Dear Evan Hansen: A Tasteless Exercise in Forgiving White Male Mediocrity

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.

(via playbill)

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.

Funnily enough, Book of Mormon is also the story of a character played by Ben Platt making a ton of shit up and not facing any consequences. This is a very specific sort of typecasting. (via pasekandpaul)

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.

Look at Evan in this nice orchard that Connor Murphy wouldn’t have given a fuck about. (via dailymail)

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.

The guy who plays Connor (left) is super cute and I’m frankly insulted by the implication that Evan wouldn’t want to date him. (via thewrap)

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.

Can’t forget this peppy musical number where the imagined ghost of a suicide victim dances with the people putting words in his mouth! (via a NYT review that confusingly calls this a “gorgeous heartbreaker of a musical”)

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.


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19 thoughts on “Dear Evan Hansen: A Tasteless Exercise in Forgiving White Male Mediocrity

  1. I have not studied mental illness indepthly, but I came away from this show feeling that it handled every character with empathy and compassion. Did they have flaws? Yes. But I didn’t think any characters were portrayed as “villains” or “heroes.” I am sorry that you viewed this musical as so cynical and superficial, but I do not think it is at all.

  2. I’m gonna respond to the article in the same order she writes in. Also I’ve seen the show five times in many different iterations so I’d like to think I understand it well but if anyone thinks I’m wrong in my interpretation, please respond!

    Evan does NOT in any way face no negative consequences. And frankly, the show isn’t about the consequences of what happens when he tells the truth. It’s an exploration of the way “bad” decisions or actions can have good effects, and really an exploration of morality itself. Zoe cannot not revisit Evan, because what he did, though awful, truly did help her and her family. It is so incredibly terrible and I can’t imagine losing Connor and then having Evan tell the truth, because it’s like losing him all over again, but Evan prepared them for the second loss. He made it possible for them to get through losing Connor without tearing each other apart. And though it was a lie, he was able to humanize Connor in the eyes of so many others who saw him as that crazy kid. The show is not saying that lying is ok, it’s asking the audience to consider, and definitely not decide but just consider, were Evan’s actions so bad? The show doesn’t need to “clean up the mess it’s made” because it’s not a show about the Murphys, its a show about Evan. Would it be really cool to see a story of what happens to the Murphys after “Words Fail”? Definitely. But that isn’t necessary for the message of the show.

    “Does Anybody Have a Map?” is an AMAZING song that parents everywhere love and relate to. And yes, it shows Connor and Evan through the eyes of their neurotypical parents but THAT’S THE POINT. Heidi has a line at the beginning where she asks Evan to “decide we’re not giving up before we’ve tried” and it showcases how, as hard as she tries, she really really doesn’t understand her son’s mental illness because he literally cannot do what she is asking him to. He cannot decide to get better. That doesn’t at all minimize Connor and Evan’s struggle. Parents of teens with mental illness, and hell, parents in general, do struggle to connect with their children, and this song shows that. Other parts of the musical show Connor and Evan’s struggles. By showing the parent’s point of view, we don’t lose the children. The depth of Heidi and Cynthia and Larry as characters is part of what makes DEH so accessible to such a wide audience.

    To the point of the meds, there are anxiety medications that exist that you take when needed. It’s not implausible at all that that’s what Evan was on. That moment is just to show how his actions are not only helping others, he is helping himself.

    Evan yells at Heidi for her perspective of him as broken because he thinks it’s a bad thing. He is showcasing in his reaction that it is problematic to view him like that. It’s not supported by the story, Evan is literally angry because of it, and therefore showcases to the audience that they also should be angry because of it. Heidi is also a character that is so deeply human that I don’t at all think she is cast as a villain, as showcased by “Does Anybody Have a Map?” “Good for You” and “So Big So Small.”

    I love to consider Connor as a character and you’re very right that we don’t get to see very much of the real Connor Murphy. But the show isn’t about Connor, it’s about Evan. And he is purposefully so inaccessible at first because that’s how the world saw him. That’s how his own family saw him. We as audience members need to see him like that or else we wouldn’t understand moments like “Requiem” or the absurdity of some of Alana’s desperateness to connect. And I would love to have a conversation with Mike Faist or Michael Greif and ask if Mike is playing Connor in the second act or if he’s playing Evan. But really, I don’t see the problem of not meeting the real Connor. Honestly, Evan probably is “low-level gaslighting” Zoe to some extent. But that’s all part of the question and the exploration of morality.

    This might just be personal, but I don’t need a big fallout from Evan’s suicide attempt. Because if nobody knew that he purposefully fell, then there wouldn’t be a big fallout. I’ve seen quiet self-harming or suicide attempts, and if nobody knows, then nothing happens. People go to school the next morning. They continue to live their lives. That sucks, but that’s how it works. In the show, Evan never gets to the point of recovery where he admits any of his self-harm to anyone but himself, so not seeing the repercussions of that makes sense. We see the very beginning of Evan’s recovery when he finally opens up to his mom. And then we see a later stage of it at the end of the show. The story doesn’t show the middle and I don’t really think it needs to. Again, it would be a really cool thing to see, but the show does what it needs to without it. I think you’re looking for answers that the show is never trying to give in the first place when looking for punishment for Evan.

    Do I wish the cast was more diverse? Totally. I wish all casts were more diverse. But there’s not huge opportunities for diversity when the majority of the cast is related to another cast member, so people have to look alike. And while I don’t think that’s really like a point against the story, it’s a valid point. Tell it to The Great White Way.

    ALANA IS NOT A VILLAIN. ALANA IS NOT A VILLAIN. ALANA IS NOT A VILLAIN. ALANA IS NOT A VILLAIN. I will say that forever, because even my friends who love the show hate Alana. And I get it. But Alana is just as real as anybody else and she is the character to whom I most relate in the show. She is somebody just trying to do good.

    The no-homo thing exists in like 2 scenes. They even cut it out of a later scene in the second act. It’s clearly a joke, and honestly like a pretty real thing in straight high school males. I don’t think it’s particularly offensive and definitely not intentional considering that Benj Pasek is out and proud.

    Evan is NOT totally and unabashedly forgiven. There are real consequences to his actions. If you want to see him be punished, or believe that he is, the story lets you do that. But that’s not the point. He’s not supposed to be punished. It’s about the moral ambiguity and about the questions. It is also about both the connectivity and distance that social media creates. But it’s not about punishing Evan OR about forgiving Evan. It’s not black and white. It’s a nuanced and rich story demonstrated through a beautiful medium.

    Maybe I’ve lived through too much death in high school, but the The “vague “it gets better”-esque message” is exactly what happens when someone kills themself in high school. This show is real. It’s so real. I always leave the theatre feeling incredibly moved. I hope one day that I can work on a piece of theatre as incredible as this one.

  3. Having not seen the musical or knowing nothing about it, the overall premise sounds remarkably close to the film “World’s Greatest Dad” starring the late, great Robin Williams.

    Williams plays a high school teacher who had minor success as an author. He has not written anything in awhile and is struggling in a relationship with a fellow teacher and his son. His son is a complete douche-bag a**hole who has alienated everyone around him.

    Williams comes home one day to find that his son has died masturbating to on-line porn and doing auto-erotic asphyxiation. Realizing that he doesn’t want his terrible son’s life to end like that, he moves the body into the closet to make it look like a suicide and then writes a heartfelt suicide note.

    When the note goes viral, his son is praised as some great kid – but most people know better. Williams, meanwhile, has to keep writing more things to keep the facade up which inspires him to write more and more. Soon enough, his son is hailed as a hero. Williams starts getting the recognition and love that he sought but it’s solely based on the fake reality he has created for his son.

    Finally Williams has to come clean on what he has done and recognize who his son actually was. The film has a pretty rough first act, but if you can make it through that, it’s actually a pretty powerful film and one of Williams’ best performances.

  4. I’ve not seen the show but everything you describe pretty much is what I had put together on my own, and it sounds both incredibly vulgar and amoral.

    That said, I am someone who suffers from mental illness (severe depression that led to a nearly successful suicide attempt and multiple hospitalizations) and also someone who grew up with a mother with severe mental illness herself (bipolar and borderline personality disorder), and I think it’s unfair to criticize a work for presenting the POVs and struggles of the people dealing with a family member’s illness. They are people, too, who are deeply affected both emotionally and practically by these issues, and it is a little unnerving to hear non-neurorypical people like myself act like it’s some sort of moral failing when their family members aren’t heroic martyrs focused on them at all times.

    Simply having an illness does not excuse a person from empathy or not being completely self-centered. Learning that is part of the work you do to heal in the first place.

  5. I think the person who wrote this doesn’t get it. The message is not that terrible exploiting lies will be forgiven, It’s that lies like that just get you into deeper and deeper shit. He was cast, and pay ed for it. I think they forgave him because they love him. He was desperate, and wanted to be noticed, and the Connor project, though it got him noticed, was something that was for a good cause, to help suicidal and depressed people. I understand where your coming from but I disagree.

  6. I am so grateful that you were able to put into words my major issues with this insane trainwreck of a musical. It’s hard to argue against an army of people who are obsessed with this show and who refuse to acknowledge any of the very real flaws. So glad to have this well-written piece I can share with people!

  7. This review is a miss. Doesn’t represent the show I saw, my opinion of the material, or my take on the show at all.

    • It’s not supposed to represent your opinion…you didn’t write it.

      Personally, I agree 100%. I really appreciate that you dug into the nuances of how they portray medication for mental illness as bad, or a temporary fix. That’s a huge issue with portrayals of mental illness in general. Excellent review.

  8. My 16 year old grandson and I saw the show together. We were moved by it and loved the show. Apparently, many people did. Some didn’t. So there. Different strokes.

  9. I know exactly how Lady Saika feels about this show. I felt the same watching Richard III. Richard just kept doing these really nasty things to people (like killing his own nephews!) and there were all these people around him who were just enabling him and failing to make him see what a complete ass he was being. Why can’t these playwrights start to own up to their responsibilities?!

  10. I actually have an anxiety disorder and have attempted suicide before and I can say that not only is Evan’s reaction to his mom encouraging him to take them is typical of those who are prescribed anxiety/depression medication.

  11. Pingback: Can you still like something that’s problematic? Reflections on Dear Evan Hansen | Thinking Outside the Books

  12. Thank you, THANK YOU for writing this. I thought I was alone in feeling many of the aspects that you have given voice to.

    I absolutely cannot countenance Evan’s torturing the Murphy parents by manipulating their raw emotions for their recently deceased son. Apparently, I am much more sensitive to this than others. To me, we may as well be watching a young kid torture helpless kittens because he doesn’t know any better. It doesn’t help that Evan is an innocent, troubled 16 year-old and does this because he thinks (initially at least) that he is doing the right thing. To the Murphy’s it is still VERY real. Evan then moves into social profiteering – more outrageous. Finally, Evan faces no consequences or a learning moment for the exploitation, which the storyline is begging for.

  13. Honestly, I agree with you! The music was fine, but a successful musical should have both good music and a legitimate storyline which should ideally have a mature and legitimately realistic, or at the very least have a considered viewpoint. Here I felt that Dear Evan Hansen fell short.
    Ben Platt’s voice is beautiful and soaring, but the points that you mentioned about mental illness especially and the fact that we never really get to know who Connor is bothered me intensely.
    The constructed Connor and Evan’s utter lack of moral judgement (surely regardless of his social ineptitude he might at least be virtuous and likeable enough as protagonist to tell the truth!) felt like a weak concept to construct a musical completely around. The storyline itself was a little too cliché for me as well, since the only way that this conflict could be resolved would be for Evan to tell the truth.

  14. I feel like your are missing the point of the show. The point is it’s supposed to help kids suffering through mental health issues feel like they are not alone. Though some of your points are valid it doesn’t change the fact that the play is trying to spread the word that being depressed or being anxious is not an abnormal thing. This is shown through many different characters.
    As a teenager listening to dear Evan Hansen feels like a breath of fresh air from all of the reiterate bullshit you hear about mental health issues everywhere else. Though you may have felt like this show was distasteful is doesn’t change the fact that it has reached the ears of many people suffering through similar problems (such as myself) and give some sort of hope.
    The problems the Evan Hansen faces through out the play are actually realistic things that can happen. Being sucked into a project due to a lie is something that has happened to a lot of people. Stoping taking meds is another. Kids do often stop taking meds because they feel ‘better’. By Evan doing this it is in no way promoting it. It’s making awareness that kids do this and that it’s not right. Thats what a lot of the play focuses on.
    Yes, some of the plot is quite fucked up, but it helps target things that are wrong and need to be helped and changed.
    In regards to to your ‘no homo’ complaint, it’s a joke, get over it.
    Mental health in the youth is a very serious thing and this play has not only addressed it but it has also brought it to the public’s eye. Dear Evan Hansen has done that in relevant way.

  15. I saw the show tonight, and while I loved the music and performances, I had a slimy feeling about the whole musical for all the reasons you wrote about. The friend I went with felt the exact same way. I had to immediately google when I got home whether we were alone in our critiques of the play and I’m so glad WE’RE not the alone ones.

    And a big LOL to the comments about shaking off the homophobic scenes as “just a joke”. I’m sure the closeted queer teens watching those scenes were laughing their heads off. In a play about teenage suicide no less! How tone deaf.

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