“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?

Waving Through the Movie Screen: Why the Dear Evan Hansen Movie Flopped

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. 

“No one deserves to be forgotten.
No one deserves to fade away.
No one should come and go
And have no one know he was ever even here.
No one deserves to disappear.”

“Disappear” by Pasek and Paul,
from the 2016 musical Dear Evan Hansen, notably missing from the 2021 film

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.

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.

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?)

CR: Erika Doss/Universal Pictures

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.

Dear Evan Hansen: A Lesson on Forgiveness

Dear Evan Hansen directed by Stephen Chbosky. Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

There is a lot to be said about Dear Evan Hansen; a musical view into mental health, a tell-all of social media, and society’s manipulation of traumatic events for personal gain. However, regardless of the complexities of my previous statement, Dear Evan Hansen is a musical that all should see, and in my opinion, rather a story that forces its viewers to confront emotional health, well-being, and surprisingly, forgiveness and understanding, in a way no other musical or story does. For me, this becomes all too clear in the powerful scene between Evan and his mom, Heidi, in the later half of the second act. 

Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “So Big/So Small” is a beautiful song about how life has shaped Hiedi’s motherhood and her love for her son. The song begins as more of a transition, from Evan’s admission of mental health struggles to his mom to a quick silent pause and Heidi beginning to tell him a story. Soft guitar begins, and slowly, we are pulled deeper into the moment, into the very living room with them, and before we know it, are hanging on to every word, every second, and every emotion. The tension in the room is unreal as if the whole rest of the world is just quiet, no distractions, only honesty. The solo guitar and comfortable range of Heide’s voice coming into the song spark a pure and raw tone, which in turn reflects the intimacy of the story and is an indication to audiences that this will be something special. 

Throughout Heide’s telling of how Evan’s father left the two of them, metaphors largely play a part in anchoring and grounding our emotions further within the song and scene and make us feel for Heidi and Evan in ways the rest of the musical does not and made me reflect on my relationship to my own mom, my childhood, and my upbringing. It’s heart-wrenching. Puts that pull in the bottom of your stomach. It’s powerful.  

A U-Haul truck in the driveway

But you saw that truck

And you smiled so wide

A real live truck in your driveway

lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Growing up, trucks were always a source of fascination, an oddity to the small barely battery-powered trucks and cars we would drive around in the front yard. Trucks marked for me my innocence, a curiosity for the world, and my desire to climb things that were bigger than me. To pair this innocence and personal connection with the reality of Evan’s dad abandoning him…. I’m heartbroken. 

I will never forget how you sat up and said

“Is there another truck coming to our driveway?

A truck that will take mommy away”

There’s not another truck in the driveway

Your mom isn’t going anywhere

My childhood connection to trucks completely transformed into a whole new meaning, and for Evan too, trucks are no longer innocent but the loss of something no child should ever go through. No longer joy but something that could take his mom away from him. This line for me is where the emotions become too overwhelming, too present, too real, and is where Heide reminds me of my own mother; steadfast and always there. 

Beautifully written within the structure of the truck metaphor, Pasek and Paul incorporate notions of feeling small in a world so big; feeling at our bottom while situations in our lives threaten to bury us, threaten to envelop our very existence; something in which I feel is all too common for people in today’s society and a choice that makes “So Big/So Small” resonate more broadly and loudly than ever. 

Now it’s just me and my little guy

And the house felt so big, and I felt so small

The house felt so big, and I felt so small

Pasek and Paul’s use of metaphors and Julliane Moore’s incredible ability to deliver them through her performance of Heidi allow us to see Evan in a whole new way. It is Moore’s ability to change her voice inflection, create and play with such a raw tone that takes this song to another level. Viewers and, certainly me, at this moment learn to forgive Evan; we drop our guards, drop our moral prejudices and empathize with not only Evan but Heidi for her role as a hard-working single mother. For me, this song and this scene is a defining moment for Dear Evan Hansen and stands for why this is such an important musical for society and one which completely changed my entire perception of the musical as a whole. 

Stephen Chbosky’s direction of camera shots and blocking makes audiences confront their emotions head-on. Confront the feeling of loss, the feeling of just being at our lowest, because there’s nothing to distract from it. No movement. Just sitting and embracing what is given to us makes this direction choice speak volumes. It’s almost like silence in music; the lack of sound is more impactful than the presence of sound. In this moment the lack of motion is more powerful than any motion could ever be. Throughout this scene, there are two camera angles, the main angle being a close-up of Heidi, and the second, the reaction of Evan to his mom’s personal experience of being left by her partner, without resources and help, and with a young now fatherless child. Tears flow from both sides of the screen and the scene ends with Evan embracing his mom. 

This song and moment teaches so much about empathy, really making viewers think about where others are coming from, and meeting them at their lowest point; supporting them through it all. Society desperately needs more of this action, especially in a world where empathy and understanding get lost through social media and through our ever-busy lives. Dear Evan Hansen and “So Big/ So Small” also teaches us to forgive while encouraging us to love all no matter what. Bluntly, Evan conned a grieving family to gain what he felt like he lost in his own family. Yet, at this moment with his mother, sitting just the two of them, we forgive him, we forgive, and that’s what matters most and what I will remember most about this special musical.