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“I had never seen anything like this concept before,” says VOX ATL’s Taj McKnight about the set design of “Dear Evan Hansen” and its movable parts. “So it definitely made me excited to see more innovation in technology in the world of musical theatre.”

Is ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Our Generation’s ‘Rent?’

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“Dear Evan Hansen” is a coming of age tale about high school senior Evan and his struggle of pretending to be best friends with recently deceased classmate Connor Murphy. Eventually, Evan becomes the Murphy family’s new surrogate son while creating a new suicide prevention charity organization in Connor’s name. The kicker to the story is that Evan effectively lies to everyone around him about being Connor’s friend when, in fact, they never knew each other. This musical has won 20 awards, including a Tony for Best Musical and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. Fun Fact: A YA novelization of “Dear Evan Hansen,” written by Val Emmich came out in 2018.

You’ve read the title so you already know what’s coming. Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” is a 1996 Broadway musical following a group of young New Yorkers struggling with their careers, love lives and the effects of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980’s. That is all I’ll say about “Rent” because it is actually my favorite musical in the entire world. I find myself humming “Seasons of Love” and “Rent” at random times.

Personally, I was not alive when “Rent” came out (if I was, I’d have to be kept back quite a few years to even be able to write this article) so I can’t speak to personal experiences which lie at the height of its glory but I know it was a big deal. “Rent” has won the Tony for Best Musical and a Pulitzer for drama, it ran for a full 12 years, and it inspired many artists, like “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, to get into the Broadway biz.

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OK, Taj, calm down. You wrote two paragraphs about “Rent” but this is supposed to be a “Dear Evan Hansen” review, right?

Right.

JUXTAPOSITION TIME. Is “Dear Evan Hansen” this generation’s “Rent?” (I just noticed that I like to compare things. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read my “Into the Spider-Verse” VS “Black Panther” article from last year). The truth is, I’m undecided. A lot of people adore “Dear Evan Hansen” but I wasn’t really sold on it (I also noticed that I have a lot of unpopular opinions — check out my negative “Hamilton” review).

I mean, they were singing and acting, you know like they do in musicals, but it didn’t have that classic feel to me that “Rent” will always convey to me even though it’s over 20 years old.

I’m not saying that I hated the play, I thought it was really well done. The set was amazing, probably the best I’ve seen in a play so far. As you know, plays have to move pretty fast and don’t have time to completely remodel their sets during the show. Because of this, one set will be built to last the whole show, or at least until intermission. “DEH” does this pretty well by separating the set into two parts, the movables and the screens. The moveables included bed frames, sofas, desks, or tables in order to show the audience where the location is set and allow for the actors to interact with the items. The overhead screens were huge glass screens dropped from the top of the stage. These windows represented our phones and technology, filled with Facebook or Instagram feeds. These brought the audience into the musical’s social media-filled world.

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Say, for example, one of the characters is filming a cell phone or laptop video on stage in a scene. That video recording will also play on the screens, giving you a sense of what the viewer is seeing. I had never seen anything like this concept before so it definitely made me excited to see more innovation in technology in the world of musical theatre.

All in all, I’d give “Dear Evan Hansen” a three out of five stars. The story was new with an interesting choice for the protagonist (let’s just say I was not rooting for him, throughout the play but I recognized the intentions of the writers). The next time “Dear Evan Hansen“ is in town at the Fox Theatre, make sure you check it out or when the film eventually comes out (Universal Pictures has acquired the feature film rights to the musical) so make sure you see that as well.

Taj McKnight, 15, is a sophomore at Maynard Jackson High School, who is elated at the thought of reviewing the newly announced “High School Musical” series being planned for the new Disney+ streaming service.  

VOX teens experienced a matinee performance of “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Fox Theatre, thanks to the generosity of VOX community partners Most Valuable Kids of Greater Atlanta and Broadway in Atlanta.

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