Why does “Dear Evan Hansen” have such a hold on the theater-going world?
The musical, which opens April 23 at the Fox Theatre, tells the story of a loser who capitalizes on a lie to become a winner.
It’s about the cost of deception, and about our willingness to reinvent ourselves to present a successful face to the world — particularly the world of social media.
The struggle to isolate a personality is particularly epic during high school, and for many of us, those high school traumas and triumphs are still at hand.
Does that explain our fascination with this tale? High school drama certainly draws Steven Levenson, author of the musical’s book.
“I’ve always been really fascinated by stories about adolescence and coming of age,” said Levenson, during a conversation taken during a break while he’s writing the movie version of this multiple-Tony-winning juggernaut.
“For all of us, those years are so charged with emotion and so charged with meaning,” he said. “There’s something wonderful about being that age, and there’s a lot that’s awful about being that age.”
To recap the action, Evan Hansen is an anxious, nerdy high school senior who writes life-affirming letters to himself — at the suggestion of his therapist. Connor, one of the cool kids at school, gets possession of one of these letters, and Evan worries that it’s going to be used for blackmail. Instead, Connor, who is also suffering invisibly, commits suicide, with Evan’s letter in his pocket.
Connor’s parents, assuming that the two were friends, contact Evan to learn more about their son. Evan invents a relationship that never existed and becomes the center of attention and the driver behind the creation of a memorial park dedicated to his dead classmate.
A video of Evan’s impassioned speech in favor of the memorial goes viral. But the social media that lifts Evan also brings him back down.
Though it’s a play about high school, Levenson points out that the social media roller coaster goes beyond high school, and our intimate but fleeting connections with others through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram mirror that adolescent intensity.
“Something else I’ve come to reflect on a lot is that technology has, in a way, made us all perpetually teenagers,” said Levenson, 34. “It’s strange. We’re all using the same social media platforms, and we’re all comparing our lives to other people, and wondering, ‘what are the popular kids doing?’ In a way, there’s a popular regression,” he said.
“There’s this strange paradox about the times we’re living in that we’re connected in a way that we’ve never been before, yet there’s this isolation and alienation that only seems to grow. These connections are wide, but they‘re shallow.”
A show about a desperate desire to make a connection has made an enduring connection with the public. “Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony awards in 2017, including Best Musical and Best Score, and most shows in Atlanta are close to sold-out. The soundtrack, featuring “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found,” won a Grammy in 2018.
In this time of lies and “alternative facts,” the play has also sparked some discussion about truthfulness. Why do we find this liar so sympathetic?
In 2017, Jason Zinoman wrote on Slate.com “A self-serving fabulist exploits the suicide of a high-school classmate by peddling a fake connection to the dead boy. The con man revels in the resulting internet fame, which wins him popularity and even the sexual attention of the boy’s grieving sister. What a creep, right?”
Apparently, we don’t think Evan is a creep. Evan Hansen is, for some reason, an enormously likable protagonist, whose rise and fall inevitably trigger a four-hanky response in the audience.
Zinoman repeats a familiar complaint: Evan doesn’t really suffer for his crime. But Levenson said it’s important to remember that Evan is just a boy.
“Some audiences feel he doesn’t get enough of a comeuppance,” said Levenson. “Some want him to get more of one. For us, it was always important to remember that he’s a kid. He’s 17 years old. For a lot of people that age, if you’ve made a mistake, your life is ruined, it’s over. But people do stupid things, and it’s important to show that even though Evan does something terrible, in the end, he survives. He’s able to find a common connection with his mother. He’s able to walk away and be OK.”
If you go:
“Dear Evan Hansen,” 7:30 p.m. April 23-25; 8 p.m. April 27; 2 p.m. April 26; $59-$239; very few tickets are available; at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St., Atlanta; 855-285-8499; foxtheatre.org
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.