How often do you come across a musical with a book so good that it could have served itself just as a play? In December 2016, I was lucky enough to nab a ticket to a full-house performance of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’. I didn’t know about it before I left Australia, but once I’d landed in the states, I realised it was the talking point for all of my theatre-driven friends: “Have you seen Dear Evan yet?”, “Prepare to have your mind BLOWN!”. Naturally, I was skeptical. When it comes to musical theatre, I’m a bit of a traditionalist (Les Miserables will, predictably, always be the big boss). There’s always a lot of hype surrounding new contemporary shows, and usually just because there’s one or two songs that performers can’t wait to add to their reps.
Dear Evan Hansen knocked me over, along with everyone else. It is the story of Evan Hansen, a teenage boy and high-school outcast struggling with social anxiety disorder. Following the suicide of class-peer Connor Murphey, Evan finds himself in the middle of the family’s turmoil. In the attempt to comfort them, he tells them made-up stories about his friendship with Connor, and accidentally invents a new life for himself. With thanks to his imaginary friend, Evan can finally get all that he’s ever wanted: an opportunity to fit in.
This show demands everything of its performers, as the stakes just get higher and higher. Ben Platt as the current Evan Hansen has the difficult task of demanding empathy from his audience, and still playing the outsider. What’s most important here is that there will undoubtedly be a handful of audience members, or people purchasing the soundtrack, who struggle connecting to people just the same as him. My fear is that people listening to the show for the first time, without having seen it or read up on it, will come to a track as pivotal as “You Will Be Found”, and the weight of the song not land for its glossy, predictable title and lyrics. An excerpt from from the chorus:
“Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you're broken on the ground
You will be found”
Its pop-song structure and its sentiment, generalised, might be dismissed as a bit idealist. However, the song stands alone as a suicide-prevention piece, and a call-to-arms for people to connect. The story that develops throughout helps it to achieve this status, for it doesn’t shy away from technology as a plot-piece. Evan makes a speech for his deceased “friend” at high school, encouraging people to speak up and reach out for help. It is filmed and soon goes viral online. It’s tricky to use social media in theatre, as it’s become such a part of every-day, boring life. We’re tired of it and want our escape. But the show celebrates the internets’ ability to find a voice for anyone. Evan becomes a hero, and the audience is encouraged to realise that there are hundreds of thousands of Evans and Connors worldwide;
“Is anybody waving back at me?”
Tacky as it may seem, everyone relates, because everyone hurts.
What’s more, I think the dreamer, sickly romantic style of this song intentionally captures the nature of social media fads. Using this lens, Pasek and Paul have captured this generation perfectly. The same (dare I say it?) shallow words repeated over and over, built up passionately as a kind of anthem for the people. It’s quick to get your heart souring and so appeals to everyone, much like click-bait on the internet. Genius.
The above is just one important message that the book- completely original- has to offer. How about the story of a sister who is expected to grieve for her deceased brother, though he was never nice to her? (“I will sing no requiem”) The single mother who loves her son and frantically worries after him, and has to blame herself for his mental illness? It’s that sort of grittiness, that departure from a normative script, that makes the show as a musical so unique.
‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is something to be nurtured. The writing, composing duo responsible, Pasek and Paul (Dogfight), deserve all of the praise that this show has been receiving, and all of the awards they no doubt have in store for them. So when you purchase the soundtrack, don't think you've heard it all. This show does so much more than sound pretty.