The world of Broadway has finally met the world of social media, something ingrained in all of our lives. Upon sitting down in my seat, the stage was already flooded with backdrops of digital screens with entire Twitter feeds displayed on them. In typical rock-musical fashion, the pit orchestra was on stage for all to see. The only thing I knew about Dear Evan Hansen before this point was that the main character had a broken arm.
As the performance began, Evan was alone. Broken arm. His bed was on a raised circular platform, separated from everything else around him, physically showing the loneliness before it is even said. The first song, “Anybody Have a Map?”, set up both Evan and Connor as outcasts from different families returning back to school after summer break. It is made clear that they will become friends despite the rest of the people in their lives not noticing them, however, the characters immediately clash in their first interaction. Connor pushes Evan down in a violent reaction to Evan’s anxiety-filled laughter, which he had felt was directed at him.
Evan has been in love with Connor’s sister, Zoe, from afar (think Dr. Horrible, but much more anxiety-ridden, and, y’know, not a supervillain). Due to the anxiety that he lives with, his therapist instructed him to write a letter to himself: Dear Evan Hansen. In this letter, Evan was supposed to lift himself up, be self-motivational, talk about how great the day would be even in the face of the opposite. Instead, he used the letter to vent, talking about how awful his first day of school was: No one would sign his arm cast. He and Zoe still don’t even know each other. The letter was obviously written on a computer, the same way anyone else in today’s world would write a letter, and after he sends the print-out to the school’s printer, Connor picked it up. He got angry about Evan talking about Zoe, as if she was only mentioned to antagonize him. A scene later, by the time it was expected to see Evan and Connor’s relationship start to maybe turn around, Connor commits suicide. It goes one step further: Connor still had Evan’s letter on him when he killed himself, addressed to Evan Hansen, so Connor’s parents believed they were great friends and that it was a suicide note addressed to Evan.
Yes, this was a bring-your-tissues performance.
There was a wave of Japanese cinema in the early 2000s when social media was kicking in, that was centered around how technology had invaded everyone’s life and the effects it was having on making people feel both more connected and more disconnected simultaneously, some notable ones being All About Lily Chou-Chou and Suicide Club. In All About Lily Chou-Chou, an anonymous web forum was the heart of the film, connecting people who would otherwise not be connected. In Suicide Club, people’s obsession with technology had made people long for human connection again. Since that era of films, social media has only become more ingrained in all of our lives, and technology has only become more invasive to our everyday activities (a smartphone can text, call, browse the internet, take high-quality photos and videos, etc.). However, it can be hard to successfully relay this widespread use of social media. A break-out Norwegian television show, Skam, has managed to incorporate social media with flying colors. The characters have Instagrams that are updated in real time. The story lines weave in the use of social media consistently in relevant ways. Dear Evan Hansen has brought Broadway to this party. Evan was constantly on his computer interacting with his classmates. This vehicle of communication mimics the themes of loneliness well, showing that even if he was talking to multiple people, he was still on his bed alone.
In “Waving Through A Window”, Evan brought up the age-old question of if a tree fell in a forest and no one was there to perceive it, did it make a sound at all? The notable difference that Evan amended the original question with was that it wasn’t a tree falling in the forest, it was himself. Falling out of a tree, breaking an arm, and having no one there to help made Evan feel alone, as if the answer was no, he did not make a sound. And once it was revealed that this was actually an attempted suicide, we know the loneliness he was feeling was a contributor to even asking the question. Evan felt like he wouldn’t make a sound, like no one would be there, which was why he let go, and he was right.
In “For Forever”, the sun shining returned as an arc phrase. In “Waving Through A Window”, Evan remarked on stepping out of the sun if he kept getting burned, but in “For Forever”, the sun was a source of happiness. The difference between the way the sun felt was how in “Waving”, Evan was alone, and in “For Forever”, Evan was with Connor. Evan stepping into the sun in “Waving” was like each time he tried to make a friend on the first day of school, his attempt to make connections, to be happy. When that failed, the sun hurt. But when it succeeded, like the trip Evan detailed in “For Forever” with Connor, it was a wondrous feeling.
Zoe throws out the word “terrific” before “Requiem” happens, which I thought was a very fitting word to use. The etymology of which shows it stemming from a much more negative meaning, similar to terrifying, but has since become adopted to its modern day usage. “Requiem” drives home the theme of being alone and how it affects the different characters. We already saw Evan feeling alone, Connor feeling alone, and even Evan’s mom feeling alone with how often she had to work. Now we had Zoe feeling alone, because the Connor she knew was a monster, and everyone around her kept placing him on this pedestal after he had died. Her parents also grieved in vastly different ways.
“If I Could Tell Her” continued to blur the line between Evan and Connor. Evan finally exposed his feelings for Zoe but said that these were all things that Connor had told him in the privacy of their friendship. By the end of the situation, Evan kissed Zoe. Instead of her kicking Evan out, she ran to her room, alone.
“You Will Be Found” captured the tone of the musical in a single song. Although this was a depressing subject, what the performance was trying to drive home were uplifting messages, e.g. we all feel alone, but none of us really are, you will be found. Compare this to my (favorite) depressing musical, Next to Normal, and you can see how different the tones are. In Next to Normal, the songs weren’t meant to uplift the audience in the face of a depressing situation, the audience was simply sobbing their eyes out in the face of a depressing situation (the finale number, “Light”, was indeed uplifting for a final message, but the tone of the musical as a whole lacked this). Act I was closed out by the sun shining theme being brought back. Let the sun come streaming in, because you weren’t alone, even if it felt like you kept failing at making connections. That sun was still there, the same way it felt in “For Forever”. Social media proved its relevance outside of establishing the modern setting as the speech goes viral all over the internet, an important plot point expressed beautifully across the digital screens of the staging. Back in “Waving”, there was a formation that the ensemble made which looked like a backslash with Evan separated and in front of that backslash. In “Waving”, that ensemble backslash sang a more background part as Evan sang his melody alone. “You Will Be Found” does a throwback to that formation, having the ensemble reorganize into that backslash and Evan separated in front, but this time they were all singing the same line in unison, together. Not alone. I want to dub this an arc movement of sorts, and I love when a theater piece pulls this off. Spring Awakening (the Bill T. Jones choreographed version, not the newest Broadway incarnation from Deaf West Theater) had a choreography element that was established in the opening number and then used again later on as a dance motif. When that sort of thing works, it adds another layer to the climax and Dear Evan Hansen pulls it off (arguably subtly) in “You Will Be Found”. Also, I’m a sucker for a cappella, so the moment near the end of the song where the instruments cut out as the entire ensemble sings out “you will be found” always gets me excited (always as in the million times I’ve listened to the song since seeing my performance only a few days ago).
Act II started with all of the digital screens displaying various things, and only one of them was Evan (alone theme). “To Break In A Glove” very clearly paralleled Evan’s path of deceit. “It’s the hard way, but it’s the right way,” Evan had become 100% convinced that the Murphy family was only able to be happy as a result of his lying, a delusion reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves where Bess genuinely believed that Jan only got healthier the more she slept around with others (the phenomenal opera adaptation of which I recently saw, a review for it will be out either this week or next week). Evan was doing mental gymnastics, acknowledging to himself that lying was the harder way, but that it must have been the right way.
The scene before “Only Us” had Zoe opening up to Evan, expressing how she didn’t want their relationship to be all about Connor. It was just the two of them on the stage, but all of the digital screens in the background had Connor and The Connor Project displayed on them, showing just how rooted Connor was in their relationship, even if Zoe didn’t know it yet. During the song, we had a progression of the “million worlds apart” theme, this time Zoe and Evan are in the same place. They started singing together, “the rest of the world falls away”, which meanwhile was still a million worlds apart from everyone else because Alana was frustrated with how Evan had been slacking on his Connor Project duties. The Kickstarter page for The Connor Project looked to me like it had said there was about $20,000 raised from 49 backers, which would mean people were paying on average over $400. That felt a bit unrealistic, although I’m honestly not sure if there could be a smaller thing to nitpick about.
The show managed to show the flip side of social media, less in the way Suicide Club did when Sono was saying that it made us disconnected, but rather being connected with others online made it much easier for harassment, shown when the internet criticizes the Murphy family, wondering why they didn’t just use the money they had on Connor when he was alive, and anonymous hateful phone calls directed at Zoe. “Hated in the Nation”, the season 3 finale episode of Black Mirror, is an example that focuses on that same side of social media, an easy and anonymous path to mass harassment that might seem insignificant to the one harassing, but debilitating to the harassed (or in that case… dead).
Ben Platt’s performance was brilliant throughout Evan’s dialogue, but it was the moments where Evan was at his most anxious that Platt’s performance was the most overwhelming. He was shaking and had trouble speaking in what felt like a very non-forced way. This held true for when Evan finally snapped, seeing the Murphy family going back to yelling at each other and not being happy, seeing that his lying wasn’t actually helping the Murphy family be happy. His monologue where he explained that this had all been lies was completed with more shaking. Evan couldn’t hold eye contact with any of them, much less look them in the eye at all to face the amount of pain he was about to inflict on people he loved. Staggering.
At the end of the performance, we have Evan and Zoe at the orchard. The writing comes full circle, with Evan mentioning how since he lied about going to the orchard with Connor, this was his first time going there, but accompanied by a Murphy regardless, adding a feeling of resolution as the show headed towards its final number. The orchard very much resembled the elephant that was in that room, the elephant being Connor and the whole mess that happened with Evan’s lying. It was immediately obvious that Zoe and Evan haven’t spoken much since the catastrophic blow-up as they stood facing each other but very far apart (some would say a million worlds apart…). As their conversation transpired, they moved closer and farther away from each other, reflecting their emotions towards each other with respect to what they were saying. It was one of my favorite things that happened across the entire performance.
Having seen Amelie out in L.A. (review out next week), I currently feel like Dear Evan Hansen is the strongest Broadway show of 2017 (but I have my own strong biases, things like depressing topics and rock musicals). If you are the kind of person who liked other depressing shows, such as Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, or bare, then I would recommend this show. But Dear Evan Hansen will not be about wallowing in the depression, it will be about uplifting yourself and everyone around you. In fact, with a theme so prominent about how every single individual matters and will be seen, I found it very relevant given what is happening in politics.