Let That Lonely Feeling Wash Away

Dear Evan Hansen,

You may have won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2017, but you were not the best musical of the year and here’s why.

While I would like to applaud the show for opening up a conversation about mental health, especially pertaining to our nation’s teenagers, I must criticize the use of mental illness as an excuse for Evan’s repeated manipulation of everyone around him. Evan’s social anxiety leads him to lie to Connor’s parents the first time about the letter they find in Connor’s pocket (which they presume is his suicide note) and I can believe that. I can believe he would be embarrassed and unsure how to react in the face of the intense grief and accusations from Connor’s parents in that meeting with the principal. I believe he wanted to help and he wanted to help ease their pain and suffering. I can give him a pass on that first lie because he’s young, but to keep the lie going? To work so hard at deceiving everyone? And what comes of this? Almost nothing. His girlfriend (who’s also manipulated and the whole circumstance under which they get together is a total sham) breaks up with him and he loses his “perfect family.” That’s not a lot of consequence for the hurt he has caused.  Though they’re not at all the same thing, the reaction of the Murphys reminded me of the way the courts treat white boys who are accused (and perhaps even convicted) of sexual assault but are granted relief in their punishment because it may ruin their future. Why does the show just gloss over the fact that Evan is avoiding treatment? He stops taking his pills. He barely even tries to write his “Dear Evan Hansen….” letters.  His mom treats him as though he is something that must be fixed which is addressed in a cursory fashion. This is an important discussion to have, but overall it almost feels like the story is trying too hard to be relevant and misses out on some other thematically rich elements of the story.

What do you do when your brother who always threatened to kill you and was your personal tormentor kills himself? Is it okay not to be sad at his loss? Is it okay not to try to make him out to be a good person? According to the show, it’s maybe not okay to feel these things. Sure, no one deserves to be forgotten, but death does not wash away a life of bullying and cruelty. What about grief makes people claim they were closer to the deceased? Why does it go barely mentioned that one of the other characters involved in the Connor Project is only in this for personal gain? That it’s not okay that she leaks the “suicide note” without permission. Why is it not discussed that even though the Murphys were not great parents to Connor that this doesn’t excuse death threats and intimidation from people who thought they caused Connor to kill himself? I can only hope the recent novelization of the musical delves into this.

It’s frustrating that the musical is lauded as the next best thing in theatre, as though it were on par or better than Hamilton, when it’s one of the least diverse casts on Broadway and is a pretty cruddy story that not even the dynamic songwriting team Pasek & Paul can salvage into a great musical. You can’t just put window dressings on a poor structure and expect to have a great product. It’s exceptionally hard to make a great film with a poor story and it’s no different with theatre. Honestly, what’s really inventive about this show? What is it bringing that changes musical theater the way Hamilton did or, better yet, the actual best musical of 2017, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Nothing! There’s nothing in this show that breaks new ground both in its staging or in its storyline. If you know your theatre history, there’s a really incredible musical that is also all about mental illness, Next to Normal. Sure, Dear Evan Hansen specifically addresses social anxiety which is important but is its overall handling of mental illness as good as those that came before it? Definitely not. The difference between Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen though is the former has great characters that are empathetic  and the latter has at most two characters who are relatable — Zoe, Connor’s sister, and Heidi, Evan’s mother who are the heart of the show without really getting their due credit because they are overshadowed by Evan.

I have to hand it to this some of the members of this cast though. Ben Levi Ross, the touring production’s titular character, is as charming as he can be under the circumstances. His voice is incredible, slaying this decade’s “Defying Gravity” for boys, “Waving Through a Window.” One of the real heroes of this story is  Maggie McKenna’s Zoe who brings us a wildly relatable character and the heartbreaking solos of “Requiem” that address the pain of going against societal expectation’s of grief. McKenna has great comedic timing and easiness about her that makes her dialogue feels natural like it’s real conversation. She’s gentle but tough. Vulnerable but guarded. It’s a delicate balance McKenna walks so easily.  Our other leading lady is Jessica Phillips in her role as Heidi Hansen. Phillips is the only character I feel deserves the tears of the audience as she recounts the day her husband left her and she realized she would have to be an only parent to Evan and the pain that might cause him and the shortcomings she might have because she would never be able to fill the shoes of two people. Her vulnerability as she deals with the realization her son wished for another family to be with is emotional and heartbreaking in the way the rest of the musical only dreams it could be. The rest of the cast leaves you wanting for the most part. Marrick Smith’s Connor Murphy lacks the intimidating qualities Mike Feist brought to the character. The qualities that made you believe he really did threaten his sister. That he is the terrible person she describes and the others fear. Aaron Lazar’s Larry Murphy is flat and uninviting in a way that may be more the fault of the book than Lazar’s talents.

There’s more to dislike than there is to applaud yet audiences are eating up this musical at every corner. At least it’s introducing new people to this beautiful art form. At least it’s bringing young audiences to theatre and inviting them into conversations about mental health. Please, make way for something more inventive and original though or at least try to be more diverse.