Beyond the 6 Tony Awards and the record setting box office, what’s fascinating about the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” is how it gets an audience to care.
Or maybe to put a finer point on it, the extraordinary lengths it goes to, to give a jaded audience permission to emotionally connect with the earnest dreams at its core. Those dreams, when you strip away the first couple of layers, are pretty traditional - boy gets girl, happy family, the dedication of a mother.
Things start out simply.
Evan Hansen, the teenager, is an extremely anxious son of a single, working mom, so anxious - he takes pills for it. He’s about to start his senior year and he thoroughly expects it to be another friendless year filled with all the indignities of high school. Of course, he’s got an unattainable crush, Zoe, who’s got a smile that could melt the world.
Jump cut to Zoe’s house where Zoe’s brother Connor, who’s probably high, doesn’t want to start his first day of senior year. Mom and dad seem a typical mix of over-bearing and terribly distant.
So far, fairly traditional, right? (well except for the pills and the pot).
You can feel the basic structure of the journey beginning to take shape. We’ve got an underdog with a long-shot love story and family redemption all tee’d up.
Here’s where the traditional meets a modern theatre audience. If “Dear Evan Hansen” was written 50 years ago - that’d be enough. We’d have a typical musical theatre arc and be done.
But the events that energize “Dear Evan Hansen”’s plot are a teen suicide and a lie.
It’s a tragedy in and of itself that teen suicide is so prevalent, it’s now fodder for a Broadway musical. What’s even more revealing is that the rest of the evening is made possible by a lie. Everything that comes after it, is built on that lie. It’s an understandable lie, perhaps even a noble one.
Without giving away too much all the “good stuff” that happens to Evan Hansen is a result of that lie.
That lie is a smart dramaturgical device. It adds tension to the story and sets up a classical final act reversal. That lie is also what lets a 21st century audience engage and care. It’s a lie that almost says “we know this isn’t how America works, where the underdog succeeds and a family is happy. We get it…but you can allow yourself to care because it’s not real.”
While the audience watches ‘boy gets girl’, ‘kids do right’ and ‘family finds love’ there’s a little escape hatch for an audience skeptical of the sentimental - it’s all built on a lie and it can all come crashing down in an instant.
I’m not sure if we should be cheering “Dear Evan Hansen” or lamenting the fact that this is what it takes to get an audience to care these days.
Either way “Dear Evan Hansen” pulls at your heart and delivers on every front. It’s even the kind of show you should take your teenagers to (as long as you’re comfortable talking about suicide and anxiety and drugs
- you know, modern life?).
If you can get a ticket, don’t miss this one.
“Dear Evan Hansen” plays at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown through November 25th.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy