By Natalie Wright
Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.
If pressed to name the musicals that define modern Broadway, I would easily name Dear Evan Hansen as one within my top three. I don’t think this is an uncommon perception. Dear Evan Hansen demonstrates some of the biggest, or perhaps most successful, trends on Broadway right now. For one thing, it’s set largely in a high school with all of the main characters either being that age or a parent. Secondly, it has some brilliant new music (read: not a jukebox musical, a genre which is simultaneously becoming more common and more contested). The music was written by the dynamic duo of Pasek and Paul– that’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for those not familiar with their previous works: Dogfight, A Christmas Story, and James and the Giant Peach to name a few.
It’s also just a very emotional show. It’s the kind of show that brings up phrases like gut-punching and heart-wrenching and all the other organ-based idioms. The plot of the musical is… flawed (we’ll get into that later), but overall, it works because of the strong emotional throughline, which I’d argue only works because of the music. At its best, the musical is summarized by one lyric from the song “Disappear,” “No one deserves to be forgotten […] no one deserves to disappear.”
On Broadway, the show garnered a huge fanbase and rocketed the original Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, into stardom. (And rightfully so, that man can sing.) By all accounts, the 2021 movie version of the 2016 musical should’ve been a success, at the very least among the musical theatre fans who bolstered its initial success.
So why did the movie version flop?
Dear Evan Hansen (2021) aims to take the ‘musical’ out of ‘movie musical.’ Director Stephen Chbosky did his absolute damnedest to try and make you think you’re watching a prestigious Oscar-nominated film, not a lowly modern musical.
The film paints Ben Platt as The Protagonist, and I’ll be the first to admit that he makes some incredible acting choices in this role. He can ugly cry like nobody’s business, and with a plot so reliant on a strong singer and a highly emotional actor, he checks both of the boxes within the first few minutes of the show. “Waving Through A Window” is a masterclass on how to introduce a character. It highlights Platt’s impressive vocal range in a symphony of belts and riffs, while also introducing the central internal conflict of the main character. It’s also super catchy, pretty much as catchy as a ballad can be. It’s no wonder that this is the song that made it big. It’s the “Defying Gravity” or the “Seasons of Love” of this show, and I can’t even be mad about it.
The choice to cast Ben Platt in this role gave us many good things, but it introduced one of the most glaring errors of the show: casting a 28-year-old man to play a high school senior. This is in no way meant as an insult to Ben Platt, but he is frankly not one of those people that can pull off ‘ten years younger.’ This raises an immediate question– why not cast a younger Evan Hansen? Sure, Platt originated the role, but there have been plenty of Broadway ‘Evan’s– the then 19-year-old Andrew Barth Feldman comes to mind–who can absolutely play 18.
What most people don’t know is that there wasn’t really any competition over who got to play Evan Hansen. Marc Platt– does that name sound familiar?–is a prominent film producer and was one of the producers of the 2021 film. He’s also–you guessed it!– Ben Platt’s dad.
Now, I don’t wanna claim nepotism, but if the shoe fits…
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Dear Evan Hansen (2021) feels less like the original musical and more like– Oh my god, look what Ben Platt can do!
One of the most grievous errors in the movie is the change in the music. Sometimes songs have to be cut in a film adaptation for time’s sake, I get it, but in a show where the music, not the plot, is the star, you have to be very careful with the songs you cut. In my opinion, they did it entirely wrong.
Four songs were cut completely (and a few reprises but who’s counting those). They were as follows: “Does Anybody Have a Map,” “Disappear,” “Good For You,” and “To Break in a Glove.” Now, I’ll be the first to admit, those first three are some of my favorites in the staged show, so this take is admittedly biased. However, objectively, all four of these songs feature a character who is not played by Ben Platt. By removing these songs, the writers effectively stripped every character’s journey down to bare bones, with the obvious exception of Evan Hansen.
There are only three songs that are not ‘Platt-led’ left in the show. One is “Requiem,” the powerhouse trio song which, to quote my brother, “people would’ve rioted in the streets if they removed.” The others are “So Big, So Small” and the newly written song “The Anonymous Ones,” which both spend a lot of time zooming in on Ben Platt ~acting~ even though he isn’t singing.
The effect is generally that in putting a spotlight on Ben Platt, the rest of the actors are left blindly moving around in the dark. This is very nearly a crime since two of the actors stripped of a good storyline are legends, Amy Adams and Julianne Moore.
What’s really heart-breaking about this, though, is the effect on the storytelling. Dear Evan Hansen is a sad show; there’s no escaping that. But by removing the “unnecessary” (read: not Evan Hansen-based) songs, the subtleties of the story are lost.
One of the best secondary storylines of the stage show is the depiction of Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mom. We see her at the beginning struggling to keep up, in the song “Does Anybody Have a Map?” Here, she honestly admits that she doesn’t know what she’s doing and that she’s just trying her best. It’s something the teenagers watching the show sometimes need to be reminded of– parents aren’t infallible. Heidi is working a difficult job with long hours trying to make ends meet as a single mom. She doesn’t spend a lot of time with Evan, and when later in the show she finds that Evan has been pseudo-adopted by a wealthy family, she understandably feels hurt and jealous. In the song “Good For You,” she expresses this frustration. The culmination of this storyline comes when Evan admits to her that he attempted suicide earlier that year. In response, Heidi sings the song “So Big, So Small,” both sharing the fear and uncertainty she’s felt with her son, but also making clear that she will always be there for him “no matter what.”
It’s absolutely devastating. There are few moments in the canon of musical theatre that make me tear up as consistently as this song. I’d highlight a few of the most crushing lines, but honestly, it’s the whole thing. It’s worth a listen. When I saw Dear Evan Hansen live with my family, I was watching this song while sobbing and holding hands with my mom, who was (no surprise) also sobbing.
As you may have noticed, the first two songs in Heidi Hansen’s storyline were cut from the movie. She only gets one song, the song that’s supposed to be the culmination of an entire storyline about a single mother’s struggles to connect with her son. Without “Anybody Have A Map” and “Good For You,” the song falls flat, despite Julianne Moore’s heartfelt performance.
Heidi’s storyline is taken from a complex one to simply one of a mother who wasn’t aware of her son’s mental health issues because she works too much.
My mom cried after watching the Dear Evan Hansen movie. Not because of the music or the performance, but because, and I’m quoting here, “this show makes [her] feel like a bad mom.”
That is not ok.
I could go into detail about my family’s dynamics and the mental health difficulties in my immediate family that make this show hit particularly close to home for her, but I won’t. It’s not necessary.
For a show that is supposedly meant to be about remembering victims of suicide and promoting discussions of mental health, the only thing it achieved in doing was making the audience feel bad. Even worse, it made someone who lived this fictional character’s circumstances feel guilty. That is a failure no matter how you slice it.
And this isn’t even getting into the problems with the original storyline– best summed up as a teenager lying about a classmate’s suicide for his own gain only for it to come crashing down around him. What a mess. It’s like watching The Titanic sink. You know what’s going to happen, but you watch that boat slowly sink into the ocean anyway. Half of the show you’re tearing up; the other half you’re cringing more than you thought was possible.
There are many, many cringy moments in the show. “Only Us” comes to mind, as Evan gets into a relationship with Zoe Murphy, the dead kid’s sister, in a relationship that is, of course, founded on a bed of lies. The casting of Zoe didn’t help; Kaitlyn Dever is a lovely actress; she dodges the pitfall of using sadness as the character’s single emotion, admirably portraying the complexity of grief. She can also sing well enough– that is well enough next to anyone other than Ben Freaking Platt. Having only one powerhouse vocalist leaves the duet feeling lopsided. (I’d argue this would’ve also been helped by better sound mixing. As much as it pains me to say it, turn Platt’s volume down. We can do that on screen, remember?)
What annoys me (amid the cringy-ness and the boiling rage at making my mom sad) is that Dear Evan Hansen (2021) tries to separate itself from the genre it’s in. It is the least musical-y musical that has ever been. The songs feel like they’re just moments to show off Ben Platt, and let me tell you, it is framed awkwardly. By removing everyone else’s songs, we’re left with Platt being the only one who sings throughout the show. Most of the songs are just Evan singing at someone while they watch him and emote. (Not to mention him starting the show by literally waving through a literal window. *Insert an eye roll pointedly aimed at Stephen Chbosky*)
They aren’t aided by theatrical lighting anymore. There’s no spotlight on Evan during “Words Fail.” The director chose to make us watch the Murphy family watch Evan admit to lying to them for the entire show. (It’s awful. I hated it. I already disliked “Words Fail” because of the wandering melody, but Good Lord, I wanted to be absorbed by my sofa. The secondhand embarrassment was too much.)
Choreography is virtually nonexistent in the show– there already was very little in the stage show, but the film was particularly lacking. The one moment of choreography I found was in “Sincerely, Me,” and it felt more like it was mocking musical theatre’s dance tradition than joining it. It feels very staged and ironic, and it’s meant to, this song is a visualization of the lies Evan is telling. The peppy music and bubbly choreography are meant to feel fraudulent and, oh boy, does the song achieve its goal, or what?
All of these choices, specifically the removal of the characteristic musical traits, leave the film feeling disingenuous. It feels almost like a movie musical made by people who don’t actually like musicals all that much. It seems like a cash grab if anything. The creators saw the success of the Broadway show and Ben Platt’s admittedly beautiful performance, and they decided to milk that for every last cent. In doing so, they lost what made Dear Evan Hansen a hit in the first place.
Dear Evan Hansen did not succeed on stage in spite of it being a musical. It worked because it’s a musical. The movie forgot that.