When Dear Evan Hansen first bowed at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in 2015 and even later when it officially opened on Broadway December 5, 2016, no one could have predicted the global phenomenon it would create. But what is even more surprising is how much additional art Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul’s musical has inspired.
The Tony Award–winnnig Best Musical has also sparked three books to date: the making-of tome Waving Through a Window, the young adult novel Dear Evan Hansen (written by the trio and Val Emmich), and now the illustrated book You Will Be Found, which sets the lyrics of Pasek and Paul’s Act 1 finale to illustrations by Sarah J. Coleman.
Playbill caught up with Pasek and Paul about the connection between visual art and songwriting, why they chose this song, and the process of their first professional collaboration with an illustrator. Plus, take an exclusive look at two of the pages from the book from Little, Brown and Company.
Why tackle an illustrative book for a single song in this way?
Benj Pasek: When we write a song, we always try to dramatize the specific moment for the character in the story. But we’ve been very moved by how many people have responded to “You Will Be Found” outside of the context of the show. In part because it’s a speech that Evan is giving to his classmates, an idealized version of how he wants to feel, the lyrics had a chance to resonate beyond the story—we realized people all over the world were using it as a means of finding connection and hope in challenging times. So we wanted to adapt the message into a token that people could share with their loved ones to remind them that they’re not alone. Unlike the cast album or novel, this book (with Sarah’s gorgeous illustrations) stands completely apart from the musical as its own—we hope—powerful experience.
Why “You Will Be Found” and not “Waving Through a Window”?
Pasek: While people relate to the exploration of loneliness and isolation that “Waving” provides, the message of “You Will Be Found” points more definitively towards uplift and healing. “Waving” asks an open-ended question and “You Will Be Found” is closer to an answer… Because this is a book that we hope people share with those they love, we wanted to illustrate something inspiring. This book is a reminder to reach for and rely on the people we care about—that, even in our darkest times, we will be OK.
Why does it work for you, as writers, to be able to express a score through illustration?
Justin Paul: I think that when we experience music, it primarily speaks to our emotions and our hearts; it’s much less an intellectual experience than it is a physiological or visceral one. And in that sense, it very much parallels how we respond to the visual arts as well. For example, oftentimes in songwriting or composition classes, we are taught to think in colors, or in a color palette, in order to capture the emotion of a character. You then use that visualization to understand what the character is wanting, what they’re fearing, what they’re needing, and so on. In many ways, visual art is the closest thing there is to creating a sonic palette, and vice versa.
The joy of the collaboration for this book is that we were able to find a visual representation of the feelings that we tried to create onstage through our song “You Will Be Found”—its feelings of longing and loneliness, of rising up, of reaching out and connecting. Of warmth, and beauty, and transcendence. These are all words which you could use to describe music, and which you could also use to describe a piece of visual art. And so, collaborating with Sarah J. Coleman to create a physical rendering of those emotions, was a challenge, and a joy, and just so fulfilling. So often when you listen to a song, you can’t put your finger on why it affects you—it just does. That can also be the case for a page of an illustrated book, and so by combining lyrics with a visual medium, we were able to create a full sensory experience that very much approximates what it might feel like to listen to a song.
How did you collaborate with Sarah?
Paul: We looked a lot at Sarah’s work before asking her if she’d be interested in the project. At the beginning, we just wanted to download for her as much information as we could about the song—how and why we wrote it, what the character is feeling during the song, and what we’ve heard back from audiences who’ve listened to the song or experienced the song. She took all of that in, and from there it was very much a back-and-forth. (I’d say trial-and-error but there were no errors, just different options because Sarah’s so brilliant!)
One of our biggest jobs was to always try and respond to how things felt to us, or were conjured up for us, without ever being prescriptive. We knew that ultimately this was Sarah’s sandbox that we were just being allowed to play in. We would remind ourselves not to paint her into a corner with our suggestions, because we knew that she’d think of something far more imaginative and evocative and meaningful. We’re so proud of the beautiful results that we got to create together.
This interview has been edited and condensed.