A Note to Readers: The following story focusing on teen anxiety contains significant plot details from “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Many theatrical pieces that portray high school environments tend to pan out with unrealistic dynamics and generic morals — for example, “Don’t forget to be yourself” or “if you don’t succeed, try again!” While these messages are useful, they fail to reflect the reality of adolescence or the impending doom that isolation can bring.
Last week, the national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Tony-winning Best Musical wrapped its one-week engagement at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre and it’s the first show I’ve seen to break the cycle of overplayed clichés. The show focuses on the real issues that teenagers face in a high school environment, particularly mental health, an issue often ignored in mainstream media. “Dear Evan Hansen” uses dynamic lighting, and realistic character dialogues, in addition to flawless musical numbers, to assert one point: “No one deserves to disappear.”
In the very beginning, we see various high schoolers gush to each other about their summers, however, after a few interactions we start to feel that no one is really listening to one another. Rather, the teenage characters are focused on their own story instead of paying attention to their peers. To reflect how the characters themselves are distracted, various social media pages loom in the background on projected screens throughout the play. The scrolling social media posts serve to slightly distract us from the focal point of the performance. The imminent presence of social media also provides a scope of how the characters might feel “on the outside looking in.”
As we get to know each character — Evan Hansen, the title character, his “family friend” Jared Kleinman, Evan’s secret crush Zoe Murphy, her older, troubled brother Connor and their classmate Alana Beck — we learn to some extent, every single one of them feels isolated and alone. The social media accounts projected on the background of each set serve to occasionally distract us from the focal point of the performance. By presenting social media in this way, we are able to empathize with the constant distraction and desolation the characters feel.
Everyone’s desperation for a connection is further shown following the death by suicide of Connor Murphy. Although no one appears to have cared about Connor before, once he’s gone, everyone becomes determined to have some sort of a connection to him, even if it’s feeble.
During the chaos that following Connor’s death, Evan unintentionally falls into a web of lies, which is a mistake we’ve all made at one point or another. Rather than correcting his original mistake, Evan allows the lie to deepen. He reasons with his conscience by insisting that he’s lying to help a grieving family. Eventually, what was intended to comfort broken hearts transforms into Evan recreating himself in order to feel visible. Later, in an attempt to use his platform for good and ease his guilty mind, Evan helps launch “The Connor Project.”
However, as Evan’s web of deception unravels, we see the lie that began it all, the infamous letter, looming in the backdrop. Evan has everything he wanted, friends, something that resembles a family, and his dream girl. But, slowly, he realizes at what cost he’s reached his goals. He realizes he’s no better than his classmates who sold memorial buttons with pictures of their departed peer, Connor, to gain capital. The lie begins to eat him up and the truth finally comes out. While Evan’s fate could simply be boiled down to a simple message: honesty is the best policy; there’s an obvious larger, overall meaning for high school teens watching.
The central idea truly ties together in the epilogue of the performance. Evan meets Connor’s sister, the girl who evidently suffers the most from his lie. We learn that despite their past hardships, they’ve both taken the best of what they could from their situations. They’ve learned to accept the hard realities of life that we all so often try to cover up with lies particularly, that sometimes we are alone, but being alone doesn’t mean we are hopeless. “Dear Evan Hansen” doesn’t make the mistake of putting a Band-Aid on Evan’s life with a feeble happily ever after conclusion.
In the end, Evan loses “everything he ever wanted” but he learns that “At least you are you, and that’s enough.”