Playwright and The Spinoff’s culture editor Sam Brooks interviews Val Emmich, author of Dear Evan Hansen, about the life-changing process of adapting a smash Broadway musical into a book.
Musicals and young adult novels have a few things in common, earnestness and accessibility being two of them, but the most prominent thing they share is that, well, fans goddamn love them. They know them back to front, they’ve bought the paperback/vinyl (choose applicable) and if someone messes with it, they’re wrong.
I can’t imagine a more daunting task than adapting a musical into a young adult novel. The reverse has been done, to much success, with Wicked. People adapt books into other art forms all the time – book to film, book to TV series, book to play, book to video game even – but to adapt a beloved musical, now the inevitable endpoint for every crowd-pleasing blockbuster it seems, into a book? That’s a new one.
That’s precisely what Val Emmich, the multi-hyphenated actor-songwriter-author has done with Dear Evan Hansen. Just how beloved is the musical? Six Tony Awards, a Grammy, an already in-development adaptation into a film, that’s how beloved.
It’s not hard to see why it’s a candidate for an adaptation. The story follows Evan, a high school student with immense social anxiety, and the accidental hole he digs for himself when he places himself at the centre of an important tragedy, a place he has no right to occupy. It ticks off a list of important topics (mental illness, youth suicide, high school trauma) with efficiency and detail. I wish it had been around when I was in high school.
It’s not the stuff of Harry Potter, but it’s definitely the stuff that our teenagers – is there a phrase that makes one feel older than ‘our teenagers’ – are experiencing, and need to be engaging with in their art and literature. But! That doesn’t make adapting a musical, especially one as immediately popular as this one, into a YA novel, any easier.
Ahead of his appearances at the Auckland Writers Festival, Emmich explains how it went down.
Where did the idea to adapt Dear Evan Hansen come from? The shift from musical to novel is not necessarily an instinctive one, or a path often taken, so I’m interested to hear how exactly that came about.
To my knowledge it’s not a path that has ever been taken, with the possible exception of the musical Annie many, many years ago. It was a decision made by the show’s creators. They realised that tons of people around the country were engaging with the music and they were familiar with the story even though they lived thousands of miles away from Broadway and had never seen the show.
The show was playing in one city where a ticket was expensive and hard to get. A book was a way to spread the story to a lot more people at an affordable price. It was also a way to expand the story in a way that there was no time or space for in a two-hour show. And that’s where I came in.
What kinds of challenges are there in adapting it between art forms – a two-hour musical is obviously not the same as a 200-or-so page book, so what kind of concessions do you have to make to form in that scenario?
Almost 400 pages! Thankfully, because I needed all the room I could get to tell this story. I faced the obvious obstacles. I don’t have music, lights, staging, or actors; I only have words. That’s it. But one advantage I have is that I can go more slowly and really allow the reader to spend time with the characters. I bring the reader inside Evan Hansen’s head (and Connor Murphy’s) and you can’t do that in a live show.
That said, I had to find a way to capture the power of the show that is generated from all the wonderful music and performances. That was accomplished in many ways. I’d listen to the song that matched each moment in the story and I’d study the lyrics to get insight into the emotions of the characters. I would take metaphors used in the songs and turn them into tangible objects in the book – the metaphoric “map” in the opening song ‘Anybody Have A Map?’ turned into a literal map on Evan’s wall, one that offered new background information about Evan’s father. I also tried to approximate the mood of the music. I’m a singer and songwriter – and have been for way longer than I’ve been a novelist – so I’m used to breaking down songs, interpreting them, internalising them. I’m also an actor so I tried to incorporate the physicality of the actor’s performances (I saw the show twice on Broadway).
Finally, I filled in moments that were missing from the show. After Connor Murphy dies, what happens? Is there a funeral? Who attends? How does the family grieve? We don’t see any of that in the show. In a book, I can tell you everything that happens.
There’s such a devoted fanbase for Dear Evan Hansen. When you’re adapting it, how do you honour the original work while making it your own?
I was very aware of the fervour with which fans engage with this story. I was careful never to contradict what was in the show. The book is a companion piece, not a replacement. As I described above, I mostly filled in the gaps. Think of the show as a skeleton with a huge heart and I added joints and muscle to the body.
Also, the creators and I wanted to give the fans what they wanted. People were eager to know more about the enigmatic character of Connor Murphy. The book expands his character and offers insight into what motivated him to take his life.
In a similar vein, what kind of process do you get through when you’re breaking down a song into a passage in a book? How exactly do you decide what to keep, what to change, and what to put away?
I never wanted to force the music into the book. I was always looking for organic ways to do it. The character of Zoe Murphy – Connor’s sister and Evan’s love interest – offered me a way to incorporate a few specific songs. Zoe is a jazz guitarist in the show. In the book she progresses into a singer and songwriter. It’s a way for her to express the grief and regret and love that she’s feeling. She finds her voice over the course of the story, partly because after her brother dies there’s this giant void to fill.
What’s the part of the book that you’re most proud of being able to adapt from the musical, or the bit you did most successfully?
Connor Murphy. We learn almost nothing about him in the show. Only rumours and lies. The creators challenged me to find out who the real Connor was. The prologue to the book, which is from Connor’s POV, was the very first piece of writing I did for the novel. His voice came to me quickly. In terms of who Connor was as a person and the details of his life, I’d experiment, and then send it to the creators and our editor, and they’d send back notes. I’d adjust and try new things and again they’d send me feedback. Over time we had turned this mythic figure into a real person. I’m extremely proud of that.
Dear Evan Hansen is one of those musicals that became a phenomenon because it’s such an intimate, personal story that means different things to different people. What part resonates most with you?
It was the anxiety and depression that Evan and Connor are struggling with. I didn’t want to take on this job at first. I thought it was a fool’s errand that it would be unfairly judged and surely a failure. The thing that ultimately made me take a leap of faith and take on the project – besides the urging of my agent and friends who all felt I would be an idiot to pass up the opportunity – was the belief that I really knew and understood the emotional struggles of Evan and Connor. I’ve had to deal with anxiety and depression all my whole life, as well as the ramifications of suicide, and the book was a way to confront the trauma I had been ignoring. It actually led me to begin seeing a therapist for the first time.
Was there any agonising or back and forth with how to present some of what Dear Evan Hansen deals with? In a musical, there’s obviously the inherent uplift of the music and the performance, but you don’t really get that with a book in the same way.
Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel, by Val Emmich (Puffin, RRP $26) is available at Unity Books.
The author has two appearances at the Auckland Writers Festival, and Auckland’s National Youth Theatre Company will perform four hit songs from the musical.