I love me some musical theater. So while I had heard from a friend that Dear Evan Hansen had a deeply unpleasant storyline, when my mom offered to buy me and my brother, who was visiting from my hometown, tickets, I figured I’d give the show the chance to prove itself. I headed into the theater last Saturday night knowing none of the music and with only my friend’s brief synopsis of the plot to go on. What followed was two and a half hours of the most disgustingly tasteless story I have had the misfortune to experience in a theater. I spent the entire first act feeling like I was actually going to be sick to my stomach, and found no real solace in the second act, which was frustratingly absent any repercussions for the title character’s reprehensible behavior.
Spoilers for the show and a trigger warning for discussion of ableism and suicide after the jump.
The plot of Dear Evan Hansen begins with a letter, unsurprisingly given the title. The eponymous Evan has been tasked by his therapist with writing pep talk letters to himself to help him visualize success: “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a great day.” However, Evan is a depressed, anxious, and deeply socially awkward teenager, and on the day the show starts, he instead ends up writing a pretty bleak letter about how things aren’t getting better and may never get better. He prints it at the school computer lab, where it’s picked up and stolen by Connor Murphy, the also-depressed brother of Evan’s crush Zoe. Shortly after this, and for presumably unrelated reasons, Connor kills himself, with Evan’s letter still in his possession.
Here’s the thing, though. Evan simply signed the letter “Sincerely, Me”, so Connor’s parents think that Evan, to whom Connor was essentially a stranger who was sometimes mean to him at school, must have been very close to their son. After all, his suicide note was addressed to Evan. When put on the spot about the letter, Evan panics and lies to them, saying that yes, they were good friends. He frantically invents a shared history between him and Connor and creates an elaborate fantasy about their interactions. Things careen wildly out of control as the school encourages Evan, Connor’s “closest friend,” to take a primary role in memorializing him, and a video of him telling a completely fake story about Connor goes viral and turns into a movement called The Connor Project. Evan becomes the face of a Kickstarter campaign to reopen a nearby orchard in Connor’s memory, because the old, abandoned orchard features heavily in his fictionalized friendship with Connor.
While he is thriving on finally having some positive attention—even catching Zoe’s eye and beginning to date her—the holes in his stories start to draw the attention of the people around him. After an act and a half of deception, Evan is finally forced into a corner and admits to the Murphys that he didn’t really know Connor at all. However, he never tells anyone else this, and neither do the Murphys, and the orchard revival is funded and goes forward.
When Evan’s mom finds out what he’s done, she sings a sad/angry song by herself but never actually forces her son to face any negative consequences for his actions. In the end, Zoe actually forgives him for turning her brother’s suicide into the Evan Makes Shit Up Show, even going so far as to say his lies were the best thing that happened to her parents, whose marriage had been on the outs before Evan’s Connor stories brought them back together.
So, yeah. I imagine that you, too, are experiencing the feeling of your jaw resting on the floor. This show starts out tastelessly and never comes close to cleaning up the mess it’s made. I was particularly troubled by the show’s take on mental illness in general. The first song in the whole thing is Evan and Connor’s moms singing together about how difficult it is for them to have children with mental illnesses. This was a quick cue to me that this might not be a particularly sensitive show, as it immediately casts the focus onto the struggle that these neurotypical people are facing by being forced to deal with their sons’ sickness. This doesn’t get better. Evan is on medication for his anxiety, which he completely stops taking once he is deep in Connor Project-land. Apparently having something to focus on magically cures his anxiety, and there are no ill effects from arbitrarily deciding to cold-turkey stop taking a medicine that alters brain chemistry. In the scene where he tells his mom he’s stopped taking them, he yells at her for encouraging him to take his medicine because he feels like she’s just doing it because it’s an easy “fix” for her “broken” son. This deeply harmful view toward mental health medicine is never rebutted, and since it comes from the protagonist we’re ostensibly supposed to be rooting for, it’s implicitly supported by the story. At the same time Evan’s mother, a single mom who is trying desperately to maintain a connection with Evan while working double and triple shifts to make ends meet and taking classes to try to land a better job, is repeatedly cast as the villain for not doing enough to support her son.
Then there’s Connor himself. In the brief glimpse we get of him while he’s alive, he comes off as a bully to both his classmates and his sister, the kind of person whom people befriend in the hopes he won’t shoot them when he inevitably brings a gun to school. He’s also a stereotypical portrayal of “emo” depression: long hair, attire made up of black skinny jeans and a black zip-up over a black t-shirt. However, the Connor that Evan creates is a much more sensitive, troubled soul who wishes he could relate to his family and loves apple trees. This feels almost like low-level gaslighting to me, because Zoe was clearly bullied and harassed by her brother, and now Evan is telling her that her brother really loved her but simply acted out because he didn’t know how to relate to her. We never meet the real Connor, and his real memory is eventually completely eclipsed by the fake Connor Evan invented. The story could have been considerably strengthened by including some way of giving Connor back his real voice, maybe via his sister finding a journal or some kind of private blog that showed Connor as he was, but instead his memory never scrapes off that fresh coat of perfidious paint.
Evan is a less stereotypical portrayal of depression, but we never really dig into his depression or see him attempt to learn to manage it in a healthy way. For most of the show, the Murphys’ tragedy is simply a vehicle for him to deal with issues like his absent father and his social anxiety. He starts the show with a broken arm, which he first claims happened when he was interning with Park Rangers and fell out of a tree, but later ties into his Connor story, saying it happened at the orchard and Connor helped him to the hospital. However, it eventually is strongly hinted that he broke his arm jumping out of a tree with an eye toward self-harm or suicide himself. This could have been such a strong character moment for Evan, one in which we finally see why he might desperately want to connect with and explain away the issues that someone else who attempted and succeeded at suicide experienced. But of course, because this musical is a shitshow, it careens onward without ever explicitly digging into Evan’s own mental health and recovery in a nuanced or realistic way. It’s the icing on the cake that there are never any consequences to his behavior. While a deeply depressed and anxious kid obviously shouldn’t be like, publicly shamed for his actions, this is also a matter of “tragic backstory may explain bad behavior but it doesn’t excuse it.” Someone in Evan’s life needed to show him that there were real, unavoidable repercussions to his utter betrayal of the trust of a family who’d experienced a terrible trauma, but no one ever does.
I can’t even say “Oh, the show was horrible, but at least it had a diverse cast!” because the only attempt toward diverse representation is Evan’s Black classmate Alana, the show’s lone person of color. However, she is shown to be a hyper-overachiever, a busybody, and as desperate for attention as Evan is; she becomes the villain of the show when she posts the Dear Evan Hansen “suicide note” online as a ploy to draw attention back to their floundering Kickstarter campaign. Evan also leaves her to run the whole Connor Project show for a time while he farts around coming up with more fake emails between him and Connor and hides in the dead kid’s room kissing Connor’s sister.
On top of all that, there’s also an intense no-homo vibe to the show. When Evan first starts making up the secret email chain between him and Connor with a help of a friend who knows how to make backdated emails, the friend ribs the hell out of him for how “gay” a secret email chain between two guys who liked to hang out in an orchard and talk about their lives sounds. Evan is horrified that his totally platonic fake friendship with dead Connor could sound remotely romantic, and forces his friend to edit the emails to take out anything that sounds even the slightest bit homoromantic.
No offense to the teenagers who seem to be the main fanbase of this show, but I had a garbage critical eye when I was in high school. If you squint and stand on your head you can see that the writing team were trying to maybe tell a story about the power of social media to affect positive social change and the importance of valuing each human life??? I guess??? So that might be what’s resonating with people? But the message I got from it is: If you’re a mediocre white boy, no matter what incredibly garbage shit you do, up to and including literally exploiting and profiting off of the suicide of a stranger, it will be forgiven. There’s also the (potentially unintentional?) message that social media is powerful when it comes to strangers getting their inspiration-porn jollies from contextless, un-vetted/unsourced, one-note emotional clickbait.
That said, teenagers shouldn’t have to be on alert for problematic content in their media. Rather, it’s the responsibility of the adults writing these shows to be approximately 100% more tasteful in terms of representing these issues, and the responsibility of the other adults reviewing the show for grown-up publications to call this nonsense the fuck out rather than praising its milquetoast intended message. Irresponsibly handled stories about suicide are flooding pop culture right now, (I’m looking at S-Town and 13 Reasons Why in particular here), and a vague “it gets better”-esque message in a show otherwise centered on exploiting a suicide does nothing to combat that.
On the upside, the night wasn’t entirely wasted. I did get to see former Glinda Jennifer Laura Thompson play Mrs. Murphy, the set design, which had social media feeds projected onto the stage, was really well integrated into the show, and I guess some of the songs were pretty. (They were composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose work on La La Land was equally tone-deaf.) But unfortunately for the show, these things were not remotely enough to rescue it from its exceedingly distasteful and problematic story. Rather than dwelling on it any longer, I’m just going to go cuddle up with this delightfully yes-homo AU Luce sent me and pretend that it’s what I saw last weekend.
Hear more from Lady Saika on Character Reveal, the podcast she cohosts with BrothaDom!