Dear Evan Hansen
Music Box Theatre, NYC, July 4th 2018
…I’m gonna need a minute
breathes deeply, wipes away incessant tears, looks over shoulder to make sure no one saw.
Okay – Dear Evan Hansen. This is a hard one to figure out. On the outside, all the ingredients point to something ‘slight’.
A quiet story which isn’t terribly original.
A pop based score with catchy songs, some of which are also not terribly original.
A lot of teenage girls in the audience.
A cast of 8.
It should be a Chinese food musical – pleasant enough while you watch it, but doesn’t hang around long. A Mamma Mia perhaps.
So why did it land like a gut punch? By intermission, red eyed people wandered around the lobby with used up tissue looking for the bathrooms, and the merch counter. By the end, I felt like I’d been through the wars with these people. Very weird.
I’m going to pose an idea that the answer might lie somewhere in the idea of authenticity.
There are a hundred ways to connect to this story. Lots of people feel outcast ,of course, that’s not new. Others might be parents who can’t connect with their own kid, looking for a map to find their way to being a good parent. Others may identify with the moral, ethical question of the show and others with the constant presence of the social media and the distance it brings. How is it in a world of hyper connectivity, we are growing more and more people unable to connect in any meaningful way?
The simplicity leads to the complexity.
Okay – the synopsis – short version. Awkward teenager Evan Hansen is forced to write letters to himself as an assignment from his therapist. When one is stolen by bully outcast Connor Murphy (who sees a reference to his sister Zoe, the object of Evan’s affection) Evan ignores it until it turns up in Connor’s pocket a few days later after he’s killed himself. Believing it to be a suicide not from Connor to Evan, Connor’s family reaches out to Evan who, in order to make them feel better, fabricates a fake friendship between Connor and himself, writing more secret emails. Inside the Murphy family, Evan finds the attention he’s been seeking, including affection from Zoe.
Unfortunately, his messages of overcoming isolation blow up on social media and Evan is suddenly in too deep to tell the truth until it all comes crashing down.
Evan: But see, the thing is, when I looked up . . . Connor was there. That’s the gift that he gave me. To show me that I wasn’t alone. To show me that I matter. That everybody does. That’s the gift that he gave all of us. I just wish . . . I wish we could have given that to him.
Again – simple but complex. The stage is essentially bare with a few set pieces (beds, tables etc). A combination of vertical rectangular black scrims and video screens fly in and out at as needed to display twitter feeds, snapchat stories, instagrams, facebook timelines and youtube comments, etc. The effect is overwhelming at times. In fact, before the show begins, the stage is set with Evan’s bedroom set and the social media feeds chirping, swishing and bleeping – an ever present background noise as the audience settles in their seats. We are all constantly walking in the oblivion of this mess. (most people were checking their phones during all this)
There was a big elephant in the room with this show. There’s been a lot of talk that this is another one of those shows whose strength lies in its lead performer and not in the show itself. Therefore if you get an understudy, you’re wasting your time and money (this is still a very hard ticket to get cheaply, by the way). Earlier this year, after being with the show from its off-Broadway inception in 2015, Ben Platt moved on from the show. For most people, it seems, Ben Platt is Evan Hansen and there can be no other. Seems unfair to me. I admit though, I would have loved to have seen Platt as well.
Anyway – the current Evan Hansen is Taylor Trensch, and he was in very good form today. Admittedly, it seems some of the unique high edges of these songs were a little out of range for him and he was downright, well – bad, during ‘Words Fail’, but he acted the hell out of this show. I don’t think the show is in any danger, it’s in good hands with Trensch.
There are quite a few Original Cast still in the show including Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe Murphy and Rachel Bay Jones playing Evan’s mother who just floored me on several occasions with a heart wrenching performance of her big second act number ‘So Big/So Small’.
A few last thoughts on this one
Every high school kid, every high school counsellor and teacher needs to see this show. Not as a movie or a YouTube bootleg (which I have seen) but as a live show. The Music Box theatre is one of the smallest on Broadway and I think that’s intentional – the connection with these performers is so important.
Social media is great on many levels – but the subtle idea here is that, like a microphone, social media is an amplification device and not a connection maker like it is so often hailed. It makes everything bigger and louder and faster to spread. Good and bad. It has permanence – the current generation of teens seems blissfully unaware of the fact that our words and images stick around somewhere forever – but in the same breath it is inconstant. What’s important to us in one moment, important enough for us to add an overlay to our profile pictures and avatars, doesn’t hang around long.
Jared: Because pretty soon, there will be some Third World tsunami to raise money for, and Connor will just be that dead kid whose name no one remembers.
There a few good moments of the show captured here (with Ben Platt)
Starting tomorrow, I begin the Broadway Teacher’s workshop. I’ll be in sessions all day and then at shows in the evening. Tomorrow we head to Mean Girls, Wednesday to The Band’s Visit (Yes!!), Saturday we go to My Fair Lady at Lincoln Centre and Once on this Island (Yes!!!). I’ll try to keep up to date.
Happy July 4th.