(obviously this is not a real essay that’s actually written by this character, but he probably could if he wanted to… after a slice or two of introspection pie)
By Nicole Anderson
So here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure it’s nothing new that Dear Evan Hansen, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, has some problematic aspects… but just how far does it go?
For some context, Dear Evan Hansen is a little musical about an anxious and depressed high school student whose inspirational letter to himself (which turned out not to be very inspirational) gets in the hands of a boy that ends up taking his own life. The authorities assume that it is a suicide note to Evan, his only friend, and so do the boys parents. Originally, he tries to explain his situation to the parents, but they are so set on Evan having been a comfort to their son he eventually caves in and lies to comfort them.
It then gets worse.
Evan has a friend that has him forge emails that prove they were friends, he gives those letters to the family, he bonds with the family (especially their daughter (and his long-time crush)). Evan and a few friends start “The Connor Project” in memoriam of the late teen, as a fundraiser and mental health awareness website. The lies build and build and build until it all inevitably collapses.
Blah blah blah… the end.
Wrong. If you don’t think too carefully about it, the musical seems like a great coming of age story about a boy and a girl that are all brought together through tragic means. It seems like a story that represents those with mental illness who don’t usually get representation in popular media. It seems like a cute love story. It seems like a silly tale of a young man’s adventures in high school.
But if you do think carefully about it…
Things like this blog post get written.
There are several “minor” (I just mean, in comparison) issues that riddle the musical like casual homophobia in the song “Sincerely, Me,” having several main female characters that all somehow have zero agency, and Evan being so damn rude to his mom (a single nurse who works overtime to make sure Evan can afford college) and never apologizing for it. But I’m going to focus on what really makes the overarching plot of this musical problematic.
I know this comes as a huge shock, but the cishet white guy never gets punished for his actions (from which, he learns nothing) AND somehow manages to simultaneously play the victim by blaming it all on anxiety and depression (perpetuating very harmful stereotypes).
As I get into this, keep this list in mind. These are the most appealing benefits Evan gets from pretending to have been friends with Connor.
- A found family
- A romantic relationship with the girl he’s always liked
- Less social anxiety and depression (it magically disappears!)
- An offer for his college tuition to be paid in full
Now, I’m not saying that it would be better to get all of these things if someone were actually friends with someone who took their own life, but at least it would be somewhat morally acceptable. Evan getting all of these things because of a lie is disgusting. Especially considering he had no intentions of correcting anyone.
Here’s the thing. I’m not proud of this, but I was an Evan apologist for a long time. This musical had me convinced that Evan did not mean for any of this to happen. It was all one big misunderstanding fueled by the panic of an anxious teen, right? But then I started playing the song “Sincerely, Me” and “Words Fail” a little too frequently.
In the song “Sincerely, Me” Evan is creating fake emails sent between him and Connor. Evan says, “I wanna show that I was like, a good friend, you know?” This is clearly not him trying to make a family feel better about the loss of their son. This is not a panicked boy doing his best. This is him building an ego by manipulating parents who are mourning the loss of their son. This demonstrates perfectly the transition of him making decisions out of panic to out of greed.
“Words Fail” comes after the big reveal that it was all a hoax. This song is exhibit A on proof of why no one should be forgiving Evan for anything any time soon. Let’s go lyric by lyric and break it down.
Take note how he never actually says “I’m sorry.” So far, as an apology goes, it isn’t off to a great start but let’s see where it goes. There is still hope for an Evan apologist.
Yikes, that’s the best you can do? You lied to this family for damn near a year and that’s the best you can do? The days leading up to this you knew things were beginning to unravel– you had time to prepare for this and yet you still don’t know what to say? This is a little embarrassing for an Evan apologist but there is still a sliver of a chance he can redeem himself.
Woe is Evan. What is so sick about this song is somehow, despite everything, he is still painting himself as the victim. One could argue that this is his attempt of justifying his actions, but considering how long the lies went on for you can’t really play that card. Sometimes you don’t get to justify your bad actions. Sometimes you just have to admit you were wrong and a p.o.s. After everything we have seen, this comes off so cheap. Not having the “perfect” life doesn’t excuse all the things you did while you were entirely in control of your actions.
You don’t get to be a bad person because your mom is busy. This fully admits that he saw something that he wanted and he did what was necessary to make it a reality for himself. He is admitting his manipulation without saying it for what it is. He just keeps up this ridiculous narrative that somehow because he wanted something and felt that he was entitled to it, no one is allowed to get mad at him. Evan apologists, this is an “L” for you.
More dialogue about how he is the victim and his actions were justified. This screams, “audience please feel bad for me” over and over again. This is like water torture but with someone claiming to be a victim. Not only that, it screams, “Hey please don’t hate me; family that I purposefully deceived because I saw the potential benefits of having a relationship with! Still want to pay for my college tuition?”. But this next bit is when it really gets messy.
AND THEN YOU GUESSED IT: HE TRANSITIONS INTO A REPRIEVE OF “WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW”. YOU KNOW, THE SONG ABOUT HOW HE HAS ANXIETY THAT CONTROLS HIS EVERY ACTION??? Sorry Evan apologists, it’s over.
It’s one thing to have anxiety. It’s an entirely different thing to blame all of your poor decisions on it.
I’ve already pointed out how several times he all but admits he is doing things out of greed instead of anxiety but for him to finish off this banger of an “apology” by bringing it all back to his mental illness and painting this picture of him not being accountable for his own actions is damaging to those with mental health and perpetuate harmful stereotypes that the community has faced for decades.
He admits it in “Words Fail”. He admits it in “Sincerely, Me”. He repeatedly demonstrates how he was in control of his own actions but he never takes responsibility for it. Yet he still uses his mental health as an excuse to play the victim.
This musical does one thing phenomenally: insinuating that people who have mental health issues will always inevitably act out.
Let’s face the facts: everything surrounding Evan is a lie. From the fake relationship with Connor, to how depression magically disappears once you get some action with a girl, to the song “You Will be Found” (a song that is all about how Evan was not alone, when you find out later that he actually was). In hindsight, this is just about as far from a fun coming of age story as someone can possibly get. It’s dark and upsetting and filled with lies. Harmful lies. Damaging lies.
When Evan stops taking his medication without consulting his doctor it is barely even mentioned. Having a girlfriend fixed all his problems. That’s how mental health works, right? This is just another splash of inaccurate and harmful stereotypes that lead to real people in the real world getting hurt and yet this fact is forgotten in the plot of the musical as if it is insignificant.
What makes the character and the writing surrounding him truly deplorable is that his mental health is utilized as a plot device. It wasn’t put in there for representation. This was written in 2015. If Pasek and Paul wanted to accurately portray mental health there were ample resources to learn about it and then do so. However, this “representation” was put there as an excuse; both to write the musical and for Evan himself.
Without ever actually apologizing (very on brand it seems) or giving a statement about it, the production manages to admit its shortcomings. You can tell by how many things it changed with its film adaptations.
There were going to be changes anyway, that is how musical to film adaptations work, but when several specific problematic aspects disappear, one notices a trend. Especially in the change from Evan and Zoe’s first kiss happening directly after a 3 minute number that chalk-full of straight up lies from Evan (“If I could tell her”) and on her late-brothers bed (which is immediately turned into a joke), you begin to wonder how that was even allowed in the first place. In the movie this kiss is pushed back to happen after the song “Only Us,” the theme of which is to forget how they came together in the first place and how “what came before won’t count anymore or matter”. Additionally, at the end of the musical when all of Evans’ problems fade away with time, he doesn’t actually demonstrate how he has learned anything from it all. The movie spliced together a montage of him reading some of Connors’ favorite books and contacting people who knew him to learn more about who he really was. Alyssa also gets her own song in the musical, fleshing out her character a bit more, which was a refreshing change from her original iteration, that really only exists as a facet for conflict in the plot.
The film adaptation was an opportunity to fix some of the original story’s problems and they did– but it is about time that these problems be addressed by the broadway stage production. As it stands now, Dear Evan Hansen is a story about how a cishet white man is never punished for his deplorable actions. This is exactly what Broadway (and life, really) needs less of. It’s full of stereotypes that have plagued marginalized communities for decades and this is not what a Broadway stage should represent. Not now, and not ever.