“The Anonymous Ones”: Why Dear Evan Hansen (2021) Isn’t a Total Disaster

By Lindsey Carroll

When Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen began screening in cinemas in the fall of 2021, I intentionally avoided buying a ticket. This may seem bizarre given my devotion to the source material: I have seen the 2017 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical twice on Broadway and, admittedly, several more times via bootleg (my sincerest apologies to the Broadway community). The show holds a very special place in my heart, and I automatically knew it would stick with me ever since I first listened to the original Broadway cast recording (OBCR) of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s newest musical back in 2016. 

The book of the musical, written by Steven Levenson, focuses on a severely anxious and depressed high schooler who, over the course of the show, comes to terms with his own suicidality in the wake of a classmate’s suicide and ultimately begins to heal his relationship with himself. I was awestruck: this musical addressed with incredible specificity the struggles I found myself experiencing as a sixteen-year-old high school student. I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was thirteen and had been taking medication ever since; however, it wasn’t until the fall of my junior year that I had my first depressive episode. By November 2017, I was weeks away from attempting suicide. I was very lucky to receive psychiatric help that saved my life.

During that particularly dark time of my life, I listened to the OBCR of Dear Evan Hansen constantly. The story of this kid, Evan Hansen, who was just as anxious and depressed as I was, was a source of unquantifiable comfort. I still find it difficult to express the impact of seeing Evan’s character transform from someone who hated himself so much he wanted to die into a person who could genuinely say “today is going to be a good day because today at least you’re you and that’s enough.” Dear Evan Hansen contributed to keeping me alive long enough to receive the help I needed. For that, I will always be grateful. 

So, when the film hit theaters in 2021, I was heartbroken when I saw the initial reviews. There was almost universal criticism of the adaptation — the film still holds a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which, if you ask me, is abysmal. I was deeply saddened that the musical that helped save my life hadn’t translated well to the silver screen; I simply couldn’t bring myself to buy a ticket to witness the wreckage of something so important to me. 

Nevertheless, I have finally viewed Dear Evan Hansen (2021). And, in the interest of stirring the pot, I must admit it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. It definitely had a plethora of issues, but it wasn’t terrible. In fact, I found some things about the film to be welcome additions to the stage production. Specifically, I found the new depth of Alana’s storyline (played by Amandla Stenberg in the film adaptation) and the addition of the song “The Anonymous Ones,” written by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Amandla Stenberg and performed by Stenberg, to contribute significantly to the emotional impact of film, particularly for those of us who can identify with hiding our mental health struggles.

In “The Anonymous Ones,” Alana, the high-achieving student body president of Evan’s high school, confesses that she, too, suffers from anxiety along with many others neither of them will ever know. Chbosky’s direction of the scene emphasizes Alana’s vulnerability in sharing her mental health issues with Evan (played by Ben Platt). The scene begins with just Alana and Evan sitting together on a childhood swing set in the stillness of the night as Alana quietly begins to share one of her deepest secrets. Throughout Stenberg’s performance, she repeatedly avoids eye contact with Evan while she confesses, giving the viewer the sense that they are part of a very intimate moment. The acoustic guitar and synthesizer chords in the song’s first verse invite the listener to carefully listen to Stenberg’s quiet, breathy vocal performance. Lyrics like “ever look at all the people who seem to know exactly how to be?/ you think ‘they don’t need piles of prescriptions to function naturally’” are like a punch to the gut for those of us who are all too familiar with this specific envy. 

As the song transitions into the first chorus, minor chords are introduced on the piano to add to the emotional effect of lyrics like “the anonymous ones/ never let you see the ache they carry.” The synthesis of the emotional music with the poignant lyrics is designed to resonate with the target audience of teens and young adults who are used to hiding their mental health struggles in order to maintain impressive outward appearances. The message of the song is particularly salient in communities where high-achievement is a prerequisite, such as elite universities like Vanderbilt. It’s in these communities that brutally candid lyrics like “spot the girl who stays in motion/ she spins so fast so she won’t fall/ she’s built a wall with her achievements/ to keep out the question/ ‘without it, is she worth anything at all?” are difficult to swallow. For me, it is startling to have a mirror held up to my experience with such searing accuracy, giving a voice to thoughts I would rarely ever utter.

When the song transitions into the second verse and final chorus, the scene transforms from the swing set into a flashback to the first day of school. Chbosky shifts the audience to follow Alana’s journey as she navigates her anxiety instead of focusing on Evan’s point of view (“Waving Through a Window”). Stenberg’s subtle acting beautifully and accurately shows the carefully choreographed dance of avoidance and placation that those of us with anxiety perform on a daily basis. She quickly oscillates between darting eyes, fidgety hands, and brief unconvincing smiles. Stenberg begins singing in her resonant chest voice, complementing the added orchestration of strings and percussion. As Alana steels herself for another day of pretending to be fine, Stenberg passionately belts a G4 to express Alana’s frustration and desperation. When the song reaches its conclusion, Stenberg repeatedly sings the lyrics “the parts we can’t tell, we carry them well/ but that doesn’t mean they’re not heavy,” performing the lines like a mantra. The repetition makes the emotional weight of Alana’s confession truly sink in for the audience — Alana carries the weight of feeling as though she must hide her pain every single day. The instrumentation concludes with a rallentando allowing Stenberg to perform the final few lines a capella. The effect is haunting.

With the addition of “The Anonymous Ones,” Pasek, Paul, Stenberg, and Chbosky have done something special: they have provided a voice specifically for the high-achievers who most people would never suspect of struggling with mental illness. Sure, this subset is definitely a small minority, but, for me, I am so grateful to have this representation and to feel as though someone understands and recognizes my experience. After all, isn’t the point of art to help us feel a little less alone?

The Girl May Be Funny, But The Plot Is Not

Lindsey Carroll

If you’re a mezzo-soprano belter in musical theatre, chances are you’re familiar with the 1964 musical Funny Girl. In fact, it’s likely you have sheet music from the show in your collection — I know I do. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is a song every mezzo should know, even if Barbra Streisand’s iconic show-stopping performance in the 1968 film adaptation has made it off-limits in the audition room. Still, if you can belt, you should know it. 

But there’s a song from the film even more taboo than “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” The finale: “My Man.” Seriously, sing it at your own risk. The song is synonymous with Streisand’s performance, which clinched her Best Actress win at the 41st Academy Awards. Anyone listening to you sing it will instantly compare you to Streisand, and no one can sing it like Streisand. Trust me and save yourself the trouble. However, if you’re looking for a song to sing on your own time with an octave jump up to a Db5, be my guest. I find it impossible to resist breaking it out in the practice room every once in a while.

Barbra Streisand wins the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Funny Girl. Photo courtesy of Barwood FIlms.

However, when singing “My Man,” I never think about the number’s cultural implications. The lyrics compel me to swear as a woman my devotion to my male partner, daring others to challenge me as I follow him to the ends of the earth. I will give up my career, my passion for performing because my love for my husband is stronger. Wait…what? I’m giving up my hard-earned, successful career as Fanny Brice, the headliner of the Ziegfeld Follies, to stay with my insecure husband? You’ve got to be kidding me. 

The addition of “My Man” as the finale to the film adaptation, a song not included in the original Broadway production, transforms Funny Girl from a musical about an empowered artistic trailblazer to one about a woman who is ultimately subservient to men — how disappointing. Why would director William Wyler put this song in the defining position to end Brice’s story? To counter Second Wave Feminism? To feature one of Brice’s most famous Ziegfeld numbers? To show everyone Barbra Streisand is one of the best musical theatre performers we’ll ever have? No matter the reasoning, the song, as well as Streisand’s performance, makes Funny Girl’s ultimate message one championing the “devoted wife” above all else: an antiquated and sexist idea. 

“My Man” transforms Brice from a strong woman making her own way in the world to one dependent upon the approval of a man — a feminist nightmare. 

The lyrics of “My Man,” translated from the work of Albert Willemetz and Jacques Charles, paint a picture of a woman absolutely submissive to her husband. Brice, one of the most successful performers of her time, sings “all my life is just despair/ but I don’t care/ when he takes me in his arms/ the world is bright,” sharing that her success means nothing to her without a man’s love. This sentiment sharply contrasts Brice’s repeated assertion that she wants to be “the greatest star” the world’s ever seen. Additionally, Brice sings “what’s the difference if I say/ I’ll go away/ when I know I’ll come back/ on my knees one day.” These lyrics vividly depict a woman so beholden to a man that she will metaphorically crawl back on her knees to him no matter what. Lyrics like “whatever my man is/ I am his” further emphasize how Brice will stand by her husband even when he treats her poorly. With these words, “My Man” transforms Brice from a strong woman making her own way in the world to one dependent upon the approval of a man — a feminist nightmare. 

Composer Maurice Yvain’s score for the piece supports Brice’s transformation. Romantic mezzo-piano violins set the tone at the beginning of the song, encouraging the audience to listen carefully and believe Brice’s words. The score repeatedly fades throughout the song, allowing breathier vocals to dominate, forcing the audience to give their full attention to the lyrics. As the third verse begins, Yvain adds staccato snare drums and horns to the instrumentation, creating a bombastic atmosphere that captivates the audience as the vocalist soars into a forte full-chest belt. A rallentando before the final few lyrics imbues the song with drama and suspense that captures the audience in the performer’s emotional world. Every musical choice furthers the storytelling provided by the song’s lyricism.

An instrumental version of “My Man” with Streisand’s vocals edited out.

Streisand’s “My Man” is one of the most iconic musical theatre performances because her acting and vocals spellbindingly convey Brice’s devotion to her husband. Before she begins singing, Streisand shows us a new side to Fanny — she is hesitant and unwilling to make eye contact with the audience, nervous to shed her theatrical persona to become vulnerable. These acting choices clue in the audience that this is the “real” Fanny singing, and they should heed her words. Throughout the first verse, Streisand blends her speaking and singing voices to add intimacy to the song, specifically speaking the line “I don’t care” as she chokes back tears; it is obvious how much “her man” means to her. Streisand produces actual tears as the song continues, infatuating the audience. As the third verse begins and the instrumentation picks up, Streisand takes more space physically and vocally, challenging the audience to get in the way of her devotion. With an octave jump from Db4 to Db5 on “alright,” it is impossible to focus on anything else. Streisand (and Brice) become completely lost onstage during the final sustained note, singing for themselves rather than for the audience. With this performance, one is unable to deny the conviction behind Brice’s commitment to her husband. 

The combination of lyrics, music, and performance creates an unforgettable finale, and the song’s message is difficult to forget. Brice is a woman undeniably loyal to her husband, willing to give up everything she has built to stand by him no matter what he does or how he treats her. She transforms from a confident performer, willing to do whatever it takes to achieve stardom, to a wife focused only on maintaining her marriage and gaining her husband’s approval. This is a wildly disappointing character arc for an icon of the Great White Way. While it’s hard for me to ignore the sexist implications of “My Man,” I must admit — damn, the song’s fun to sing.