Dear Evan Hansen: 13 BETTER Reasons Why
In its own right, Dear Evan Hansen is a thrilling and topical musical addressing the isolation so many of us feel. In this day and age, bullying leads to suicide, anxiety leads to building protective walls. Dear Evan Hansen demonstrates how the arts can respond to societal ills and makes a case for our individual and collective healing through the catharsis of relevant and timely musical theatre. It’s an inspiring story about how one of these disconnected people, frozen by their own inability to reach past their self-prescribed detachment, finally learns how to break down the walls that have crippled him with anxiety and depression. Sure, it comes with its complications and a handful of misconceptions and lies, but it is essentially a fairy tale for those of us who have felt, like Evan, that we are invisible and/or unworthy.
There is also a little Netlfix series that quietly crept into our world a few months ago (sarcasm implied, it neither crept or did so quietly). Maybe you have heard of it? 13 Reasons Why has been enormously successful, a ratings juggernaut for Netflix, appealing to a wide-range of viewers, but resonating with teens in a way that few TV shows do. 13 Reasons Why shares similar themes with Dear Evan Hansen: lead, male characters who must struggle with the suicide of one of their classmates, teens juggling the cause-effect relationships of isolation, peer pressure, bullying, and depression, and woeful parents who are struggling to understand why their respective children would be driven to suicide. Since this Broadway musical and television program are both immensely popular with teens, there is clearly something at the heart of both that is accurately connecting to the life of the American teenager. Though both shows earnestly try to be helpful in telling their haunting tale, one of them achieves its intentions far more proactively. Here are “13 Reasons Why Dear Evan Hansen Does It Better.”
1. Musical Theatre is the ideal medium for exploring the overwhelming size of the emotions that these stories try to tell. The kids in both are bursting at the seams with pent-up frustration and fear. Dear Evan Hansen gives the situation the platform it requires to be angst-ridden and emotional on a grand scale, as big as the emotions themselves.
2. Through the device of the musical monologue, Dear Evan Hansen lets us see its character’s motivations better than 13 Reasons Why does. We understand what is prompting them to react in a certain way, giving us a deeper understanding of where they operate from. Their actions feel much more motivated in DEH.
3. The parents in Dear Evan Hansen have an infinitely more proactive role in their children’s lives than in 13 Reasons Why, where adults are painted as self-serving, clueless, one-dimensional caricatures. In fact, the adults in 13 Reasons Why (parents and teachers) would make a case in anyone’s mind that they cannot be approached by teens with problems. Do we really want to give the message to teens that there is no one there who is looking out for them?
4. Music is a great way for catharsis to happen, and Dear Evan Hansen is overflowing with terrific Pasek and Paul songs that get at the heart of what the title character is going through. “Waving Through a Window” has already become an anthem for the lonely and the isolated. Listening to the original cast recording, again and again, we can explore our own emotions (we, the isolated and bullied) while simultaneously using music to process them.
5. 13 Reasons Why employs a bevy of characters who seem to be without consciences. The character of Clay aside (who is not complicit), instead of owning up to their part in betraying, bullying (and in one case, raping) a troubled girl named Hannah, most of them act out of self-preservation. I refuse to believe that they are all such monsters that the guilt of their actions doesn’t prompt them to come forward sooner for the closure and healing of the Hannah’s parents. Dear Evan Hansen features a catalyst who hopes to help the parents of Connor and does, superseding any paltry efforts any of the characters (including Clay) make in 13 Reasons Why.
6. It’s a musical. I may be biased (okay, I am, I’m a musical theatre historian after all), but nothing beats musical theatre in my book for telling a compelling story. Dear Evan Hansen is that: thoughtful, thought-provoking, emotional, and relevant. Its brilliance is magnified by the medium. I know that it’s unfair to judge 13 Reasons Why for not being a musical, but because Dear Evan Hansen IS a musical, endears it to me and is a reason why I like it better.
7. Dear Evan Hansen gives us characters to cheer for. We want to see them come through this tragedy, to heal and evolve. Outside of Clay, how many characters in 13 Reasons Why can we say the same about? Most of them deserve what they are enduring.
8. If you’ve had (or have) an anxiety disorder or severe depression, you know that Dear Evan Hansen captures it perfectly. It speaks from a place of loneliness and isolation that 13 Reasons Why only touches in fits and starts. Perhaps the anger and revenge redirect us to often to feel it, but it doesn’t resonate as deeply.
9. Ben Platt as Evan Hansen is everything. He combines a wide range of complex emotions into one character. Even though the character does not connect with his perceived world, Platt’s Hansen connects with us. Dylan Minnette is a very good Clay, but we are never really allowed past his wall. We admire his quiet, gentlemanly affection for Hannah, but we never get to see if there is any real substance behind it.
10. Dear Evan Hansen is an emotional roller coaster that thrusts forward, pausing for occasional contemplations and reflections, but it never becomes mired in its angst. 13 Reasons Why can be tedious at times, overwhelming in its negativity and melancholy. Each episode feels dragged out to fill a time quota. It seldom dramatically builds, it just meanders in and out of each scenario. Only in its eleventh hour does the momentum start to come.
11. While the revenge behind the tapes in 13 Reasons Why is merely reactionary, Evan is a character who uses something negative to create something positive, an effort to ensure that no one ever feels so alone again that they would want to take their life. Instead of a story that requires ugly revenge, Dear Evan Hansen has The Connor Project, a positive way to make sure someone’s life wasn’t lived in vain. Evan may not have been entirely altruistic in his efforts (he is, after all, living a lie), but he is proactive in what he achieves (making himself visible, upholding Connor’s memory).
12. 13 Reasons Why is stretched over 13 episodes, each one ending without resolution or a way for viewers to process the full scope of ramifications that this revenge fantasy exacts. It isn’t until the final two episodes that we really comprehend what the girl who kills herself has achieved by laying blame on the people who led to her suicide. Unless you are binge-watching the show, it is very easy to be lulled in by its promise that ending your life will get you positive attention. Dear Evan Hansen, because the viewer watches it from front to finish in one sitting, responsibly ensures that the audience leaves the theatre without any designs on trying to seek such attention.
13. Though Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t exactly culminate in a joyous ending, it is a hopeful one. It points to the future and what can be achieved if we all make an effort to be more tolerant, empathetic, and if we reach out to others with some warmth and compassion. It demonstrates how little is required for us to make a difference. 13 Reasons Why is a suicide revenge fantasy played out to assign guilt and exact retribution. Yes, it gives a voice to the person took her life (she was treated horribly by her classmates), but it offers nothing positive to take away. It scares its audience into having a conscience, rather than guiding them to it. This is the chief reason why Dear Evan Hansen succeeds far more effectively than 13 Reasons Why: it has a beating heart that remembers the humanity in all of us.