From Stephen Sondheim through Rent to Next To Normal, Broadway musicals have long left their traditional moorings of boy-meets-girl, a bit of fluffy complication, uplifting self-discovery, and cheery ensemble dance routines. With the fascinating Dear Evan Hansen, the genre goes to perhaps its darkest contemporary territory yet.
There is a conventional musical about teenage suicide and familial angst that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul could have composed music and written lyrics to, and which is mocked in the central storyline of Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Michael Greif.
Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), the high school kid who everyone considers to be a scary freak, kills himself, and his death becomes a fire-conductor of online grief and fundraising. He becomes a symbol of teen desperation, and his self-erasure the galvanizing cornerstone of a movement.
But what Pasek and Paul, and Steven Levenson, who wrote the book, do is bravely revel in dramatic perversity and much gnarlier set of emotional and cultural truths. The songs are about loss, self-delusion, and the construction of comforting fantasies and platitudes.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” are the opening words of the letter the title character (Ben Platt) must write to himself every day, cheerily encouraged by his mother, whose sunny counsel barely hides her wore.
He’s a reedy teen, nervous, possibly on the autism spectrum (although this is never stated), askew with the world. He takes anti-depressants. His divorced mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones) is trying to take care of him, and feels as if she is failing. She wants him to excel. He is a clashing mass of angular limbs and sharp anxiety.
One day, Connor and Evan scratchily encounter one another: two outcasts kind of connect and kind of don’t, and Connor takes one of Evan’s letters with him, confessing a liking for Connor’s sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss).
When the letter is found on Connor’s person after his suicide, his mother Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and father Larry (Michael Park) assume that their son wrote the letter to Evan, that he and Evan were good friends, and that he may have had slightly odd feelings toward his sister. The family sing about their ambivalence to Connor in the haunting song “Requiem.”
Evan tells the family want they want to hear: a tale of friendship crafted around a sweet-natured son they never knew and who Evan in reality never knew either.
Key to this is the creation of reams of letters the boys never exchanged and which Evan feverishly constructs with fellow student Jared Kleinman (Will Roland).
At school, Alana Beck, resident super-swot and mega-organizer (the brilliant Kristolyn Lloyd), who—like Evan—only barely knew Connor, sets up a project in his memory, and the fake letters go viral via the hashtag #youwillbefound, which becomes the show’s central song and lament.
An utterly bogus set of relationships are the foundation of an internet movement—stunningly configured in David Korins’s stage design, which features a series of shifting screens with clear and blurred social media messaging scrawled over them.
The level of connections between humans in real-time is so lacking in the musical, the online world can rush in and co-opt in emotion, truth, and reason. The flickering computer screen, the mobile phone call, connect the characters, and disconnect them too.
Indeed, one serious dramatic flaw of Dear Evan Hansen is that it doesn’t illustrate enough what may have led to the suicidal feelings that the show is centered around, especially when it comes to a later twist.
Family members and loved ones may never know why someone in their circle commits suicide or feels suicidal (the pain may be kept so private and hidden), but in a dramatic piece themed around the subject, one might expect a degree of narrative or supposition to at least guide the audience or help us understand the inner turmoil of the characters, beyond a general sense they are isolated, misunderstood, or different to others.
There are some brilliant songs as this insanity unfolds: the rocky “Sincerely Me,” featuring Connor, Evan, and Jared sees the creation of the letters and friendship with the smartass Jared playing up as many wild possibilities as possible (people will assume they were secret lovers, Jared tells Evan of his relationship with Connor); and Connor, now a ghost, voicing the words falsely ascribed to him. Evan is squawkily, truly oddly-awkward as he tries to craft a romance with Zoe: their off-kilter repartee is charming.
Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t do the obvious handwring over teen suicide and disconnection, and the reasons behind them. Rather, it addresses, inconclusively, more complex questions over the meaning and importance of truth and province and significance of memory. Both sets of parents want to believe things about their sons, blocking out far-harder-to-confront realities.
Larry and Evan’s song, “To Break in a Glove,” about a boy searching for something paternal and a father singing about what can be passed to a son is beautiful, as is Heidi’s “So Big/So Small,” in which her own fierce love for Evan is underscored.
Given how it loads its dramatic and moral dice, and the swings of tone between comedy and terrible tragedy, the question is what will collapse when the truths are revealed in Dear Evan Hansen. Well, it doesn’t supply what you might expect from some musicals and dramas about teen suicide, our truth-dissembling online worlds, and an extreme case of fabulism.
Dear Evan Hansen is beautiful to look at it, slickly directed, and moving, but also biting and subversive—and so may have more to say about teen suicide, parenting, and internet lunacy than the most finely worded op-ed column.
Dear Evan Hansen is at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York. Book tickets here.