Last Wednesday I was watching a preview of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” in New York, and I had more tears in my eyes than at any other Broadway show. But I was not the only one – almost every person in the intermission bathroom line had noticeably teared up. For me, and I assume most other people, these were not the typical I-feel-so-sorry-for-the-protagonist kind of tears. No, the tears were much more personal.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical written by Steven Levenson with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The show premiered in Washington, D.C. a year ago and then moved Off-Broadway before its official Broadway premiere on December 4, 2016.
Evan Hansen, the tragic hero of the story, brilliantly played by the talented Ben Platt (“Pitch Perfect,” “The Book of Mormon”), is a high school student who experiences strong anxiety, and his socially awkward personality makes it considerably harder for him to connect with anyone. Evan sees a therapist who asks him to write affirming letters to himself to build some much-needed self-confidence. When Evan finally puts together his first letter, the tragedy continues to evolve. The letter – mostly an expression of loneliness and helplessness that ended with the line “Would anyone even notice if I disappeared tomorrow?” – gets in the hands of Connor, another outsider. Connor squeezes the letter in his pocket, and before running off signs the cast on Evan’s arm in large letters. Subsequently, Connor commits suicide and is found with Evan’s note, letting Connor’s parents believe it was meant to be a goodbye letter to Evan. The letter and the prominent signature on Evan’s cast put some light into the life of Connor’s grieving family, who so far felt that he had not had any companions by any means. Now, Evan is not only confronted with high levels of anxiety, but also with a huge dilemma: Should he explain the misunderstanding to the family and take away their hopes or should he tell them what they want to hear? The fact that Connor’s family also includes the girl Evan has a secret crush on does not make this decision any easier.
Evan decides to go with the lie and over the course of the plot gets further down the rabbit hole, involving fake emails between the two boys and more and more made up stories about their friendship. In the meantime, however, Evan builds more self-confidence and feels a sense of belonging to Connor’s wealthy family who treat him like their son. Evan’s mother, who is working long hours to be able to afford taking care of her son, is left with embarrassment as her son chose to fill a gap in a family that is better off financially. What follows is a movement in Evan’s and Connor’s high school and later in social media that gives the lonely outsiders in high school and life a voice. This campaign, called “The Connor Project,” is the centerpiece of the set design. Throughout the show, Social Media notifications, Tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos and other snippets appear on numerous displays.
The use of social media is more than a gimmick to translate a story into modern times. It is a compelling representation of the irony in our world: While social media platforms have the power to connect people, they also have the potential to promote lower self-esteem and feelings of loneliness. Studies have shown that Facebook, Instagram, and Co can trigger us to engage in social comparison, i.e. have us compare our own life to the lives we see others live on social media. Particularly in the dull and lonely moments of life, seeing an endless number of highlight reels (wedding pictures, vacation snaps, party photos…) can lead to unhappiness and sometimes even depression.
But I’m not advocating to get off Facebook. Social media is only amplifying what has existed way before the Internet days and what has ultimately caused all those tears in the theater: the anxiety and loneliness that even the most connected of us feel from time to time.
While at business school, and being in an environment that embraces vulnerability up to the point that it becomes a bit of a buzz word, I became painfully aware how much the experiences and roles we had growing up still shape our self-image as adults. In talks and class discussions, most of my friends emphasized how they were not ‘the popular kid’ but more of an outsider in middle and high school. While we all have grown, and many have celebrated tremendous successes since then, the fear of not fitting in and not being likable, intelligent, good looking or outgoing enough is still in many of us from time to time. And often it feels like we are the only one who feel that way in a room full of seemingly happy people. Listening to others sharing that they have similar struggles can be freeing.
“Dear Evan Hansen” does exactly that. Thanks to Ben Platt’s remarkable portrayal of Evan, the audience experiences an intimate and often uncomfortable display of their own fears and problems. “Waving Through a Window,” one of the songs I found most impactful (you can listen to it here and read the full lyrics here), describes in beautiful words how we sometimes hold back because we fear that we might not be enough. Here’s an excerpt:
I’ve learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me
Give them no reason to stare
No slipping up if you slip away
So I got nothing to share
No, I got nothing to say.
Step out, step out of the sun
If you keep getting burned
Step out, step out of the sun
Because you’ve learned, because you’ve learned.
On the outside always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?
’cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass
I’m waving through a window
I try to speak, but nobody can hear
So I wait around for an answer to appear.
While I’m watch, watch, watching people pass
I’m waving through a window
Oh, can anybody see, is anybody waving
Back at me?
We start with stars in our eyes
We start believing that we belong
But every sun doesn’t rise
And no one tells you where you went wrong.
In spite of the fact that the lyrics and the melodies are often melancholic and the tears are rolling, the musical left me with the same hope and positive feelings I have after an honest conversation with a good friend. The message of the show is perhaps best summarized in its hashtag #YouWillBeFound, reminding us that there is an outsider in every one of us and that we are ‘enough’ the way we are.