In my home city, a touring Broadway show called “Dear Evan Hansen” recently premiered in our downtown core.
The show took our city by storm. Tickets sold out almost instantly, and remaining ticket prices skyrocketed. For weeks, glitzy iPhone photos of programmes inundated my social media feeds. Families posed outside the theater, which the city painted blue to match the protagonist’s polo shirt.
While the hype consumed my city, a part of me felt detached from all the buzz. When I watched “Dear Evan Hansen” in June, I couldn’t help but feel an uncomfortable stirring sensation in my seat.
While the performances were phenomenal and the harmonies gorgeous, the musical’s plot left a nasty taste in my mouth that lingered long after the closing number. Examining the musical more closely on my subway commute home, I began to question the ethical implications of the plot of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
The show (music and lyrics by songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; book by Steven Levenson) follows the titular protagonist during his senior year of high school. Evan is a nerdy, socially awkward teenager. His single mom is overworked.
Evan’s therapist instructs him to write letters of positivity to himself every day in order to build up his social confidence. When one of Evan’s letters accidentally ends up near school bully Connor Murphy at the scene of his suicide, our protagonist finds himself entangled in an increasingly intricate web of lies.
Evan fibs to the Murphy family about being friends with Connor while he was alive. To back up this lie, Evan enlists the help of Jared, a family friend, to pen fake letters detailing the two’s friendship.
To make matters stickier, Evan also sparks a romantic relationship with Connor’s sister, Zoe. Evan finds himself a new family and girlfriend, but he does so while spreading misinformation to the Murphy family about their late son’s personality.
Evan himself is a cardboard smorgasbord of various anxious traits. We see Evan taking pills as he sits alone in bed during the show’s opening number, but we never find out explicitly what medication he is taking or what disorder the pills are managing.
We know Evan has a therapist who instructs him to write daily letters, but Pasek and Paul do not specify what exactly Evan is battling.
The writers never bother so much as to diagnose Evan with an anxiety disorder or color his traits beyond odd tics or idiosyncratic behaviours. As a result, Evan is the everyman.
He is drawn broadly enough that any kid — be they battling depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or just plain teenage angst — can see themselves reflected in his blue polo and hunchbacked posture.
Yet, this character outline is paper thin, and, as the show’s plot unfolds, the gaping lack of complexity to Evan becomes increasingly apparent.
“Dear Evan Hansen” thus presents the story of an anxious kid, who may or may not have a personality disorder. We are never sure, but his anxiety is legitimately his only distinguishable trait. And he manipulates his way into a grieving family.
Evan rewrites the family’s conception of their child, while hoping to find love and affection. His actions are unethical, but the play sells his intentions as totally earnest.
Evan plows through each stop sign as he sinks deeper into his lies. He allows himself to commit something legitimately heinous: He convinces a family that their son was an entirely different person than who he truly was, and he never truly faces repercussions for his actions.
We’re supposed to empathize with Evan because he has an unspecified anxiety disorder, and that seems to be a strong enough excuse to justify his selfish behavior. This in itself is a deeply flawed message.
“Dear Evan Hansen” implies that mental illness excuses an individual’s maltreatment of others. It implies that these issues are personality definers that cannot be managed with therapy or medication, and it absolves people of responsibility for their own actions.
Similarly, the show’s portrayal of Connor is also baffling. Throughout, the play implies that Connor battled depression and drug addiction, which cause Connor to lash out at his sister and act aggressively toward his parents.
While both Evan and Connor battle mental illness, only Evan is treated sympathetically, whereas Connor is portrayed as utterly evil.
When we treat addicts as monsters — as one “Dear Evan Hansen” lyric literally does — we are not unearthing the root causes of how drug abuse can impair people’s behaviors.
It’s baffling how the same show can write off one mentally ill boy’s harmful actions as the yearnings of a lonely kid and yet can totally deny sympathy for another troubled teen.
I worry that people, who flock to the theater to see Evan Hansen stutter onstage, are not leaving more enriched or open-minded toward mental health issues. On the contrary, they probably leave with an unearned sense of entitlement.
They adopt the misguided belief that their inner turmoil permits them to wreak havoc on other people’s lives. And so long as they admit their loneliness and break down crying, all will eventually be forgiven, even if no real apology has been delivered.
The show’s book even goes so far as to imply that sometimes apologies are unnecessary. Listen carefully to “Words Fail,” the show’s 11-o-clock number, in which Evan admits his wrongdoings, and one will notice that the protagonist never outright apologizes for his actions.
He draws sympathy to himself and emphasizes his own sadness, but only once in the number does Evan utter the word “sorry” for the damage he has inflicted upon the Murphy family.
Gorgeous harmonies and spine-chilling vibratos aside, I hope more theater fans will listen the lyrics and message of “Dear Evan Hansen” with a more cautious ear. While the music can be catchy, it is also important to acknowledge the show’s dangerous message about mental illness and accountability.
Like much of the audience, I cried during “Dear Evan Hansen.” Yet, on my subway commute home, I began to consider how those tears were wrung out of me, not organically earned. Musical theater writers can and should aim to do better when crafting characters with mental illness, lest Evan Hansen becomes a role model for how lonely teens should behave.