In talking to people about the shows I saw during my trip to New York this year, I have found that most have heard of Dear Evan Hansen as a buzzworthy, acclaimed new musical, yet no one really knows much about it. That’s not exactly surprising—it’s an original work with no name recognition (with the slight exception of star Ben Platt, who gained some mainstream recognition from his role in the Pitch Perfect films), and the title is rather ambiguous. The show’s official Twitter bio simply reads “a new American musical about life and the way we live it.” That doesn’t exactly tell you much, either, but perhaps this show is better left a mystery to be experienced and discovered.
Dear Evan Hansen features music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote the music for the film La La Land and are having quite the breakout year. The plot, with a very strong book by Steven Levenson, follows Evan Hansen (Platt), a deeply sensitive, painfully awkward high school senior with clinical anxiety and next to no friends. He lives with his single mom, Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones), an overworked nurse who loves him deeply but is rarely present. On assignment from his therapist, Evan writes himself a letter, beginning of course with “Dear Evan Hansen,” that is meant to be a pep talk. Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), a sullen, withdrawn student at Evan’s school, finds the letter in the printer shortly before committing suicide. When the letter is found in Connor’s possessions, his grieving parents, Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and Larry (Michael Park) assume Connor and Evan were friends and reach out to Evan, desperate to understand their son and gain some insight into the final months of his life. One lie leads to another, and soon Evan is fabricating fake email exchanges between him and Connor with the help of his reluctant friend, Jared (Will Roland). As Evan is more and more embraced by the Murphy family, they all find what they need in the relationship, even if it’s all built on an extremely tenuous foundation that could crack at any moment. Oh, and we can’t forget that Evan has had a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) for years. It’s an incredibly messy situation that is only complicated more by social media, which plays a huge role in the show. A speech Evan gives at a school memorial for Connor goes viral on the internet, and along with over-enthusiastic, over-involved fellow student Alana (Kristolyn Lloyd), Evan ends up as the face of a movement to help lost and suicidal teenagers worldwide.
When you hear the facts laid out, it is hard to sympathize with Evan. He does, after all, lie repeatedly and go to great lengths to maintain his deception, and while his lies do help others, he personally benefits a great deal. But this is what makes the performance Ben Platt is giving, a performance that should surely win the Tony and every other award this season, so extraordinary. The Evan Hansen he creates is so vivid, so heartbreaking, and so real that even when he is making terrible choices, you can’t help but want to give him a hug. He wears his heart on his sleeve to an extreme and takes the audience along on a roller coaster that truly runs the gamut of emotions. There is something about Platt that is so earnest, so genuine, that his actions are understandable. They are not, however, excusable, and the show does not make excuses for him or attempt to over-justify his actions. It just presents him as is, a very messy, relatable human being who makes some serious mistakes and must learn from the consequences. The rest of the cast is also wonderful, particularly Bay Jones, whose heartbreak over Evan seeking comforts she apparently was not providing in another family is gut-wrenching. Throughout the show I felt a growing sense of dread—as you’d expect, Evan’s lies do catch up with him, and it’s not pretty when they do.
I found many aspects of this show reminiscent of Next to Normal, another expertly crafted musical about an aching, broken family struggling to heal directed by Michael Greif. The tone and the staging are not dissimilar, and it’s an equally tight show—there is very little I would change or even tweak about Dear Evan Hansen. It’s a rare musical that just flows in addition to being extremely emotional and timely. Pasek and Paul’s score is also first rate—Platt’s big act one song “Waving Through a Window” is beautiful and showcases Platt’s crystal-clear voice perfectly, and the act one finale “You Will Be Found” was stuck in my head for days.
It is almost difficult to articulate what makes this show so intangibly special. Ultimately, in addition to being incredibly well-written and well-performed, I think the subject matter and the message are just precisely what audiences need to see and hear right now. In my experience, many people who frequently seek refuge in the theater feel lost in some way, or have at some point in their lives. For so many, including many outcast teenagers like Evan, the theater is a second home, a place to feel understood and safe from the horrors of the world outside. This is the kind of show I can see having a serious impact on the lives of those who see it, because there are surely many Evans and Connors out there who will find something they desperately need to hear in it. This kind of theater, theater that is a labor of love, that is not an adaptation or known commodity of any kind and just stems from an original, pure, important idea, is what we need more of. I hope audiences continue to find it and, in return, be found themselves.
Dear Evan Hansen is currently playing on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.