How a Broadway blockbuster helped start conversations about suicide

Less than two years since its Broadway premiere, “Dear Evan Hansen” continues a radical experiment of using a musical to address the issues of depression and suicide. It has a chart-topping original soundtrack and six Tony Awards, but the show is also hailed for a realistic and constructive approach to an issue that ails so many.

The success of “Dear Evan Hansen” caught everybody by surprise, including playwright Steven Levenson who created the musical with the songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

“Everybody that we told the idea to thought that we were insane … and was very polite about it. It just doesn’t sound like a musical,” Levenson told CBS News contributor Jamie Wax.  

The show tells the story of an unlikely bond between the socially anxious and isolated high school senior Evan Hansen and the family coping with the suicide of Evan’s classmate, Connor Murphy. 

It’s anything but your typical Broadway blockbuster. 

“What the audience found in this show and appreciated was a sense of authenticity,” Levenson said. “I think it’s about empowering people and letting them know that there is help, and that there are people that are there to listen. And as cheesy as that sounds, it’s true.” 

Taylor Trensch as Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen

That message began resonating with audiences well before its success on Broadway.  

“When we did early productions, even early readings and workshops, the people who came there responded in such an emotionally visceral way that it was clear that this was going to make an impact on a lot of people,” said Rachel Bay Jones, who received a Tony for her role as Evan’s mother, Heidi.

Taylor Trensch, who plays the role of Evan Hansen, said he gets “piles of letters every week” from people who have similar experiences to characters in the show.

Alex Boniello plays Connor Murphy, whose character takes his own life at the beginning of the musical.

“There’s a lyric that my character sings and it’s, ‘If you never get around to doing some remarkable thing, that doesn’t mean that you’re not worth remembering,'” Boniello said. “When we look at someone like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade, these are people who’ve changed millions of lives and it still can’t always fix or change whatever’s going on that’s causing the terrible issues for you. But to know that you’re not alone, and that your life is worth something always.”

“You don’t have to be extraordinary to be loveable,” said Trensch.

When the show premiered on Broadway at the end of 2016, suicide rates were at a 30-year high. It’s the second leading cause of death in people age 10 to 24 and the fourth leading cause in those between 35 and 54. Nine percent of those 18-25 admitted to having suicidal thoughts. 

“We had no idea that the show would start the conversations that it started … and we’re not experts. We quickly learned from the experts what to say and where to guide people and how to get people to the right places if they needed help,” Levenson said. “Those early moves to kind of partner with those people and to get that conversation started were very beneficial to the show and kept us honest. And kept us knowing the responsibility that we had.”

Early on, the show teamed up with a number of advocacy and suicide prevention groups, including the Child Mind Institute and the Jed Foundation — first for guidance with the script and then for ongoing support.

When Dr. Victor Schwartz, the chief medical officer at the Jed Foundation, first saw the musical, he knew the story was going to help people.

“I saw how affected the audience was and it was clear that it was really speaking to people in a very deep way,” Schwartz said.

Asked if it’s an overstatement to say that “Dear Evan Hansen” has saved lives, Schwartz said, “I don’t think so.”

To hear what playwright Steven Levenson believes was the most powerful example of the Broadway show’s impact, watch the video in the above player. 

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