We Need To Talk About Evan Hansen
As wary as I am of seeing shows with proven track records and pots of money to keep them in theatres past their sell-by dates (step forward ‘The Book of Mormon’), I was intrigued by ‘Dear Evan Hansen’, which clearly connects to East Coast Gen Xers in much the same way that ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ touches many a young British nerve.
‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is a love letter to a lost generation. The musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul has a teen lead who is an emotional car crash, taking calming meds and seeing a therapist, able to order a pizza online but unable to open the door and collect it from the deliverer. His world, and that of the kids around him, is at one remove, passed online garnering approval and disrespect, as demonstrated by the endlessly scrolling screens of the set design.
Evan’s mother persuades him to write letters to himself for encouragement, but one finds its way into the pocket of school misfit Connor Murphy just before he kills himself. When Murphy’s parents mistake the letter’s origin, they set up a potentially disastrous trophic cascade. Evan doesn’t help matters by persuading his bestie to add a false trail of emails to the dead boy proving their friendship. This is a classic all-kinds-of-wrong teenaged decision, taken to impress the dead Connor’s sister, and is also the best scene.
The dominoes fall. The email chain goes viral, Evan’s social standing rockets, the school starts a ghastly narcissistic campaign for tragic dead Connor and everyone wants fame by association. Connor’s family accept Evan as a surrogate for their dead son, cueing anguish for Evan’s mother. And then the online fans who waved their candles at Connor vigils grow suspicious and go on the attack…
It’s a Netflix-ready theme about teen suicide, peer pressure and bullying in what is essentially a straight play with some low-key ballads, and is a rare example of a play that would function perfectly well without pleasant songs. It ould have worked perfectly well without the internet too, because it’s a story as old as time – ‘The Scarlet Letter’, perhaps, or a darker ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’. Awkward Evan, a bundle of sweaty twitches, is thrust into a torquing plot that opens discussion points for any parent, and – even after three years on Broadway – is relevant to today’s teens, although it may find itself out of date in a year or so.
However, there’s a problem with the set-up that stuck out like a sore thumb to me, and why quite a few UK critics have been less than enthusiastic. Hansen’s new, better, confidence-building life is, we know from the outset, based upon a lie – his non-existent friendship with dead child. A moral line is crossed. Evan gets the girl, which is creepy, and finds a father-figure by continually forging letters, at his mother’s expense. So it would be logical to assume that his lies will be exposed, his ‘crime’ will come crashing down upon his head, and having picked up the pieces, lost the girl and learned a painful life-lesson he’ll go off alone to become a better person.
Not exactly what happens.
Our old enemy sentiment, the downfall of many a Broadway show, gets in the way and the story turns lachrymose, fudging the central issue. Perhaps it makes the Gen-Xers feel more secure when they see it. I wanted a tougher, more demanding ending in keeping with the rest of the show instead of one that allows Evan to dodge the consequences of his actions. But we live in a time when it’s suddenly OK to lie, so at least it has zeitgeist.
It’s been a (well-funded) cult from the start – opening night in each American city is ‘Blue Hat Night’, apparently. No, me neither. The audience was mostly American (cheaper seats in London!!!). They cried, cheered, and stood up a lot. For such a small show Evan Hansen has a massive advertising budget so I guess it’s here to stay.