Dear Evan Hansen is one of two big musicals to be released in Australia in December 2021 (the other being West Side Story). I recently spoke with director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) about his new film…
Matt: I was fortunate enough to see the Broadway musical back in 2017 and there was such energy and emotion sitting there in the Music Box Theatre. What was your mindset in trying to recreate that for the 2D format of cinema?
Stephen: Like you, I was a fan of the show. I saw it at the Music Box and loved it. As a lover of theatre, and I have been for decades, I’ve always been fascinated by capturing that tone. How do you turn a 1,000-seat theatre into a dining room with 4 people in it?
Between the live singing and, in some cases, the extended takes, we used the power of cinema. When he’s signing “For Forever” on stage, Cynthia Murphy is 50-feet away and you can’t really see her up close. Man, when you have Ben Platt singing “For Forever” and you can cut to a close-up of Amy Adams or Danny Pino or Kaitlyn Dever, it’s a completely different animal and becomes more intimate in a way.
Whatever we lost in terms of the live performance and communal aspect of it, we gained in the intimacy.
Matt: Hollywood musicals are often elaborate in terms of big, colourful, loud, well-choreographed musical numbers with huge ensembles. Dear Evan Hansen is kind of the opposite. How did you approach that as a director in shooting the music scenes?
Stephen: Mark Platt was very helpful with this and he’s great at musicals. We were talking about each song and the aesthetic and grammar of each one. Basically, we looked at the songs as an extension of the scenes. To us, it was a drama with songs or a musical with a little “m”. We weren’t trying to be flashy. We were trying to be authentic and true.
Let’s say a character is talking and suddenly they break into song, it’s not like we switch microphones between the talking and the singing. It was all the same thing. It was an extension of the dialogue and that’s how we looked at every single piece. The exception was where it was an internal song like “The Anonymous Ones” or “Waving Through a Window” – that was slightly different.
The only time we did a “number” was “Sincerely, Me” which, by the way, was the most fun I had. Doing that number was a genuine blast. We got to be big and loud and funny and I loved doing it. But otherwise, like you said, it was a very intimate show and that’s how we designed it from the beginning.
Matt: It’s a great cast but I want to focus specifically on Kaitlyn Dever because I saw and appreciated her character a lot clearer than what I did in the original stage musical. What made her stand out for you?
Stephen: She’s a great, one-in-a-generation talent. I’m glad that you said that because I love Zoe. She might be my favourite character in the whole piece. I relate to her very much because my wife had some struggles similar to her growing up. When there’s a child in the family who requires extra attention, sometimes the person who’s handling it gets overlooked. I really relate to that and I know Kaitlyn did as well with the way she approached the performance.
You’ve seen in the stage play… there’s a lot more kissing and a lot more other things. For me, we strengthened Zoe, and make her tougher, and more difficult to win over, and stronger, and not suffer fools, and be that amazing person that Evan sees. We get to see her at the dance and see her doing these amazing things. We had more room to do it.
On stage, you can’t flash back to her going to a homecoming dance with Evan looking at her and going “my God, look at her, she’s just so free.” We had every trick at our disposal and what was most fun for me was turning the beginning part of “Only Us” into a statement. It becomes a love song in the end but at first, it’s a statement of strength and purpose from Zoe. I love that song and I love what she brought to it.