Excerpt from Chapter 5: Michael Greif Takes the Helm
If a musical can be said to have a spiritual ancestor, Dear Evan Hansen’s would have to be Rent, the Pulitzer- and Tony winning 1996 contemporary retelling of Puccini’s La Bohème by Jonathan Larson, who died unexpectedly at the age of 35 the night before the musical’s first Off-Broadway preview. Like Dear Evan Hansen, Rent told the story of troubled young people in search of belonging and tackled subjects not usually associated with the musical stage—homelessness, drug addiction, AIDS. And the score featured songs that sounded like what East Village bohemians might be listening to on their headphones, while remaining rooted in traditional musical theater storytelling. After transferring to Broadway, the show went on to run for twelve years, generating productions around the world, spawning the anthem “Seasons of Love,” opening up musical theater to a new generation, and attracting an army of obsessive fans who dubbed themselves “RENT-Heads.”
Another Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s 2009 Next to Normal, would have to be considered a forebear of Dear Evan Hansen as well, with its jagged rock score and its story of manic depression, suicide, and a broken suburban family in search of healing and grace. Like Rent before it, Next To Normal challenged conventional notions of what a Broadway musical can be, the kinds of stories it can tell, and the complexity of the characters who populate it.
Aside from the obvious musical and thematic connections, Rent and Next to Normal share one other thing in common: They were both directed by Michael Greif, who brought the same sharp dramaturgical eye, affinity for wounded outsiders, and largeness of heart to Dear Evan Hansen, completing what he sees in retrospect as a kind of trilogy. Greif was not much older than Dear Evan Hansen’s young creators when he started working on Rent almost twenty-five years ago. Now he has assumed the mantle of the grown-up in the room. It’s a role that he happily took on in the first year or so of working with Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson as they were finding their way with Dear Evan Hansen—and one that he was just as happy to step back from as he watched them gain confidence and take ownership of the material. “The writing is just incredible,” Greif says. “You know that these young gentlemen have a lot of wisdom, and they’ve dug very deep into their own insecurities to create these vivid characters.”
Dear Evan Hansen: through the window is published by Grand Central Publishing. To purchase a copy, click HERE.