In Defense of Dear Evan Hansen
What’s actually getting lost in all the noise.
I am incensed. I don’t have any particular right to be; I didn’t work on Dear Evan Hansen, didn’t write Dear Evan Hansen, have never performed in Dear Evan Hansen. And yet the vitriol lobbed at the musical in all its forms, ever since the first trailer for the movie adaptation debuted, strikes a nerve.
It feels like a larger attack on theatre. On the nuance we once expected to find there. On the human complexities we once uncovered in the dark.
And now, on the day of the film’s September 24 wide theatrical release, I have to defend this musical for the craft I admire in its writing and for the personal meaning I have always found in its story.
The weekend after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the entertainment world burst into flame — or maybe that was just Twitter.
Critics and the public have been up in arms. How DARE Evan be the hero of our story? How DARE we condone his lies just because he made us feel found? The thing is: Evan isn’t the hero. (He is the protagonist; that’s not the same thing.) The musical doesn’t condone his behavior. To believe either is to misunderstand the entire purpose of Dear Evan Hansen.
The demand to mark Evan as “bad” or as a “villain” seems an overcorrective backlash to the misperception that he was cast as “good” or as a “hero” in the first place. I never saw him as any of these four things. To me, Evan is merely someone worthy of compassion. But the cries that he’s a monster and that his story should not be told not only anger me, they sadden me.
It makes me wonder: what kind of theatre are we asking for? I don’t need, or want, to see in black and white. I’m frustrated and worried at the prospect of such sanitized theatre. Complications and problematic characters make stories worthwhile.
Can a person be good if they do something bad? Do people have to be good or bad? Are those the only choices? What does it mean to understand someone’s motives? What does it say about me if I want to hug Evan after he lied to everyone and manipulated a classmate’s death to win his way into a family and a romantic relationship with the girl of his dreams? Does that make me bad?
Do the ends justify the means? (For the record, an audience member asked original book writer now screenwriter Steven Levenson this question during a Dear Evan Hansen 92Y Talk I led 12 days ago. Steven flatly answered “No.”)
These are the valuable questions.
The fact that Steven and the rest of the creative team (including Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) and company (including Ben Platt) move us to ask these of ourselves is why Dear Evan Hansen is important.
But it’s not the only reason.
I first saw Dear Evan Hansen Off-Broadway in the spring of 2016 and I can’t even describe the sensation of being cracked open and healed. Because someone finally understood.
I lost four classmates while in high school: one my sophomore year, two my junior year, and one my senior year. I was 15, 16, and 17, respectively. Each one of them died a different way and it was terrible. It was also incredibly confusing.
My classmate Drew* died in a house fire; I knew who he was but I didn’t know him. Then I lost my friend Jacklynn*, my summer musical theatre buddy who pin-curled my hair every night of our run of Guys & Dolls. She suffered an aneurysm while driving to visit her brother and look at colleges in Boston. Three weeks later, my friend Alex* died from injuries in a car crash. He and I were good friends with tons of classes together; he came to my Sweet 16 and used to literally kick my butt as he sat behind me in Spanish. Before graduation, my neighbor Zach* — who I’d spoken to twice and seen speeding around — died by suicide.
With Drew I didn’t know how to react. It was obviously terrible and sad, but did I have a right to sadness? Other kids in my classes were friends with him and clearly hurting. It felt disingenuous to be sad about someone I didn’t know, but cruel to go on like nothing had happened. Jacklynn’s loss devastated and scared me — that life could be snatched away so quickly and randomly. That my friend could be snatched away. But I wondered if I was too sad? She had so many friends who were closer to her than I was. Her mom and her brother couldn’t even function. Surely, I had to. The day after Alex died, I couldn’t bear to sit in my seat in Spanish, so I huddled on the floor, hugged my knees and sobbed. I went to his funeral, spray-painted his name on my school’s sanctioned graffiti wall, donated blood in his Memorial Blood Drive and money to his scholarship fund. I remember the tension, because a blood drive and publicized scholarship fund and endless memorializing hadn’t happened for Drew. The gap was obvious. Should we have toned down our mourning since we couldn’t go back in time and mourn more for Drew? When Zach died, I had no idea how to respond. Was death really just a part of life now?
Dear Evan Hansen isn’t just about Evan. The stage musical, especially, examines how we — particularly teenagers — grieve in the wake of tragedy. Watching Zoe and Alana and Jared navigate the aftermath of a peer’s death feels real to me. The overwhelm, confusion, fear, and sadness sit congealed like humidity before the skies break open.
What are you supposed to do? Who can own grief? Who has the right to memorialize? What are you supposed to say to the family? (You should not lie to them, we are all agreed, but what do you say?) Adults don’t have the answers, how can kids?
I have always understood how Evan tells that first lie. Always. Again, I do not excuse it. But I understand the gravitational pull of grief.
I haven’t lost a child, but I’ve seen someone who has. In the immediate aftermath, it’s like their soul has been flushed from their body. Behind their voice there is emptiness and in their eyes there is only wanting — wanting answers, wanting to go back in time, wanting their child back, wanting their child to be at peace. Without a future for their baby, there is only a past. From my experience, parents just want to know that past had something happy in it.
How do you tell Cynthia Murphy — the mother who thought her child was unbearably lonely but who also found solace in the idea that her son had one friend — how do you tell her, “No. I wasn’t his friend. He really didn’t have any.” You should tell the truth. You should. But how?
Because in that moment, I swear you’d do anything to make her feel better.
I think that’s the problem here. Dear Evan Hansen scares the crap out of us. This story reveals how easily any of us could be Evan Hansen. How hard we have to work to make sure we are not.
We’re rageful and terrified at the reality that real life isn’t good versus evil. Evan Hansen forces us to live in the grey.
Yes, Evan benefits in this grey story. He finds solace in a family he never had. He dates Zoe Murphy. He becomes a leader at his school. His anxiety finally ebbs.
What’s remarkable is that the creative team doesn’t judge this. I think that’s also pissing everyone off. Show us the bad and the ugly and vilify him for it! Judge him! Tell us it’s wrong and punish him for it! Instead, the artists put us in the uncomfortable position to see the bad and the ugly and reconcile with it.
Critics loathe that there are no consequences for Evan. From where I sit, that’s totally false. He loses everything he has gained — and he should. He lives with greater loss, because now he knows how it feels to be part of a conventional family and a group of friends. (That tree of knowledge will get you every time.) In the movie [spoiler alert], he takes public responsibility for his lies. In every version, he has to live with the pain of his mistake. Evan should have to live with this. But let’s not act like nothing happens to him.
Perhaps some begrudge the fact the Murphys don’t “hate” Evan. Tell me: What good would come of the Murphys outing Evan? I argue that it would only lead to more pain and suffering. The Murphy’s reaction has always been the most admirable part of the show — in my opinion. There is beauty in their mercy.
They stop a cycle of pain. They do not take the opportunity to end the Internet savagery towards themselves by throwing him to the wolves. In the movie, Steven wrote new dialogue to explain why, explicitly. Zoe says her mom was worried what Evan might do, that she couldn’t lose another boy. For me, this was always implied.
It’s an incredible lesson in generosity that Steven teaches us.
As he told the audience at the 92Y that night: “In the end, Evan really loses everything that he gains. He loses everything and he ends up right back where he started at that tree. And the important thing to me and I think to all of us from the beginning is that he ends up back there, but he makes another decision this time. Even though what he has done is terrible, what he has done is truly awful, he has to have some way back. He has to have some way to hope and to move forward because otherwise what are we saying? What else should happen to him at that point? He has to be able to do the right thing and to come clean and to tell the truth and to face the consequences, but to have hope. I think especially when we first started working on this musical we thought we were writing this really tiny weird chamber musical. As people started to see it and, especially as young people started to see it, I felt more and more of a responsibility for what that ending is. You have to be able to see that Evan is gonna be ok. And that’s not to say that he’s totally forgiven or that what he’s done is ok, but he has to be ok or otherwise I think you’re telling young people that the worst decision you make in your life is going to define you forever and is gonna end your life and I just don’t think you can say that.”
My favorite play of all time is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. I won’t spoil anything (or take too long with this seeming non-sequitur), but it’s set during the Irish Troubles, which is one giant loop of they hurt us, we hurt them, so they hurt us back, then we hurt them back. On and on and on. The Troubles were a giant national, political battle, but The Ferryman encapsulates the hurt and violence in the story of a single family. My thought through my fog of tears at the end of that play, every time I see it, is: “Why do we keep hurting each other?”
It takes courage to stop the cycle. It takes self-sacrifice to be the last one hurt rather than the last to hurt. I think that is Dear Evan Hansen’s most valuable lesson of all. We can choose to stop hurting one another.
We can even choose to stop mudslinging this story and its creators. If Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t do it for you, all good. But you are not morally bankrupt if it does. This story comforts some people. And not because we all suddenly feel we have carte blanche to lie for our own gain. Not because we think we can make mistakes and hurt people and get off Scott free. Not because we think “If I just get diagnosed with depression I get a free pass.” Because we see that we’re not the only ones feeling lonely. Because we see we’re not the only ones confused how to deal with tragedy. Because we learn the risks of how a small misdeed can become a huge one. Because we learn that we can reach the very bottom and it doesn’t have to be the end.
I didn’t work on Dear Evan Hansen, didn’t write Dear Evan Hansen, have never performed in Dear Evan Hansen. But I have been moved by Dear Evan Hansen. I have been moved towards compassion in the undeniable face of wrongdoing. The recent collective response pains me because it signals the loss of compassion and even our desire for it, as well as a loss of reverence for challenging stories. If we can’t find compassion for Evan, what hope is there for us? If we can’t grapple with internal conflict, what hope is there for theatre?
That would be something to scream about. That would be something to grieve.
*These names have been changed to protect the identities of the actual people who were lost.