Dear, Dear, Dear Evan Hansen
I will admit that I do not get as excited by newer musicals as I am by anything pre-Rent. I am, within reason, a traditionalist, attracted to the old-fashioned showtunes and plot structures .That's not to say that I haven't found composers and musicals in the last two-decades that are not traditional in style, but that do appeal to me. A David Yazbek or Jason Robert Brown project is always exciting, and Jeanine Tesori is quickly becoming one of my favorite composers. Fun Home and Bright Star are recent shows that both thrilled me in ways I hadn't expected. Hamilton, though I respect it and certainly love what it's achieving with the younger generations, left me cold, or at least not as stirred in ways that other musicals have. It is, however, with great excitement that I have found a new musical that compels me, thrills me, and absolutely makes me excited about new musicals again. That musical is Dear Evan Hansen.
The musical is the story of a teenager, Evan Hansen, who suffers from social anxiety disorder, taking the most impossible pains to make the most basic of human connections at school. As an exercise to help him break out of his shell, Evan is tasked with writing letters to himself that help him express his feelings and explore the types of connections he'd like to make. A mix-up finds one of these letters in the possession of a classmate who is similarly a loner and who eventually kills himself. The boy's family thinks that their deceased son had written the letter and are (inaccurately) under the impression that he had a close friend in Evan. Evan, knowing what it's like to be isolated and invisible, decides not to let this boy's memory be forgotten and pretends to have been his friend. In the process of finding himself through this deception, Evan begins inspiring some wonderful things along the way that create positive change for everyone in his path who has ever felt alone.
As a person who has suffered from social anxiety disorder my whole life, Dear Evan Hansen’s titular character resonated deeply with me. In fact, as I listened to Ben Platt sing with that aching hurt in his voice, I was painfully transported back to 8th Grade where I sat at lunch by myself and walked the hallways with my head down, hoping the bullies didn't see me and knowing that not many others did. I sat on the outside of life looking in, trying to get myself to wake up and participate, but incapable of any sound or movement that resembled human connection. It was at this time in my life that I started learning about musical theater, committing details, dates and ditties to memory. That was the world I moved in, a surrogate for I wasn’t getting. I was, as Evan Hansen states, “Waving Through a Window”, a song that has gotten inside me and captured my entire, horrific teenage experience. I suspect that it will do the same for so many melancholy and desperately lost adolescents who can’t find their voice.
The composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book writer Steven Levenson, have done something with Dear Evan Hansen that only a handful of musicals have achieved in the last twenty years. They have put their finger on the pulse of the disconnect and isolation that has washed over all of us and galvanized it to tell a story that is all about connection and breaking down walls. They have, in fact, gotten inside these tragic characters and given them a reason for their mourning and their anxieties. Instead of making orbital commentary on the action, they dig down deep inside these people, make us feel their pain in our viscera, and then lift us all up as one. They make us want to reach out. They compel us to connect. This is no easy feat in a world that discourages it.
The music, captured beautifully on the recently released cast recording (now available for download, the CD will be available February 24) is the score to beat this June at the Tony Awards. Each number is a revelation in theatrical honesty, from the urgency of the opening number “Anybody Have a Map?”, to the hopeful conclusion in the “Finale”. Of particular interest is anything sung by Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s mother. Jones gives great vocal characterization to this exasperated and frustrated working mom who is going to school at night and worried about her son. Her big number in Act Two “Good For You” throbs with the pain of woman who has tried to be a good parent, but who must reconcile the fear of having her fun grow away from her. It’s impossible to say any number is score is better than another, but for me, “Good For You”, “Waving Through a Window” and “For Forever” are standouts. You may find others are more affecting for you, but what I can assure you is that every song is an experience to be delved into with courage and hope. Let Dear Evan Hansen wash over you and go for the ride. You will experience a life-changing score that finds the beating heart in contemporary musical theatre.