'Dear Evan Hansen' creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul say the musical almost had a different storyline

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are also behind the song lyrics of "La La Land."

June 7, 2017, 12:20 PM

— -- It’s been a busy year for Academy Award-winning songwriters and musical theater composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

The duo won an Oscar for best original song for “City of Stars,” from the movie "La La Land,” and they hope to take home a Tony Award this year for their hit Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“Dear Evan Hansen" is the story of Evan Hansen, a teen who struggles with insecurity and his relationship with his mom, as well as a tragic death that shocks his community. The show has nine Tony nominations, including one for Ben Platt, who plays the lead role of Evan Hansen.

PHOTO: Songwriters Justin Hurwitz, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek accept Best Original Song for 'City of Stars' from 'La La Land' at the Academy Awards, Feb. 26, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif.
Songwriters Justin Hurwitz, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek accept Best Original Song for 'City of Stars' from 'La La Land' at the Academy Awards, Feb. 26, 2017 in Hollywood, Calif.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

"It's not just about young people. It's about families, and it's about how a family needs a kid as much as this kid needs a family," Pasek said in an interview on ABC News’ “Popcorn with Peter Travers.” "And it's about how a mom can't see her son and how a son can't see his mom."

The show initially had a different premise, which Paul says was a sort of "condemnation" of the need for some people try to become a part of tragedy as it occurs, whether it is a celebrity death or the death of a classmate.

"It was a cynical look at that, and when we brought our collaborators on board, [playwright] Steven Levenson, [director] Michael Greif ... and we started to write, it became clear to us that it wasn't an interesting musical," Paul told Travers. "There wasn't any heart to that. So we really tried to look at it from a different view, which was: What experience does someone have that they're in such a place that when given any opportunity to fib a little bit and say that they had a connection to someone that they didn't have a connection to."

Watch the full interview with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on ABC News' "Popcorn With Peter Travers" in the video above.

Social media plays a big role in the musical, which uses text messages and social media posts to portray the characters' interactions with each other and how they feel.

"I think even before social media, which obviously just amplified it, everyone feels sort of a sense of loneliness or a sense of feeling like they're not being seen or heard or that people care about them ultimately," said Pasek.

PHOTO: Ben Platt from the Broadway hit "Dear Evan Hansen," April 25, 2017.
Ben Platt from the Broadway hit "Dear Evan Hansen," April 25, 2017.
Nathan Congleton/NBC via Getty Images

Pasek and Paul say they like to tell stories that may not necessarily have a happy ending.

"We tend to be attracted to stories that are messy and complicated," Pasek said.

"But there's always some little kernel of hope," added Paul.

"It's sort of messy optimism, I guess you might say," Pasek joked.

Pasek and Paul met on the first day of freshman orientation at the University of Michigan where they were both studying in the musical theater program. They quickly bonded over both wanting to be “song and dance men” and how they were both not particularly good at dancing.

After getting cast in small roles in the school show, they became frustrated and starting writing their own projects on the side.

“So we decided to write a set of songs that became a review, and that was the first thing we wrote together in college our sophomore year,” Paul said.

Pasek added, “We collected the other students who hadn't been cast in good roles in the school musical, so they were all frustrated too, and we had this little band.”

The two went on to work on musicals like “A Christmas Story” and “James and the Giant Peach” and writing for TV. Eventually, they began their collaboration with director Damian Chazelle and Justin Hurtwitz to write the songs for “La La Land.”

Pasek and Paul, whose process begins with writing lyrics and then putting music on top, said the experience of writing for “La La Land” was different because the music was already there. The movie’s stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, also gave their input after being cast.

“They had opinions. It was like momentarily frustrating, but very ultimately rewarding and the right thing for the film. They came on and were like, 'Uhm, I don't want to sing that ... I'm not sure if this character would say that,' or 'That feels whatever,' and that feels great,” Paul said.

“When you work with a smart actor, like Ryan or a really smart actor like Emma, they are like the CEOs of their character. They have to embody them more than anyone else, so they know what would be natural for their character to do, what their character would say,” Pasek continued. “And obviously Damian Chazelle is an unbelievable visionary and one of the most wondrous, fantastic collaborations that we've ever had.”

PHOTO: Benj Pasik and Justin Paul discuss their hit Broadway show "Dear Evan Hansen" on ABC News' "Popcorn with Peter Travers."
Benj Pasik and Justin Paul discuss their hit Broadway show "Dear Evan Hansen" on ABC News' "Popcorn with Peter Travers."
Maryellen McGrath/ABC News

Paul and Pasek have worked together for over 13 years now, and they admit they sometimes do butt heads.

“We end up spending the better part of most days together, and when we travel, we usually travel together. So, you know, you spend that much time with anyone, there's bound to be friction. There's also creative fiction,” Paul explained. “There's moments where, 'I think it should be this. I think the song should be this.' You know, we sort of go back and forth and come back together and meet in the middle or meet in a new place that's better than either of us would've thought.”

“It's like very brotherly in the sense that, we hate each other, we love each other, we're forced to be together,” Pasek said. “We're constantly working on something so ... we don't have the time to let a fight sort of sustain as maybe we would have if we didn't have to get some work done.”

As writers, Pasek and Paul admit they can be perfectionists and sometimes don't feel completely satisfied with works they're already completed -- especially "Dear Evan Hansen."

"I was at the show a few nights ago and I was thinking, 'Oh, we could still-- I wish we could change," Paul said. "But that's the nature of making art."

"They say musicals are never done. They're just abandoned," joked Pasek.

The duo say they grew up watching musicals, falling especially in love with the Disney numbers created by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. And while there may be even more awards in their future for their work, they say they’re just happy to be a part of the current resurgence of musicals in pop culture.

"The very first stories that we ever saw on the screen were musicals, so we just feel lucky and fortunate that that's returning and that we get to be a part of it in some small way," said Pasek.

Download the all new "Popcorn With Peter Travers" podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.

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