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Dear Evan Hansen’s Director Stephen Chbosky On Challenges Of Adapting The Musical For Film

Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen

Spoilers ahead for Dear Evan Hansen!

While 2021 has seen the film industry find a new normal, it’s specifically been a great year for fans of musical theater. A number of beloved stage productions have been adapted for film, the latest being Stephen Chbosky’s Dear Evan Hansen. As you can see in the video above, I had the opportunity to speak with the director-writer ahead of the movie’s release, where we did a deep dive into the process of bringing the story from stage to screen.

Because Dear Evan Hansen is a full two-act musical, a number of songs and other material had to be cut in order to make it into a movie. This is a process we’ve seen recently with other projects like In the Heights and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Fans of Dear Evan Hansen will notice this change immediately, as the opening number “Does Anybody Have A Map?” was cut.

On the stage “Does Anybody Have a Map?” sets up the two families at the center of Dear Evan Hansen’s story. It’s a duet between the two mothers, played in film by Julianne Moore and Amy Adams. Stephen Chbosky discussed the process of leaving that beloved track and and others on the cutting room floor, saying:

No song was left unchecked. We felt pretty strongly that starting with 'Waving' as opposed to 'Anybody Have A Map?' would allow us to launch right into the character and right into the story.

Ben Platt’s first big solo “Waving Through a Window” is arguably the biggest hit song from Dear Evan Hansen, and opening the movie adaptation with the protagonist definitely makes a strong impression. It also lets fans know right away that this version is going to be making changes to the story, with the opening number far from the only one.

But cutting original songs like “Good for You” and “Disappear” allowed for new musical numbers to be added to the film adaptation. Stephen Chbosky spoke to me more about this process, and how acclaimed Greatest Showman songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek were eager to further develop supporting characters. Case in point: Amandla Stenberg’s Alana who debuted a new song “The Anonymous Ones.” As Chbosky put it,

We felt like we wanted the movie to be distinct. We made the tough decisions, we knew we had Amandla Stenberg. And the guys really wanted to write a song with her to develop Alana further. And I thought they did a great job.

Throughout our chat, Stephen Chbosky mentioned multiple times how he wanted his Dear Evan Hansen movie to serve as a companion piece to the stage musical, while also standing apart as something new. Through this process he could bring something new to the established characters. And Chbosky has already adapted a number of novels into movies, including his own Perks of Being a Wallflower. He explained how this informed his process, saying:

I love the two new songs so much. And I also felt like, and this is every adaptation I've ever done exeter its Perks or Wonder and now Dear Evan Hansen. I don’t want the movie to replace the show, to me it’s a compliment. I want to represent the show well, but also leave some stuff so there's a reason people could and should go to the theater.

The Dear Evan Hansen movie also takes steps to make the story a more inclusive one. On top of Alana being an expanded character, the Murphy family is now a blended one featuring Cuban American actor Danny Pino as Larry. Evan’s friend Jared, played by Nik Dodani, is also queer in this adaptation. This change happened organically when Stephen Chbosky was working with the Atypical actor. Chbosky enjoyed flipping the typical sex-crazed teenager archtype on its head, and spoke to his colalboration with Dodani, saying:

It was his decision. I thought it’d be great. But it added such depth to it. It made him a richer character in my opinion.

Jared in Dear Evan Hansen

Aside from the alterations to Dear Evan Hansen’s song list, perhaps the biggest change to the movie adaptation came from the handling of Connor Murphy. The story is largely focused on his grieving family after the character commits suicide, with glimpses of Connor coming in the form of home videos. In the Broadway musical Connor is much more present, serving as a ghostlike figure representing Evan’s conscience. Stephen Chbosky and company ruminated on this possibility for the movie, as he revealed to me:

We had a lot of discussions about the ghost thing. And I love that on stage. The whole ‘Well here you are talking to yourself,’ is one of the most chilling lines in the stage show. But we felt because film is so literal; the stage can be much more metaphoric, much more lyrical. It’s just the nature of it.[...] I just couldn’t picture Connor in Evan’s bedroom talking to him. It just didn’t feel right for whatever reason.

These are the types of big decisions the director of every movie musical is expected to make. Luckily Stephen Chbosky worked directly with the writers as well as the Tony-winning star Ben Platt. And with his history writing the RENT movie, he had a specific set of skills for this daunting job. He explained how this factored into his time working on Dear Evan Hansen, saying:

All of that experience with RENT taught me, obviously, how certain characters and the nuts and bolts of adaptation. But really I felt very empowered. Do the best you can to tell your version of it. Whatever you think that is. Because Jonathan’s RENT was different than Spike Lee’s RENT, was different than Chris Columbus’ RENT. And what’s great about theater is that there can be so many different versions.

Dear Evan Hansen clearly made a ton of changes moving from stage to screen, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse behind the curtain on Stephen Chbosky’s process. Fans will get to judge this new take on the story themselves since it hits theaters exclusively on September 24th. In the meantime, check out the 2021 movie release dates to plan your next movie experience.

Corey Chichizola

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Double majored in theater and literature during undergrad. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his famous actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid.