I’ll start with a disclaimer: I have not seen the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I first heard of it when NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour did a review of the Tony Awards that included a clip from Ben Platt’s performance of “Waving Through a Window” that made me instantly look for the soundtrack. (For those of you whose libraries have hoopla, the original Broadway soundtrack is on there. I borrowed it within minutes of hearing that clip on PCHH.)
I then spent the next hour or so listening as I walked around my neighborhood. I absorbed the full soundtrack in one stretch. And the music really resonated with me. The songs are catchy, some of the lyrics are really poignant (as someone who struggles with anxiety, I really connected with “Waving Through a Window”), and the soundtrack genuinely moved me.
The next day I went online and looked up a plot summary. Because as much as I got from the music, I missed some key parts of the story just listening to the songs once. (If you’re not familiar with the plot, Wikipedia has a short summary here.) I had mixed feelings about the hero profiting off of a lie about his supposed friendship with a suicide victim. I don’t agree with Evan’s actions, but I can understand how he got there, fibbing to help Connor’s family cope with their grief. And since I missed so much plot just listening to the songs, I assume the show itself does a better job of showing the consequences of Evan’s actions.
Many critics seem to think so. In addition to winning six Tony Awards, the show received many glowing reviews. But others who have seen the play point out its problematic content. They argue that Evan never has to answer for his lies except to the Murphy family, who all forgive him despite the fact that he took advantage of them when they were grieving, making them his surrogate family because he was unsatisfied with his own living situation. While I heard the opening number, “Does Anybody Have a Map?” as two mothers’ frustrations at not always knowing the right thing to say (which, though I’m not a mother, I sometimes feel in my role as a teen librarian), critics have argued this presents the parents of teens struggling with mental illness as victims. While mental illness affects family members, too, focusing too much on their struggles can diminish the very real struggles of the individual who has a mental illness.
I’m ill-equipped to form a full opinion on this musical until I’ve seen the play myself. I worry that we don’t get to hear from Connor — the real Connor, not the Connor Evan invents for the Murphy family — at all. I worry that Evan may not face enough consequences for his actions, especially since nobody except his mother and the Murphy family learns he lied about his friendship with Connor. But I also genuinely like this music. I see it in the way someone (I believe it was Roxanne Gay, but please correct me if I misattribute this) described misogynistic rap music: she knows the lyrics are horrible, but it’s so catchy, so she’s going to listen to it and sing along.
I know Dear Evan Hansen has problematic aspects. As I said, I can’t form a complete opinion of the show until I’ve seen it. But I do know I still like the songs, and I’m going to let myself listen to and enjoy them, and I’m going to be critical of the play.
Have you seen Dear Evan Hansen? Have you heard the soundtrack? I’d love to hear your thoughts!