Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Aside from being proud Michigan alumni, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are composers primarily known for their work in Dear Evan Hansen, a musical that highlights the life of a high school teen and his community following a classmate’s suicide. The Tony Award winning musical has attracted much attention from the public – particularly teens – due to its emphasis on the social collectivity that young people often long to be a part of. Evan Hansen’s struggle with social anxiety is depicted from the very first song, from suggested coping mechanisms to mentions of his therapist. His role within the show, especially following the death of his classmate, Connor, speaks volumes towards the lack of authentic human connection among teenagers. As Evan grows socially, he grows personally as well, all while learning a valuable lesson about the line between social acceptance and self-sacrifice.
When Pasek and Paul composed Dear Evan Hansen, they consistently kept the gravity of representing teen suicide in mind. Between talking to mental health professionals and accepting feedback from those who’d lost family members to suicide, the pair was determined to address the topic with the perfect balance of sensitivity and honesty. Seeing as Connor commits suicide toward the beginning of the story, Pasek and Paul were especially conscious in articulating the difference between who Connor authentically was before his tragic passing, and who his classmates believed him to be as they mourned. While Evan and Connor are the center of Dear Evan Hansen’s discussion about mental health, each supporting character is “designed to show different aspects of social isolation and acceptance.” While musicals like Next to Normal and We Have Apples have also tackled mental health, Dear Evan Hansen does so in a way that’s specifically catered toy modern-day teenagers.
After the musical’s success, Pasek and Paul went on to turn Dear Evan Hansen into a novel alongside Steven Levenson (the show’s playwright) and Val Emmich. When discussing the creation of the novel here at U-M, the pair spoke about wanting to properly addressing the gravity of mental health without romanticizing or sensationalizing the topic. When writing lyrics, the pair avoided words like “anxiety” or “suffering,” instead vividly describing the ways in which the characters’ narratives were specifically connected to their mental health. Cognizant of the ways in which mental health is glorified in media (especially when considering theatre’s naturally dramatic tendencies), Pasek and Paul were determined to write their characters as authentically as the connections sought throughout the show.
Apart from their work in Dear Evan Hansen, Pasek and Paul are known for composing music for award-winning films, such as La La Land and The Greatest Showman. While mental health is not the central theme that flows through either film, songs such as “This Is Me” reminds viewers to embrace their full selves. The praise Dear Evan Hansen has received speaks volumes about the need to discuss mental health more genuinely in the media – a need that Pasek and Paul will hopefully continue to fulfill.