More often than not, musicals tend to be categorized as “silly” or “for entertainment only” by those who clearly are not familiar with the genre. Especially on Broadway, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. A number of musicals have dealt with sad, and even tragic, stories. The songs just enhance the intensity of the feeling that story wishes to convey to the audience.
Dear Evan Hansen is one of those musicals that do exactly that: while talking about mental health issues, it brings out tears both of joy and of sadness from the audience.
Evan Hansen (played with perfection by Ben Platt) is a senior in high school who suffers from social anxiety disorder. His therapist tells him to write letters to himself for positive reinforcement of the good things that happen during his days. They usually start with “Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a good day. Here’s why” and are signed by “me”. One of them, however, falls into the wrong hands and things start to derail especially after a classmate’s death from suicide.
Even though it may look like a depressing topic, the musical is clever enough to put some comic relief into it, mainly through Jared Kleinman (the hilarious Will Roland), who is the closest thing Evan has to a friend.
Another great point made by the musical is the influence social media has on everyone’s reactions. For example, Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd), another classmate, is constantly trying to get extracurricular credits and decides to create a page in honor of the student who died, even though she barely knew him. Her posts, however, get so many “likes” and “shares” that everyone gets involved. Although it may seem that people genuinely care about the deceased student, it soon becomes clear that it is only a “social media phenomenon” doomed to be shortly forgotten.
Written by Steven Levenson and with songs written by the Academy Award-winning duo Benj Hasek and Justin Paul (for La La Land), Dear Evan Hansen is perfect for these times where mental health is becoming the focus of so many people (from Netflix’ 13 Reasons Why to the British Royal Family’s campaign “Heads Together”). It even created a hashtag (#youwillbefound) that has become increasingly popular to show that no one should suffer alone and that everyone matters.
The story is so intense and emotional that one can’t help but wonder how the cast manages to go through all that eight times a week. Every character has a struggle and everyone in the cast is able to show the audience how painful it can be to lose someone or to struggle with some kind of mental illness.
The tears from the audience mentioned in the beginning of the text came especially from mothers, since both Evan’s mom (Rachel Bay Jones) and the mother of the deceased student (Jennifer Laura Thompson) are the embodiment of the pain and the hard-work that is to be a mother.
Finally, credit is due to Ben Platt, who gives an outstanding performance, possibly the best one on Broadway today. The way he speaks when Evan is nervous, or moves his hands, or looks down to avoid eye contact, etc., is really impressive and mesmerizing.
Dear Evan Hansen is truly a groundbreaking musical and possibly one of the best ones in a long time.