Songwriter of Tony Award-winning ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ musical visits students at Santa Rosa High School

In a song from the award-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” the teen protagonist scrolls through his Instragram feed and takes the audience to an utterly familiar heartache: “On the outside, always looking in/Will I ever be more than I've always been?”

Three thousand miles from New York City's Broadway in an auditorium at Santa Rosa High School, one of the songwriters behind those words, Benj Pasek, belted out the song to about 200 students Monday, accompanied on guitar by writer Val Emmich who helped turn the standout musical into a novel, which delves into issues like lies, anxiety and depression.

“Do you guys know how you can be in the darkest times of your lives, then three years later you end up laughing about it?” Pasek, 33, of New York City said to the students, drawing applause.

Pasek and Emmich spent about an hour talking to students, including those enrolled in the high school's ArtQuest program, about how they've drawn from their own lives and experiences to fuel the stories they've told through music, novels and other art.

The event was put on by Sonoma County's Copperfield's Books and part of the book tour for “Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel,” released earlier this month by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The duo performed songs from “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Mystic Theater in Petaluma Monday night.

The many fans of “Dear Evan Hansen” - which won six Tony awards last year and debuted in 2016 - know it tells the story of an anxious, lonely high school boy who allows a lie to spin out of control and becomes a sudden social media phenomenon.

The plot hinges on the suicide of a classmate and the fallout from his death for his peers and family, delving into the inner lives and mental health struggles of teens and the adults around them.

Pasek - who with his songwriting partner Justin Paul was nominated for an Academy Award for two of their songs featured in the movie “La La Land” - talked about the universal truths he and the other writers tried to address in the show, including how so many young people and adults alike feel like outsiders.

“I was a nerdy theater kid … ” Pasek started to say, but then was interrupted by applause and cheers from the young people in the audience.

“Yes,” he smiled, acknowledging the commiseration in the auditorium, then finished his thought: “A nerdy theater kid who found salvation in other nerdy theater kids and art and shows and plays.”

Students asked Pasek and Emmich, 39, a Jersey City-based actor, musician and author, questions about how they were discovered, what other musicals inspire them and what they were like in high school.

Emmich said he got good grades but struggled with anxiety and anger. Playing rock music and forming bands became an early, important outlet.

“Art is where I feel found,” Emmich said.

After the event, students lined up at the stage to talk with Pasek and Emmich and have books signed.

When it was her turn to speak with Pasek, freshman Siena Shawver, 14, of Santa Rosa stepped up to the stage where he was seated on the side, and she sang a song she wrote called “I loved you,” inspired by a recent breakup.

Pasek leaned close and listened. When she was done, he whispered to her, urging her to keep channeling authentic experiences into art.

Senior Destani Alapa, 18, thanked Pasek for the encouragement he gave students during the program.

“When you said, don't wait for someone to give you permission, I really related to that,” Alapa said.

“You have got to be in charge of your goals,” Pasek said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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