Dear Evan Hansen has great music but a Horrible Message

Content Warning: Frank Discussion of Suicidal Ideation

Though I saw it on Broadway and it was all fancy and good, I think the ideal location for a Dear Evan Hansen production is in a high school auditorium. This largely because professional casting agents often seem to misunderstand how critical apparent age is to the performance of a teenage character.

I remember watching the Tony’s a few years back and cringing as fully grown adults sang West Side Story at each other.

Having been in West Side Story as a high school theater kid —
 did you know that Tony is described in the show as a “sandy-haired Polack”? — I felt particularly invested in this travesty. Sure, the actual-Broadway actor was massively more talented than I, but the sheer function of my age meant I embodied the part better than he ever could have. You can accept romantic stupidity in a teenager that you can’t in someone clearly pushing 30.

Case in point: the female lead of Dear Evan Hanson in the original cast was a full decade out of high school, and you can hear it on the OBC; it’s off-putting to hear a matured voice say immature things. The current cast is actually on the young side, which I appreciated. Their voices aren’t as polished, but their youthful idiocy feels more natural. More forgivable.

Oh, and the show’s milquetoast depictions of issues feel like the sort of Very Special Episode production that a high school administration would be all over.

Back in college, an ex-girlfriend started me on what she called Five Things. Each night before going to sleep, we had to verbally state five good things about the day. They could be small but affirming – “I made it through” – or celebratory – “I finally saw Dear Evan Hansen.” That gets pretty easy after you’ve been doing it for a while. Harder is the capper: something good about ourselves.

I thought about this when I was introduced to the show’s namesake: a letter that Evan Hansen’s therapist has tasked him with writing to himself about the day he is set to have, saying that it will be good and things will turn out okay. It’s a hard thing for someone with social anxiety so severe he can’t order food because he would have to interact with a delivery person.

When Evan finally produces something, it’s a bleaker appraisal – that no, the day wasn’t great. The letter is found by Connor Murphy, an outcast with a “school shooter” aesthetic who, due to a wacky misunderstanding, kills himself that night with it in his pocket. His parents then have a wacky misunderstanding of their own, thinking that this letter was a suicide note written to Evan by Connor, and his initial protestations to the contrary fall on deaf ears. So, he goes with it. Hilarity ensues.

There’s a lot to unpack here, because this show is bleak as hell, and it genuinely doesn’t seem to know it.

Despite centering on a mentally ill kid and being spurred on by a suicide, Dear Evan Hansen definitely isn’t about mental illness. Evan’s whole therapy thing is dropped once the story gets underway, and the Connor Murphy that we see for most of the play is… not Connor Murphy. Or even like a phantom version of him. That whole song, Disappear, about how important it is to not let people be forgotten… that “Connor” sings? Where “Connor” says “If you can somehow keep them thinking of me, and make more than an abandoned memory.”

That dude is explicitly – in. the. text. – not Connor. He is Evan’s inner monologue being played by the other actor, while the actual Connor is being erased literally line by line. And yet it’s presented as some meaningful act? What?

Look at the show’s poster. It’s certainly eye catching – iconic, even, but is missing something important. Boom. Fixed it for you. Seriously: Why the actual hell is that cast clean? It spends far more time with Connor’s name on it than it does without, and it’s so fundamental to the show that it’s there. The fact that Connor did sign it, one of the most complicatedly human moments of the entire show, becomes tangible evidence of friendship that the Murphy’s latch onto. But no. He is disappeared.

Related topic: Why’d he do it? Really? Why, exactly, did Connor Murphy commit suicide? Guess no one actually cares, huh? Because no one ever asks that question.

The truth is that Connor is nothing more than an inconvenience. Hell, the point of “Requiem” is that most of his family doesn’t really think he’s worth remembering. But now they are being faced with something different. Zoe doesn’t know how to cope, singing: “After all you put me through; don’t say it wasn’t true; that you were not the monster that I knew.” Connor traumatized her, and now she is faced with the possibility that he actually did care, and maybe he did – his final onstage action could charitably be read that way – but the thing telling her that maybe she *should* play the grieving girl is the real thing that isn’t true.

What are we the audience supposed to take from all that?

What are we to take from You Will Be Found, a wonderful song that is completely meaningless. It’s predicated on two lies: that Connor was Evan’s friend, and that someone came to Evan’s rescue when he fell from the tree. If those two things are not true – and they are not – then what is it saying? Instead, the whole song reads as this incredibly bleak look at the culture of virality.

Disembodied voices start liking and sharing and reposting – random people latching onto this random video of this awkward guy on the internet talking about this person that they had never heard of and do not actually care about. But none of it is real. The video is a lie, and so is their inane ramblings in support of it. Everyone is living in fantasyland. Some more actively or maliciously than others, but each equally fake.

And this could have been an extremely effective commentary in a dark social satire about the lies that we have to tell ourselves to just get through the day, let alone actual tragedies.

But that’s not what Dear Evan Hansen is doing.

What about how the opening number in Act 2 is undermined by its finale, or how the underlying class stuff leads only to the conclusion that, sure, poor parents are bad, but rich parents are… also bad in a different way, sort of?

Dear Evan Hansen wants to have its cake and eat it too – to bring up a lot of capital-I Important issues and put them to catchy-as-hell songs to make you think that it has thematic depth. It doesn’t. Again, this is a show catalyzed by a suicide that treats the dead character and his final action as a prop.

That’s not okay.

I was never quite Connor Murphy.

But.

When I was in high school, I slapped a girl in the face. Not hard. Not even really with intention, but I did it.

The next day, I was called into the vice principal’s office and told I was being suspended. I started punching myself in the head – trying to, I guess, crush my own skull with my fist. If I had had something sharp in my hand, I would probably be dead.

That impulse – to stop living – wasn’t a new one. About a month earlier, I stood at the top of a staircase, weighing the odds that diving down headfirst would actually kill and not just cripple me. It might seem like an accident. That wasn’t the first either. Crying in that office would not be the last.

I sucked in high school. A few more left turns and I could have easily ended up in the same place Connor did.

So I take it fucking personally that he was cast aside like that in a show that is supposed to be about giving every person their due.

I am still here, obviously. Most days, I know that’s a good thing. Some days, I have to actively remind myself. I still do those Five Things every night, though coming up with something good about myself day after day is as hard as ever.

I have tried on multiple occasions and spent thousands of dollars of my own money trying to put together various media projects about suicide, but I have always scrapped them because in the end I realized that they were not helpful – that the message they were actually conveying rather than the one I wanted to convey was more harmful than helpful. And I wasn’t okay with that. Without something worthwhile to say there, it’s really better to say nothing.

What makes all this bizarre is that, in the vacuum of the Original Broadway Cast recording, you wouldn’t know any of this. In the music, it is only clear that Connor is dead and not really why. And so you can listen to it wih just the barest amount of cognitive disoonance, knowing that it is part of a larger, problematic project while belting it out just the same. And I have been ever since curtain call, because I genuinely love the music in Dear Evan Hansen. I like every single song, and I crank up the volume and sing along while doing, well, pretty much anything – much to the chagrin of my neighbors.

If Dear Evan Hansen was nothing but its songs, this would be a cut-and-dried slam dunk success of a concept album. (The Grammy was well deserved.) But it’s not that. It’s an incredibly bleak story that feigns optimism. And it completely fails its characters at every turn.

It didn’t have to be this way. None of it was inevitable. And yet, here it is.

Five Point Zero Out of Ten.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.