Stacey Mindich Interview

The producer of Dear Evan Hansen shares how it all began.

The winner of 6 Tony Awards, Dear Evan Hansen is at Richmond Altria’s Theater this week through Sunday. The original musical also won a Grammy and the Olivier Award for Best Musical on London’s West End. 

I was in my twenties when I worked with Stacey Mindich in the writers’ room at SELF magazine in New York. There were five of us. And years after we’d moved on to other lives, she invited us to a reunion lunch in New York. 

At the time, Stacey’s show, The Bridges of Madison County was on Broadway. And when we asked her what was next, she mentioned a new musical, Dear Evan Hansen, debuting next year. “Can’t wait to hear more about it,” we said, the way old friends do. 

We couldn’t have known then, but Stacey had a blockbuster on her hands. She didn’t know, either.  When Dear Evan Hansen opened on Broadway, in December of 2016, one critic called it, “one of the most remarkable shows in musical theater history.” 

I caught up with Stacey as Dear Evan Hansen opened in Richmond to learn more about how this “most remarkable” musical came to be. 

Constance Costas: You created Dear Evan Hansen from scratch—how did it all begin? 

Stacey Mindich: In my search for the Next Great American Musical, I was lunching with two young composers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, in 2007. They were just 24, recent graduates from the University of Michigan’s esteemed musical theatre program, and they were bouncing out of their seats with unbounded enthusiasm for a piece that would entail grief, anxiety, loneliness, dare I say suicide, and how all of these are painfully exacerbated by social media. 

They described the digital world as the musical’s “ninth protagonist.” They used the word “authenticity.” A lot. As I listened to all of this, my heart sank and my head set off all the alarms: FAILURE ALERT, FAILURE ALERT. 

What convinced you to take the risk?

The story felt familiar, eerily so. As a mother of three sons, it all hit home. The first time I heard the song, “Anybody Have a Map?” sung by two mothers after a typical morning of missed connections with their respective children, I accused the authors of spying on my own breakfast table. I knew those moms. What they said could have come from my mouth. 

Furthermore, I knew Evan. He lived next door, he was the neighbor, the nephew, the boy from school. Evan was all too real, painfully so. He was also a bit of a mess. But I saw parts of him in everyone I knew, including my kids and myself. Still, despite my faith in the show, Dear Evan Hansen’s success still seemed unlikely.

Evan Zimmerman

Unlikely, maybe—but a success nevertheless. What struck audiences?  

The show struck a surprising chord almost immediately at our out-of-town tryout run at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. Evan’s relatability seemed to come at just the right time in our culture. In fact, the relatability of the music and characters to these strangers in the audience was uncanny. 

How is the show touching audiences? 

It’s sparked conversation in families. More than half a million fans are vocal on our Instagram account alone. One Manhattan father was so moved by the show, he called my office in our inaugural year on Broadway with an offer to fund audiences filled with parents and children. His dream, he explained, was to have them experience the show together and then hold a post-show discussion—with psychologists who could help improve parent-child communications.

We have been graced by celebrities in our audiences and our “Blue Room,” from Beyoncé to Barbra [Streisand] to superstar Hugh Jackman, who added “You Will Be Found” to his world concert tour, telling a story about himself that cast him as an Australian Evan. The fact that a trace of Evan lurked inside a hunky global superstar was heartening, to say the least. But it has been the IRL fans (self-proclaimed “Fansens”) who have meant the most to me. 

The show has some dedicated superfans, right? 

Two of those Fansens—twin sisters in their 50s named Martha and Julie Stroud—have seen our show hundreds of times in multiple cities and countries. They became a two-person cheerleading squad that managed to quickly capture our attention. On every important milestone for our show, from Broadway to Toronto to London, I’d train my eye on the orchestra seats from my perch at the back of the house, and…there they were.

It was Martha and Julie—like so many of the audience members who’ve touched our lives—who made us feel that we were okay. Our show mattered. We were not alone.

Evan Zimmerman

How did the show’s “mission” evolve?  

Initially, it was simply to fill theater seats. We stayed away from terms like “depression” and “mental health,” because it’s not exactly an incentive to by a ticket to “the suicide musical,” is it? But as we became more comfortable in our role and, admittedly, ticket sales kept climbing, we partnered with six of this country’s leading mental health/wellness institutions. 

Dr. Victor Schwartz, originally of the Jed Foundation, has been there for us when our actors received messages in the middle of the night from teens and adults alike. Whether it was a tweet, a DM, or a note at the stage door, partners like Dr. Schwartz reached out to parents, DM’d kids, and stayed connected until local help was found.

What we’ve all learned from this beautiful story is the simple, universal truth that everyone is looking for someone to tell them that it’s going to be okay and that they are not alone in this feeling. Through story and song—our show tells people just this.

What has Dear Evan Hansen taught you about taking creative risks?  

Hopefully, we’ll encourage up-and-coming producers, writers, and directors to keep pushing the form, keep persevering even when others tell you “it will never work,” and to keep seeking stories from different points of view. Our show proved that musicals don’t have to be frothy and “happy”—not that I don’t know all those scores by heart—as long as they provide catharsis in the end.

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