I just want to be a part of telling the story. I don’t care what I play. This is so important.”

AMANDLA STENBERG  Unfortunately, I didn’t see it on stage — I wish so badly that I had — and then when this project first came to me, we were in the midst of COVID, so it wasn’t possible for me to see it. But I will admit that I watched a bootleg of the Broadway version with Ben.

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* * *

The film comes into focus

JUSTIN PAUL  Broadway is a somewhat limited experience. It’s for a certain group of folks who are able to get to New York and are able to buy Broadway tickets. And so we have always wanted to share the story and these characters and songs and music with a much wider audience.

STEVEN LEVENSON  Marc Platt had been really instrumental for us in cracking a lot of the really tough parts of the show, so we always knew that if we were going to do a movie, we would want to do it with him. We just couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone else.

MARC PLATT  Steven Levenson’s written a number of screenplays for me outside of Dear Evan Hansen, and Pasek and Paul have developed some great musical projects with me outside of Dear Evan Hansen — we’re about to go shoot Snow White, live action, with their new score. So it was a natural conversation that we had, once the show was up and running: “Could there be a film?”

BEN PLATT  A huge part of me was very much hesitant because it was a wonderful experience on stage, and the stage version has a particular legacy that I was very proud of, and stage is really my home base. I really felt that I was leaving it all out there. And then, just on a personal level, mental-health wise, it’s not an easy role to play, and I think that as wonderful as the experience was, it was really, really taxing on my personal and emotional life. The growth that happened in the year or so afterwards was really important for me, so the idea of reverting was a very scary thing. And I felt a bit old. There were many other things that made me afraid, but I think, ultimately, the idea that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of kids could see this movie in an instant who would maybe never get to see the Broadway musical, just kind of felt so much bigger than any of my own personal stuff. And the idea that it might not come together if I did not want to do it was too much for me to say no.

MARC PLATT  The first thing that came to my head was three little episodes visually. One was a kid running through a forest and seeing a tree and climbing a tree and falling out of a tree and hurting his arm, and not really seeing what his emotional state was or how he fell. I saw that visual and then I thought, “Oh, and then he later tells a story of how he wishes his life was, what he wishes really happened and how he wasn’t alone and so now, visually, you can see the main story, but you’re seeing different angles of it. You’re understanding. The kid is smiling, the kid falls out of the tree and he’s in pain — but look, somebody came to help him, he wasn’t alone — and you can visualize that. So now I’m seeing what the fantasy of the kid is. And then the third time we can go back and revisit the exact images, and the camera can really see the emotional state and can detail in ways that didn’t detail at the beginning of the film that actually look. He didn’t just fall from a tree; he let himself fall. And so that sort of tryptic, that sort of Rashomon of three different visual experiences, felt very cinematic and was something you couldn’t do on stage, and that was the door that opened for me, which I pitched to Steve Levenson, and then he ran with the rest of it.

BEN PLATT  Steven wrote an incredibly good adaptation and really cracked the filmic version of it.

MARC PLATT  We brought in a director early in the process. That was something that I thought was worth doing because it’s all about releasing yourself from what has worked on stage and figuring out how to accomplish it on film. So having a filmmaker as a participant early in that process was important to me.

BENJ PASEK  We’ve now worked on a couple of films and know that this is a director’s medium, and it’s nice to be able to watch someone who you admire bring their own interpretation of your work to life. Stephen Chbosky is someone whose work we really admired and who had created worlds that resonated with very similar demographics to the folks that we were trying to reach with Dear Evan Hansen.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  Maybe a month or so after seeing the show, I was having a general with Marc Platt and [the film’s other producer] Adam Siegel and I asked them, “What are you doing with Dear Evan Hansen?” And they said, “Why? You’re interested?” And I go, “Yeah, I think it could be amazing.” I think it was in September, a couple months later, when they hired me, after a few more meetings and me going in to Universal to meet with Peter Donna and the gang.

BENJ PASEK  He was so passionate about wanting to put his stamp on it and create a film version. I think his passion really won us over and we entrusted him with creating his version of Dear Evan Hansen.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  I had never directed a musical film. There are musical elements in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and a little bit in Wonder. I had done the screenplay for Rent and I co-wrote the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. And I had done a stage show — I co-wrote a book for a stage show with Henry Krieger and Bill Russell years ago. So I had some experience with musicals, but I had never directed one. I always wanted to. Since I’m an author, I revere authors, whether it’s RJ Palacio for Wonder or now Pasek, Paul and Levenson for Dear Evan Hansen, and so I wanted to meet everybody involved to make sure that they felt I was the right person. I said point-blank to everybody, “Listen, if you don’t want me to do it, I don’t want to do it. It’s really up to you guys because this is your baby.” And when I said to Steven Levenson, “Look, I will happily do the adaptation, or I will happily do the adaptation with you,” and he said “No, this one’s my baby,” I said, “I totally respect that. Then let me be like a book editor and help you as you see fit.” But it was his screenplay all the way.

STEVEN LEVENSON  I could see structurally how this could be a movie. I hadn’t written a feature-length script before. I’d started one and I was in the middle, but no, I really hadn’t. But I felt a lot of ownership and I felt like I really had to be the one to do it. I couldn’t imagine giving it away. So I wrote an outline, and then Stephen and I just went back and forth on that. He was a good barometer. My instinct, weirdly, was to change everything. So a lot of the process, from the beginning until the end, has been him saying, “Why did you get rid of that?”

* * *

The cast assembles

MARC PLATT  There was, thankfully, a lot of interest from a number of studios to make the movie, and all of those studios were interested if it could be done timely, with Ben portraying the role. When Universal ended up with the rights, there were no conditions other than a budget number, like any movie; a director that they approved of, and they did Chbosky; and the star actor.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  We were moving forward with Ben, period. But what I wanted to do to help his own translation was surround him with as many ‘movie people’ as I possibly could, a little bit more of a naturalistic style. I felt great respect for the original cast, so it was always, if somebody wanted to meet with me, I would meet with them. They didn’t have to read; I saw them do it on the stage. But doing it in front of a thousand people is a slightly different vibe than doing it two feet away in an actual dining room — it’s just a different feeling — so I wanted to give them the opportunity to see if they could play exclusively to the front row versus to a thousand seats. It always felt like we were going to go more ‘movie people’ with this particular one.

BEN PLATT  Stephen Chbosky really wanted to see everybody and then choose who made the most sense, both in terms of building it around me in my twenties playing high school age, and also making it commercially viable.

MARC PLATT  A number of the folks from Broadway actually came in and read for it, and one of them was even offered a role but decided not to do it. Thankfully, given the power of the material and the people involved, there was tremendous interest from many, many actors, both from the original cast and in the film community. It was one of those lucky situations where there was a lot of, “Can I come in and audition? Can I come in and sing?”

JULIANNE MOORE  It was just one of those things that my agent brought to me. I was told they wanted me to come in and sing for Dear Evan Hansen, and I was like, “What?!” For me, it was an unbelievably exciting opportunity because I loved the show so much.

AMY ADAMS  They came to me and asked if I’d be interested in playing Connor’s mom. I was like, “Yeah! Whatever! Yes!” It just felt like a wonderful opportunity to bring this story to people who might have not have access to the show.

KAITLYN DEVER  When I got my audition, I was in London for the BAFTAs. I was told I had to do three scenes and I had to sing “Requiem” and “Only Us” in the audition, which was going to be a day after I got back to LA, so I knew I had to start prepping now. Because I was staying at a hotel, I didn’t want to disturb the guests by shouting “Requiem” from the top of my lungs, so I ended up booking a rehearsal space while I was in London. And I also was able to go see the show again on the West End. This time I took my dad and my sisters.

JULIANNE MOORE  I think the last time I sang in a show was in high school. I did musicals in high school, but then didn’t we all?

AMY ADAMS  I started as a dancer in dinner theater, so singing is part of not only my history, but part of my spirit. I really, really love music, and musical theater was such a part of what brought me to performing. In the movies I’ve sung in Enchanted and The Muppets. I sang live on the Oscars. And then I also star in bathroom karaoke at my house once a month. I love singing “Alone by Heart” or “We Belong” by Pat Benatar.

KAITLYN DEVER  From an early age I was really comfortable with singing. Never really had any training. I started playing guitar when I was in second grade. And then my sister Mady, who is about two years younger, and I had a band together. When we’d play talent shows, we’d call ourselves Hot Pink. It wasn’t until five or six years ago that I really started toying with the idea of writing music, basically turning the things that I’d journaled about into songs. And then my sister and I did some music for Jason Reitman’s Tully, which was a lot of fun — he let us cover “You Only Live Twice” and write an original. Then we released a couple of singles. And now we’re about to release our first EP as a band. We are currently Beulahbelle. It might be changing. Stand by. But acting and singing at once, in the same project, was something that always interested me and became a really big dream of mine, to be in a musical at some point. What could be better than that? But they really don’t come around too often.

JULIANNE MOORE  I hadn’t auditioned in a really long time. I was terrified. I had to sing “So Big/So Small.” Justin was playing the piano — it’s pretty terrifying to have the composer playing the piano for you. Stephen Chbosky was there, and so was the casting director, Bernie Telsey. And they were recording it for Marc Platt. So it couldn’t have been more scary. I left thinking, “Well, I did it — I did something that was different and terrifying.” It’s one of those things you’re always saying to your kids: “You just have to try. It doesn’t matter what happens. Trying is the most important thing.”

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  Julianne didn’t “audition” for anything. She came in and she worked with us. I’ll never forget, we were at Bernie’s office, Justin was on the piano, Julianne was standing up, Bernie was filming and I was across the room. I was moved to tears by her performance in that room because she treated it like a lullaby.

KAITLYN DEVER  There were like eight people in a very small room here in LA in the Samsung Building on La Brea. I was in there with a pianist, the casting director, Stephen Chbosky, Marc Platt, Adam Siegel and Steven. I had to sing “Requiem.” Singing live is a nerve-wracking thing, but with this one especially because I wanted it so, so bad. At the end, I was really proud of myself for going in there and doing the best that I could. Stephen Chbosky was really kind to me. He later told me, “A big reason why I loved your audition was because you were not worried about singing ‘Requiem’; I could tell that you were thinking about the feeling of ‘Requiem’ and singing that, and by the end you weren’t even concerned about singing the final note — you ended up screaming it.” I did consciously decide to do that because I tried to put myself in Zoe’s shoes as best I could, and given all of the conflicting emotions that she’s feeling during that song, in particular, if I were feeling that way, I would just scream.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  She was amazing. She also sang “Only Us” and it brought me to tears. I was just astonished by her.

KAITLYN DEVER  I found out maybe a week-and-a-half or two weeks later that I was getting it. I found out from another actor who had auditioned for it, who texted me congratulating me, which was like the sweetest thing in the world. I didn’t know yet — I hadn’t heard from my agents — so I was like, “Really? I don’t think that’s true.” The person said, “No, but it is, and I’m so happy for you — congratulations!” I was like, “I’d better confirm this before I actually get really excited.” Then, a couple hours after that, I heard from my agents, and I cried my eyes out and screamed. I was so shocked. I can’t stress enough how much of a big deal this is for me, personally. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.

JULIANNE MOORE  I think it was my agent who told me. And then the first people I told were my kids. Teenage children very rarely care what you do, period, even with movies. But this is a piece of material that they both loved. We listened to that score in the car all the time. We knew it backwards and forwards. And so I think they were astonished and really thrilled.

AMY ADAMS  I was thrilled. Then, after a while, I realized, “Oh, wow, this is going to be devastating.” The experience of being on camera is so intimate. You’re so much closer to the grief.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  As far as Amandla, Pasek and Paul just went on and on about, “You have to meet this person. She’s so amazing. We think she’s the one [for the part of Alana]. We love her so much.” I knew her work, of course, but I didn’t know her. We had a Zoom meeting — she was in Denmark at the time, and I was in my son’s bedroom putting the computer on his Ryan’s World bedspread — and there was a real connection, a real meeting of the minds. We both related to being that type-A kid who never feels worthy enough. It’s like you can’t work hard enough.

AMANDLA STENBERG  I’m half-Danish and I was living in Copenhagen for a few months to get my citizenship in case I needed to get out of the country for any reason. It was presented to me as there being potential interest and that I should have a meeting with the director. Now, I’m a huge fan of Stephen Chbosky — The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a film that I put on when it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and I want something to fall asleep to, and as I get older that movie transmutes into having different meanings for me. I just think it’s so beautiful. So I had a meeting set up with Stephen, which I thought was just going to be a general, and I assumed that then I would audition. But Stephen and I had this really incredible emotional connection, and had such an extensive, broad conversation about my life and intention in the world and what we’re passionate about and what we want to align ourselves with. He’s such a beautiful spirit, and all of his work centers around caring about people who feel alone and wanting to make them feel less alone. The meeting just went so well that by the end Stephen was like, “You know what? I think you’re a very special lady, and I think you need to be a part of this.” At which point I started crying a bit, because even to be seen by Stephen in the way that he saw me was so emotional. Then I got off the phone and jumped up and down and ran around the room, which honestly is not a response I’ve had to being cast since I was a kid. I was fully jumping up and down and weeping simultaneously.

MARC PLATT  Most people didn’t work for the kinds of fees they would normally command because the film couldn’t hold that. But they really wanted to be in the film.

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Kaitlyn Dever
Pooneh Ghana/Universal Pictures

* * *

Navigating a pandemic

BEN PLATT  There was talk before the pandemic of trying to get it done as soon as possible so that I could feasibly play the role.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  We had a reading in February of 2020 with mostly Broadway people that was magical. I wish everybody could have seen that reading. Ben hadn’t done it for years. It was the first time I saw him do it at all. But just watching the Broadway people watch him — oh my God. And then, as we all know, the world stopped in March.

BEN PLATT  When the pandemic hit, we all sort of assumed that that was that — certainly once it started to become clear how intense it was going to be. I personally just assumed that the timing was ruined and I let that one go. And then about two months into it, I was hearing rumblings from Universal and from my father and from the creative team and Benj and Justin that they were still looking to do it, and they were just trying to figure out how to make that happen in the pandemic.

MARC PLATT  On a good day, musicals are challenging because there’s a lot more moving parts to them than other films. A contemporary movie drama about isolation and suicide and mental wellness and loss is tough because the subject matter challenges you emotionally and with how you accomplish it cinematically. And then there was COVID. We made this film very, very early on in COVID. We were supposed to start in the spring of 2020 but, of course, everything stopped. Then Universal called, I believe in June 2020, and said, “Would you consider doing the movie now?” It was early in the pandemic and for everybody — but particularly for a producer who is responsible for other people — there was a lot of stress and worry about, “How do we do this?” Think back to June 2020 and what we did and didn’t know. I forget what else was up and running — maybe nothing, maybe Jurassic [World: Dominion], which eventually went to Europe.

BEN PLATT  We were one of the maiden voyages in terms of a large production trying to shoot in its entirety in the midst of COVID.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  From what I understand, we were the first movie back in North America.

MARC PLATT  I needed to be convinced by the medical teams that the protocols were sufficient, because then it was my responsibility to talk to the actors and crew and explain to each of them what the protocols were and make sure they were comfortable. I’m now on my sixth film in COVID, but that was early on, with no vaccines, traveling in just one in a car at a time and taking all sorts of other precautions.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  When the town shut down, that was scary. When there’s no work for anybody, it’s a pretty terrifying experience. And when we came back, the actors and crew and I were so happy to work. We were just grateful and humbled and didn’t want to mess up the opportunity — not only for us, but for everybody.

MARC PLATT  Other than the high school students, it really is a small cast, which was a help in the early days of COVID because we could contain the number of people in the room.

* * *

Go-time

Some members of the cast already knew each other…

JULIANNE MOORE  When my family went to see the show, we went backstage afterwards to congratulate Ben, so I’d met him that one time. Amy and I worked together on The Woman in the Window. And Kaitlyn and I did a play during the pandemic — one of those Zoom plays.

BEN PLATT  I was an admirer of Amy and Julianne, of course, and I loved Nick on Atypical. Colton [Ryan, who plays Connor Murphy] I knew very well — he was in the original company of Dear Evan Hansen with us, he was my original standby and also covered Connor and Jared — and he’s a wonderful guy. And Kaitlyn I knew because she did Booksmart with Beanie [Feldstein, Platt’s best friend] and with Noah [Galvin], my boyfriend.

KAITLYN DEVER  Ben and I met during the shoot of Booksmart. Beanie had talked about Ben so much that my first meeting with him felt like meeting the parents of your significant other — it was like that much of a big deal. He came over to my and Beanie’s apartment and hung out for a little bit. And then the second time I got to hang out with him was in 2020 when we were all nominees at the Golden Globes [Platt for The Politician, Dever for Unbelievable and Feldstein for Booksmart]. Afterwards, Ben and I got to dance on the dance floor, and it was very fun.

Others knew of each other…

AMY ADAMS  I geeked-out on Kaitlyn pretty bad. I sometimes forget that I’m not Kaitlyn’s peer, or the peer of these really amazingly talented young actors and actresses. I kind of think I’m their peer, and then I’m like, “No, Amy. You’re so uncool right now that it’s painful.” But as soon as I knew she was cast, I freaked out and then went, “Oh, she must sing!” Late to that party, too. I went and did a deep-dive online stalking of Kaitlyn’s singing, and she is so brilliant and talented. So yeah, there was a lot of what I sound like now talking to you, only talking to her, like, “Oh, my gosh, and then I stalked you online!” She was like, “Okay, back up.” No, she was great.

KAITLYN DEVER  Amy was such a big supporter throughout the entire shoot. She and I really bonded over music. Our music taste is very similar. And she’s just the sweetest person I’ve ever met in my life.

Prepping during COVID…

KAITLYN DEVER  I did a couple of Zoom meetings with Benj and Justin while they were still in New York and I was in L.A. I was just singing on Zoom, which is a really difficult thing because the sound cuts out and you can’t really get a good idea. Zoom is so awkward. Then I flew down to Atlanta with Ben and we immediately started music rehearsals. I was singing “Requiem” and “Only Us” every single day for four or five hours for two or three weeks before we started, which is a lot.

BEN PLATT  Only in the six or seven weeks before we got down there did it feel like, “Okay, we are 100% going and doing this.” It was thrilling that we were going to get to immortalize this and that I can show my kids it someday, hopefully.

Arriving in Atlanta…

JULIANNE MOORE  You went to Atlanta and they deposited you at your house. They had a PA who would get whatever we needed — we could order groceries through him and he would drop them off at the door. And you could obviously order food from Seamless and stuff. You could go for a walk in your neighborhood. I had a little backyard and stuff. But we weren’t allowed to go to a grocery store or restaurants or anything like that. And then we drove ourselves to the set and we were there to work and then we turned around and we came back.

BEN PLATT  We were all terrified to be there, of course, because of the pandemic, so that immediately bonded us to each other.

KAITLYN DEVER  It had been a while since I had been out. It was the first time I’d been on a plane in a while. First time I’d been to work. But I felt very, very, very safe, because of how well we were taken care of by Universal. Universal was extremely careful and followed heavy protocol to make sure everybody was safe.

JULIANNE MOORE  We were getting COVID-tested every day. Different kinds of tests. There’s the one that they do with a deep-nostril thing. Then there’s the spit one. We had them all.

AMANDLA STENBERG  It was definitely the first project for me during COVID. I actually had less fear being on set than in the world. It’s probably riskier to be in the world than it is to be in a strict bubble.

KAITLYN DEVER  Ben and I were living in a house together. We would go to work together — we had matching Toyota Corollas — and then we’d come home. We’d order Postmates — we were literally circulating five restaurants that we had picked — and we’d sit and watch television. Oh, my God, it started with Selling Sunset. Then I finished all of Sex and the City, including the films — I had never seen Sex and the City before, and Ben made sure I did. Love Island UK. Hollywood. Ratched. Some days we were coming home with puffy eyes and just feeling exhausted from the days we were doing, and the only way to decompress was watching Selling Sunset.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  Some people had to sit alone in a hotel room or rental apartment or whatever for weeks on end.

BEN PLATT  I didn’t enter a single establishment while I was there for three-and-a-half months.

STEVEN LEVENSON  It was unlike any experience I’d had on a set before. You had to test to get on set. You had to wear a mask and face shields while you were there. There wasn’t that sense like there usually is, when you’re sitting around video village, that you’re making this thing together.

MARC PLATT  It was honestly so isolating that the only time I saw my kid as my kid was when his mask and shield came off and I was watching him on a monitor. I couldn’t even be at the director’s monitor because we all had to be distanced, so everybody had their own handheld.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  In so many ways, it reflected the themes of the movie — the isolation, the depression and the need and yearning to connect.

MARC PLATT  I sort of joke about it because my eyesight is not what it once was and neither is my hearing. I was in a mask and a shield for four months. I’m not sure I heard or saw a single thing. I can laugh about it now. But I’ll tell you, every morning, coming in to work and waiting for the test results was a scary proposition.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  I will never forget it. I was standing outside with Marc Platt, four or five or six weeks in, and I turned to him and said, “This is the hardest movie I have ever made.” I’ve only made a few. But when Marc said, “Yeah, this is one of the hardest movies I’ve ever made,” and I saw the look in his eyes, I went, “Wow, this really is tough,” because he’s made a thousand movies.

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Ben Platt in the film Dear Evan Hansen
Courtesy of TIFF

* * *

Singing live

MARC PLATT  Musicals, and particularly film musicals, are generally heightened, by definition. We don’t usually sing out in real life. Some people do, but— And this wasn’t a period piece, which is easier to musicalize. This wasn’t a fantasy — “Once upon a time…” It’s a contemporary story that deals with real life and death issues — suicide, isolations, mental wellness. So one of the great challenges and questions we had was, “How do you sing and still keep it naturalistic, so that they feel like real people with real problems, messy people who make mistakes and are trying to cling on to the journey of life?” I used to always say, “Don’t think of it as a musical. Think of it as a drama that has a lot of music in it. For many of the songs, but not all of them, the scene should evolve and you should not be aware of when the dialogue ended and the song began, or where the song ended and the dialogue began again.” That’s how rhythmically it was written.

BEN PLATT  We pre-recorded to have backups for on-camera, so that the soundtrack could be a very clean version and so that the people who didn’t know the music beforehand could get comfortable. But the hope and the goal was always to err on the side of using as much live vocals as possible.

KAITLYN DEVER  I thought it would be all prerecords and I’d get to sing it a bunch of times before we’d actually end up doing the scene itself. Then I’d be all done with my singing and all I’d have to worry about is lip-syncing later. Not true. One of my first Zooms, they were like, “How do you feel about live singing?”

JULIANNE MOORE  Oh, my God, my throat is drying up just thinking about it now. But you know what was great, actually? To be challenged by something new at this point in my career.

AMY ADAMS  It makes the biggest difference on the tone and the feeling and the emotion to be able to do it facing the other person and to sing it live with the other person.

AMANDLA STENBERG  I remember talking to Kaitlyn and being like, “Kaitlyn, I’m nervous.” We could relate because we’re both film actresses. And she was like, “Don’t worry, the spaces in which we’re performing the songs are really intimate.” I remember being like, “Okay, cool” — and then Stephen and Benj and Justin coming to me and being like, “Cool, so, you’re performing this song in the auditorium during an all-school assembly.” I was like, “Oh. Crap.” There were 150 extras, and many of them were incredibly trained individuals who are passionate about musical theater.

BEN PLATT  More so than almost any musical that I’ve seen, this one stays very close to the ground — when the musical numbers enter the space, the texture stays much the same as it is in the talking scenes — and I think a huge part of that is that the vocals feel very communicative and conversational and live and unadorned and unpolished. There’s nothing that makes it feel sort of canned or theatrical, or that takes you out of the universe.

JULIANNE MOORE  Something that Justin and Benj and Alex Lacamoire [one of the music [producers] all really wanted was a seamless, beautiful transition from spoken words into song words.

MARC PLATT  It’s not like, “Here comes the musical number!”

KAITLYN DEVER  It adds so much more to be singing these songs live, because the lyrics and the dialogue are so blended that it does make sense to accomplish live singing as much as we can. So I was immediately down to do it. But definitely was nervous about it!

BEN PLATT  Kaitlyn loves to downplay what a beautiful voice she has. I think people will really be bowled over by how great she is.

* * *

Ben

BEN PLATT  I think Evan and I have a similar rhythm. We both speak very quickly, we both have very self-effacing humor and we both have — albeit very different versions of — social anxiety and anxiety in general. I think that my being able to channel my own anxiety through him was instantly a very powerful thing. And while we differ in many ways, I think that’s something we have always shared.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  I felt very liberated, and I think Ben did as well, by the fact that I never saw him do it on stage, so I wasn’t chasing some version that I saw on some magical night on Broadway. To me, it really was like opening night every day, take after take with him.

STEVEN LEVENSON  What Ben does in this role is magical. And I was constantly impressed that he wasn’t just repeating what he had done at the Music Box Theatre.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  Ben wanted the Evan of the movie to feel different than the Evan of the stage. And I was right there with him.

AMANDLA STENBERG  His character is so deep in his bones. He is Evan. Evan is in his heart and in his body. I got to witness when he performed “You Will Be Found,” and it’s startling. It’s like, “Okay, yeah, this person was born to play this role.”

BEN PLATT  It was bizarre. On the one hand I fell naturally back into a lot of his habits and mannerisms — the material and the emotional life of it are familiar to me, so it wasn’t starting from scratch in any regard. And then the challenging part of it was, firstly, figuring out how to modulate some of that and keep it having the same essence and the same emotional intensity and driving the story with the same kind of emotional stakes, but communicating that with a lot less and turning down the physicality and turning down the theatricality and operatic nature of the part on stage, and just doing only the most essential things to communicate stuff.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  Day two of shooting, Ben is in front of that huge tree where he’s confronting the memory and he sings his guts out. I had heard that, physiologically speaking, he was this freak of nature who could somehow have a full breakdown, cry his eyes out and sing open-throated all at the same time, which is physically — I would call it an impossibility if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. I set up the shot, we do the first take where he sings his heart out, I yell “Cut” and there is a stunned silence. And then there’s a crackle on the walkies and some crew member went, “Well, this is going to be a good fucking movie.” I just remember thinking, “That was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen anybody do.” He made Justin Paul cry.

JUSTIN PAUL  There he was, singing his heart and guts out in a forest, in a way that we had never imagined. It was never in our scope of what we thought would ever happen or be possible. And it was very moving to see that kind of full-circle closure.

BEN PLATT  Playing the character in a film is much easier in the sense that you only have to attack each sequence for one or two days and then let it go. The nice thing was getting to say goodbye to each piece of material one bit at a time — on a personal level, that was really nice and kind of an exorcism of the material in a way. But, by the same token, you don’t get the really nice chronology that you get on stage where you get to live it from beginning to end. When you have to have emotional moments, it’s because of where you’ve just come from and where you’re going and you can ride this rollercoaster of momentum with a live audience. “Words Fail,” was the second day of principal photography, which was kind of insane. It feels like you really have to just muster it and pull it out of yourself, and there were individual moments within the shooting that required me to pull on far more personal things than I did during the show, only because I was having to go zero to 60 and live in the middle of a story that hadn’t really happened yet. So in many ways it was easier, and in some ways it was a little more challenging.

KAITLYN DEVER  I think the first time I sang live was for “Only Us.” I really enjoyed singing live with Ben. That was such a beautiful experience. For me, selfishly, it was cool to be able to witness Ben Platt singing three feet away from my face. Who gets to do that?! The other cool thing was being able to witness him essentially singing certain songs for the very last time.

AMANDLA STENBERG  Doing the part of the song that takes place on a park bench with Ben was a really beautiful moment for us to share together.

BEN PLATT  When we shot the second half of “Words Fail” — or I guess it’s the first half in the piece but the second half that we shot, the actual confession in the dining room — I asked Stephen to start with my coverage, which he was always very kind and deferential about, in terms of what I needed performance-wise, in terms of the structure of the day, even if it wasn’t as convenient necessarily for the production. But he allowed me to sort of get mine out of the way. Any nice working actor knows that off-camera work is important and you have to be there for your person that’s on camera, but even so there’s self-preservation and there’s saving it for your coverage, and that’s understandable. But I just felt so much generosity from Amy and from Danny and from Kaitlin — they were crying and really reacting and fully living the reality of the admission every single take of mine. We were still hours away from having to do their coverage, but they just completely gave everything they could to me. When I finished I just went over to them and we hugged. I just couldn’t believe that they were willing to do that.

AMY ADAMS  Ben has such a special relationship to this character. It’s really beautiful to see. He was singing live. I was there, and what he was able to achieve was astounding. He just killed it. I still can’t talk about it, and I feel silly crying because I don’t like to cry. [Cries] But he just brought everybody there with him. It was so present and so real.

BEN PLATT  I think I viewed Evan a lot more this time as somebody that I have empathy for and sympathy for and a friend of mine that I’m revisiting. The first time, I was a lot closer to that high school experience and I was in the midst of creating him, so the lines between he and I were a lot more blurred.

* * *

Ch- ch- changes (spoiler alert!)

STEVEN LEVENSON  In theater, what you’re always trying to do is reduce and make things as spare as possible, so a bedroom is literally just a bed. With this film, we got to actually inhabit these spaces and these worlds. We got to see the park that Evan works at and we got to see his uniform and those little things that had only ever existed in our brains.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  Also, once you put the Murphy family’s grief in a close-up, they’re not 50 feet away or a couple hundred feet away; they’re right there. And I felt it when we did the reading because we did it in such a small room. I felt, “Wow, this is very intense.” You have to respect a close-up version of grief, and you have to respect what this family is going through in a different way than you have to on stage. So we had to adjust some of the way that things happen and what his motives were at times to show that proper respect to the family and their grief.

STEVEN LEVENSON  The trickiest thing all along has been how much we’re on Evan’s side in this, how much we want to like him, how much we do like him and how much we want to forgive him.

BEN PLATT  When you’re dealing with film, there’s a lot less forgiveness in terms of what you can get away with, as far as human behavior and what people can get on board with. You really have to understand, in every moment, why he’s doing what he’s doing and why’s not just standing up and yelling, “Everybody! Stop! This is why!” So I think Steven, in the adaptation, made a real point of making sure that in the principal’s office Evan is doing everything he can to combat it until he just can’t. And when he goes over for dinner, he’s going with the intention of telling the truth, and that’s very clear, but once again there’s a wall that he hits and he has no choice but to kind of go along with it.

STEVEN LEVENSON  It’s in “For Forever” where he lies first. We really wanted it to feel, even more than in the show, that he’s desperately trying not to get pulled into this. He’s trying to tell the truth from the beginning, but he really gets dragged into this, through the best of intentions on everyone’s part.

JULIANNE MOORE  I think there’s a much deeper sense in the movie of it being about mental health, because you are so inside these kids and their experiences.

BENJ PASEK  There’s two new songs in the film—

JUSTIN PAUL  One of which we wrote in collaboration with Amandla Stenberg [“The Anonymous Ones”], which was wonderful. Alana is a character that we hadn’t really gotten to write material for on the stage.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  It was inspired by Amandla. I’m a big believer that all performances are some form of autobiography. She wanted to share that part of herself, and I thought it was very brave to do it. I thought it was very important that people see that just because you have — on the surface, at least — all of these wonderful qualities — you’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’re successful, whatever — you’re still a human being with frailty and a very relatable struggle.

AMANDLA STENBERG  Music is one of my main passions in life, but musical theater is not something that I’m super familiar with. My dad is a musician. My mom used to sing in the church choir. I started playing violin when I was in the second grade. I’m getting to the place now where I would release music, but it’s been a process allowing myself the space and the room to discover my musical voice. I don’t have much music out — I’ve been making tons of demos for the last several years and then just hiding them in my Notes app — so I was so honored when Justin and Benj, who had kind of researched me and the music that I have out, came to me and said, “Hey, we want you to co-write on this.” I’m a very lucky lady.

STEVEN LEVENSON  We’ve always worried that we don’t spend enough time with Alana.

BEN PLATT  We had Amandla Stenberg, who is just a brilliant movie star, so we really wanted to give her as well-rounded a character as possible. That was the character in the show that had the most room for improvement and understanding on a deeper level. It was really important to the writers to understand why Evan and Alana connect, apart from her just being a really useful plot device later in the show. And their being able to bond over their anxiety and depression and being medicated is really powerful.

STEVEN LEVENSON  The way Alana gets to function in the movie is really the way we always have seen her, which is that she is Evan, in a lot of ways. You don’t know that and he doesn’t know that, but she really is as lonely and confused as he is — and that’s why they get to come together in the way that they do.

BEN PLATT  This idea that the captain of the football team or the lead in the show or the head prefect or whoever it may be could be struggling in such a deeper way than we can know, and that we can’t take things at surface value but really need to dig deep and see inside of people, is a really powerful addition.

AMANDLA STENBERG  That’s what made me feel so passionate about the role. The work that we did together was kind of exploring, “Okay, so what makes her tick? And how does her mental divergence manifest?” For Alana, her mental divergence makes her feel like she’s missing something inside of her, and so she’s overcompensating by having to be this perfect student. She thinks that through that, she will achieve connection with other people, when, in some ways, it actually isolates her. And that was the thing that I really related to. I was such a huge dork in high school and had such a hard time just letting loose and not being hard on myself. I was your classic overachiever and teacher’s pet. When I was younger, that was a sort of coping mechanism for not really being able to deal with the parts of myself where I might have felt empty or there might have been fractions of me that I didn’t know how to understand or to fill up. Sometimes we utilize our performance and our achievements to compensate for the ways in which we don’t feel confident in ourselves, or we feel this need to prove to the world that we’re perfect. I was a little spooked out reading Alana, and I felt very connected to her, because I’m also on the exact same medication and dosage as her. I was like, “Oh, I completely get this.” She’s basically being medicated for anxiety.

STEVEN LEVENSON  Another of the great, exciting things about making a movie was that we could have a third act, which we couldn’t have on the stage. On the stage, we basically skip ahead a year. He has this huge confession, he talks to his mom and then we follow up with him a year later and see what’s changed. With this, it felt like, “Oh, we can live in that year and see what actually happens and see what he goes through and how he changes and, honestly, see the consequences, the price that he pays.

BEN PLATT  There was a lot more attention in the third act to, “How does he repent for what he’s done and how does he heal?” For the stage version, when you’re ready for us to wrap it up, you get that one future scene in the orchard and you get a piece of what’s happened, and that’s really satisfying. But when you get to know him on camera, you really want to see, “How is he going to move forward from this and how is he going to learn from this?” And so watching him get to know Connor and read all the books and find this video and try to do work anonymously to help and to admit what he’s done online even — I think it’s a really powerful addition.

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Amandla Stenberg
Pooneh Ghana/Universal Pictures

* * *

The trailer

BEN PLATT  This was not an easy thing to do, to return to this character and try to give as much of myself emotionally as I could to it, to make sure that the story was seen by as many people as possible. So for the kneejerk first reaction to be about my age was just a little heartbreaking. But I’m hoping that will be dispelled by the performance itself. Also, I can’t really control my hair. There’s a lot of talk about wigs and things, but like, that’s my hair. I wanted it to be curly because it reminded me of being a young person and that’s kind of how it was.

STEVEN LEVENSON  To me, it was always a question from the beginning: when is Ben going to be too old to play this part? But I don’t know, in all the movies that I see with teenagers, none of them is a teenager. So to me, that’s never been a hard bar to get over. We could have cast somebody else in the role, but why? Why would you not want to capture this incredible, iconic performance?

AMANDLA STENBERG  I really don’t think that he looks very old at all, actually. I think that he looks great.

MARC PLATT  I’m very comfortable letting folks judge the actual work itself.

BENJ PASEK  Hopefully the film will be able to speak for itself and that’ll be the final word.

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  Look, go in with all the snark in the world, because I truly believe that the movie and Ben will win you over. He is a magical artist — a great performer, a great singer, a great actor. He’s funny, he can dance, he can do everything. That’s a once-in-a-generation type of talent. So if you see him do it, and you’re still talking about his hair, then the movie wasn’t for you.

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Tapped by TIFF

STEPHEN CHBOSKY  It’s an honor to be invited to be the opening night movie. I took The Perks of Being a Wallflower to Toronto, so it’s a very special festival for me, very personal.

KAITLYN DEVER  I’ve been there a lot — Men, Women & Children, Outside In. Just to be at TIFF is such an honor.

AMANDLA STENBERG  I was there with The Hate U Give. It’s an incredible honor.

JULIANNE MOORE It’s a big deal. I love Toronto. I think that the very first movie that I went with was Vanya on 42nd Street in the early nineties. I can remember I had two interviews and then the studio was like, “You’re free.” Nobody wanted to talk to me, so I just wandered around for a couple of days and I walked into movies. I’ve been going there ever since. I love that festival. It’s a huge honor to be chosen to open.

STEVEN LEVENSON  I’m excited to go see the movie with people — that sounds very exotic!

BEN PLATT  I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm just in case we can’t make it happen, but even just the idea that enough people connected to the film that they wanted to single it out in that way — it’s very exciting. To have an entity like that take it as seriously as that was a real vote of confidence, so it’s very exciting.

MARC PLATT  I don’t feel like I’ve watched the film yet as the father. I just finished the film and I’m so focused on being a good collaborator and a producer that I haven’t just walked in and said, “I’m just going to watch it as the dad.” I haven’t given myself that joy yet. But I will do so.

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Wishes for the film

AMANDLA STENBERG  Young people today are dealing with so many unprecedented circumstances. It’s hard enough in the first place to figure out who you are. And it’s even harder to do that when the ground is so shaky underneath you, just with the political state of the world, COVID, the state of our environment, wondering about the sustainability of our future, dealing with social media and how that’s so ingrained in our sense of identity now. I hope that this presents a space for young people to feel less alone in those feelings and to feel seen and understood.

BEN PLATT  I would hope that, particularly for young people and for parents, it opens up conversations and breaks down walls of things that are difficult to start talking about — just breaks the seal and rips the band-aid off and allows those conversations to start flowing about mental health and understanding each other and connecting and using the time that they have while they’re in the same house to really understand each other.

STEVEN LEVENSON  I hope that people who see the movie see something of their own experience in it and can feel some sense of relief that they are not the only ones who have felt that way.

KAITLYN DEVER  It felt like now, more than ever, was the time to make a movie that is essentially about feeling alone and isolated.

JULIANNE MOORE  But you’re not alone. Nobody’s alone. And the things that we think are singular to us, are not. They’re human qualities.

AMY ADAMS  Is it too cheesy to quote the movie and just say, “You will be found?”

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Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever in the film Dear Evan Hansen
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

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