Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Dear Evan Hansen


I finally saw the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen last weekend. I drove down to Seattle’s historic Paramount Theater with my daughter and nephew.

Pop Quiz Question: Which Dear Evan Hansen song reduced me to a weepy mess ten minutes before the finale, and why? 


I’ve loved musicals for as long as I can remember. As a child, my parents took me to see Anne of Green Gables at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. In junior high, I “accidentally” kept Brigham City Public Library’s copy of the Oklahoma soundtrack so I could finish memorizing it. A terrifying proportion of my brain’s storage space is devoted to showtunes. 

All kinds of showtunes. I’ve played Charlie Brown and Nicely Nicely Johnson. I’ve seen dozens of original casts on Broadway, from Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods, to Kristen and Idina in Wickedto the delightful Shakespearean blasphemy of Something Rotten. 

Sadly, the days of fabulous theater trips to New York and London are long gone. But I love musicals and plays for their own sake, not for the chandeliers and helicopters.

During law school in the late 1980s, admittedly I paid money to see Cats at the Winter Garden Theater on BroadwayIn my defense, I was hosting out-of-town tourists and couldn’t talk them out of it. My standards are no longer negotiable. For theater, at least.


Nevertheless, nowadays I see musicals differently.

Almost fourteen years ago, having kids meant giving up my theater trips and season ticket subscriptions. When my children were a little older and I was a partner in my Seattle law firm, I started going to a few shows again – often bringing my drama queen daughter as my date. But ever since our move to Bellingham and my subsequent reversals of fortune, musicals have been a rare treat.

Regardless of quantity, I still insist on good theater. I’m indifferent to the quality of numerous other products, like cars and clothing. But I maintain impeccable standards when it comes to my few remaining vices – whether it’s baked goods, fruit juice, or theater tickets. If a musical is going to tempt me out of my dad-cave, that musical had better be good. And I want a comfortable seat where I can see and hear everything. Ideally orchestra center. 

My frugal mother bought our Dear Evan Hansen tickets on sale as a Christmas present for the other showtune fans in the family. Not that I’m complaining – my daughter, nephew, and I enjoyed a great play and an amazing daytrip to Seattle together. Grandma herself missed out on the show because she’s snowbirding in Hawaii this month.

Don’t tell my mother this, but when we got to our seats at the Paramount, Eleanor announced, “I’ve never been in the balcony of a theater with Papa before!”


I also see musicals differently in other ways. In the old days, I would do my homework before seeing a major musical for the first time. I would track down the source material and New York Times reviews, then listen for tiny vocal differences between the London and New York cast albums. I wanted to be the perfectly prepared audience member.

Nowadays I take the opposite approach. As soon as the back pages of Entertainment Weekly hint there’s some new Broadway phenomenon in the pipeline, I immediately impose a complete moratorium on spoilers. When the curtain finally goes up, I want to listen to each great new musical with completely fresh ears. (Unless you count all the other musicals my ears have already heard.)

My embargo on info about Dear Evan Hansen was surprisingly effective. Before Saturday at the Paramount Theater, my expectations were for a Broadway musical, about a teenager with a cast on his arm, in a blue palette. 

Warned by online headlines, I even managed to avoid exposure to Dear Evan Hansen’s
affirming anthem “You Will Be Found.” I hear there’s a popular mash-up version combining “You Will Be Found” with some song from Hamilton. Whatever a “Hamilton” is. (Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know until I find a job where I can finally afford tickets.)


The other musical theater fans in my family do not share my attitude about avoiding spoilers. To the contrary, as we drove south on I-5 in Grandma’s borrowed Honda, both my daughter and my nephew were listening on headphones to the original cast album of Dear Evan Hansen. Again.

As a family, we agreed that during the performance at the Paramount there would be no audible singing in the mezzanine. But it’s okay to silently mouth lyrics if you know a song.


I had an amazing encounter with Dear Evan Hansen on Saturday.

Two days later, now that I’ve listened to the original cast album a million times myself, I’m even more impressed with Dear Evan Hansen as a well-constructed theatrical contraption. The play has a cast of just eight characters, who are arranged and rearranged in rapidly shifting combinations. The audience watches and listens while a handful of powerful themes and metaphors ricochet among them. It works.

But that’s the old-fashioned English Major in me talking.

“Mindfulness” is about living fully in the present moment – as they say in Rent, “No day but today.” The magic of live theater comes from the fact that every performance, even of a musical you already know by heart, is a singular experience – shared by these performers and this audience, here and now.

Much of Dear Evan Hansen’s impact came from the direct experience of hearing and seeing a powerful theatrical story unfold in real time, while sitting next to my daughter and nephew in the darkness of a restored old Seattle theater.


So what's this musical about?

First, Dear Evan Hansen deals frankly with mental illness. I appreciated how the play didn’t get distracted with details about which characters might be diagnosed as anxious, depressed, or some other specific disorder. Instead, the playwright respectfully presents people in deep distress, regardless of its root causes.

Of course, Dear Evan Hansen also is a well-crafted contemporary musical comedy, not a Greek tragedy. I’m happy to report It Gets Better and #YouWillBeFound. Nevertheless, the play takes mental illness seriously, and ultimately earns its affirming message. 

That still wasn’t enough to make me cry.


Before arriving at the theater, I already had one of the songs from Dear Evan Hansen accidentally memorized.

For the last couple of years, the highlight of my week was Showtunes Night at a piano bar in Vancouver. Each Wednesday, several regulars would request the charming “Waving Through a Window.” For some reason, I thought the song came from another of the many other new musicals my children caused me to miss. In the weeks before the piano bar’s tragic closure last month, I learned to improvise various harmonies to the song.

“Waving Through a Window” is about the kind of profound social anxiety that prevents a person from participating fully in the human tribe. If I’d known “Waving Through a Window” was from Dear Evan Hansen, I would have avoided it by going outside to hang with the smokers. Instead, I was able to mouth all the words along with my daughter and nephew. Silently.

ON THE OUTSIDE ALWAYS LOOKIN’ IN
WILL I EVER BE MORE THAN I’VE ALWAYS BEEN? 
‘CAUSE I’M TAP-TAP-TAPPIN’ ON THE GLASS 
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-WATCHIN’ PEOPLE PASS 
WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW
OH
CAN ANYBODY SEE?
IS ANYBODY WAVING?

BACK AT ME 

Songwriters: Benj Pasek / Justin Paul
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd

I watched Evan Hansen’s painful social struggles with a great deal of empathy. Still, “Waving Through a Window” didn’t make me cry. Maybe it’s because my own mental health is so much better lately. 

Or maybe it’s because I'd watched the first episode of Sex Education on Netflix the night beforeLike Dear Evan Hansen, this new British import begins with an excruciatingly shy boy on the first day of senior year, at a posh school where he’s a complete outsider, other than one loser friend and the girl he secretly has a crush on. Unlike Dear Evan Hansen, in Sex Education the gawky teen’s single mother is a famous sex therapist (elegantly played by X-Files’ Gillian Andersen), and the son’s trauma comes from his mother’s complete lack of boundaries. 

So much more relatable.


Dear Evan Hansen is also about the power of writing.

Before we saw the show, I didn’t even realize where the musical’s title came from. But it didn’t take long to figure out that Evan Hansen’s therapist had suggested Evan use journal writing to help him work through his issues. Evan’s assignment is to write affirming letters to himself, which begin “Dear Evan Hansen….” 

We learn about Evan’s writing therapy assignment from the portentous opening lines of the musical, before anyone even starts singing. Overwhelmed single mother Heidi Hansen begins the play by nagging her son:

Have you been writing those letters to yourself? “Dear Evan Hansen, This is gonna be a good day and here’s why.” 

Dear Evan Hansen goes on to show how writing is central to human invention and reinvention. 

Writing also can be an effective form of therapy. As Emily Esfahani Smith observes in her recent best-seller The Power of Meaning, “Mental illness is often the result of a person’s inability to tell a good story about his or her life….  One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise, and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”  

Evan Hansen’s fictional counselor and my own insightful physician Dr. Heuristic are not alone in prescribing writing as therapy. As Smith notes, multiple peer-reviewed studies demonstrate that “this form of therapy is as effective as antidepressants or CBT….  We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we’re telling them.” Some of us learn to write for our lives.


There’s yet another reason I approach theater differently than I did during my fabulous gay uncle phase. Did you realize most of the Western canon is actually about parenthood? HamletOedipus Rex, Oliver!, Les Misérables....  Who knew?

Despite being an English major, I never really noticed great literature’s parent-child obsession until after I had kids myself. Now I see it everywhere.

Dear Evan Hansen was no different. And it’s not just me projecting. Obviously Evan himself is at the center of the musical. But so are an array of parent-child dynamics. For example, look back at the beginning of Dear Evan Hansen’s original cast album. What happens immediately after Heidi Hansen casually mentions her son’s “Dear Evan Hansen” therapeutic letter-writing assignment? (Before she draws Chekhov's gun on Evan's cast with a Sharpie.) 

A song, of course.

Rather than an ensemble number or an Evan solo, however, the show’s opening song is a powerful duet. "Does Anybody Have a Map?" is sung by two parents:  Evan’s frazzled single mother Heidi and Cynthia Murphy, the affluent but equally overwhelmed homemaker mother of Evan’s troubled classmate Connor:

SO WHERE’S THE MAP?
I NEED A CLUE
‘CAUSE THE SCARY TRUTH IS
I’M FLYIN’ BLIND
AND I’M MAKING THIS UP AS I GO 

Songwriters: Benj Pasek / Justin Paul
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd


Dear Evan Hansen begins and ends with parenthood. At least for me. 

After Evan’s reinvention schemes inevitably collapse, Heidi joins Evan’s other betrayed loved ones to confront him in the angry “Good For You.”

But in their last scene together, it’s just mother and son. Heidi delivers a raw monologue confessing how hard she struggles, and how often she fails. 

I can pinpoint the exact moment in Dear Evan Hansen when I lost it. At the end of her speech, Heidi cried something like “You’re the only good thing that’s ever happened to me!”

I continued weeping as Heidi sang “So Big / So Small,” about the day when Evan was seven years old, and his father drove away to start a new life without them:

IT WAS A FEBRUARY DAY
WHEN YOUR DAD CAME BY, BEFORE GOING AWAY
A U-HAUL TRUCK IN THE DRIVEWAY
NOW IT'S JUST ME AND MY LITTLE GUY

THAT NIGHT, I TUCKED YOU INTO BED
I WILL NEVER FORGET HOW YOU SAT UP AND SAID
"IS THERE ANOTHER TRUCK COMING TO OUR DRIVEWAY?
A TRUCK THAT WILL TAKE MOMMY AWAY"

AND THE HOUSE FELT SO BIG, AND I FELT SO SMALL

AND I KNEW THERE WOULD BE MOMENTS THAT I'D MISS
AND I KNEW THERE WOULD BE SPACE I COULDN'T FILL
AND I KNEW I'D COME UP SHORT A BILLION DIFFERENT WAYS
AND I DID
AND I DO
AND I WILL

BUT LIKE THAT FEBRUARY DAY
I WILL TAKE YOUR HAND, SQUEEZE IT TIGHTLY AND SAY
THERE'S NOT ANOTHER TRUCK IN THE DRIVEWAY
YOUR MOM ISN'T GOING ANYWHERE
YOUR MOM IS STAYING RIGHT HERE
NO MATTER WHAT
I'LL BE HERE

Songwriters: Benj Pasek / Justin Paul
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd


In the scene right before “So Big / So Small,” for the last time Evan Hansen sings one of his own powerful solo anthems. It’s a beautiful song, but it didn’t make me cry. As Evan sings, “Words Fail.” 

I’m a writer, I already knew that. But true love never fails.


Caritas numquam excidit



More responses to Dear Evan Hansen:

   "The Shelf Life of Metaphor" (1/31/19)
   "Another Dear Evan Hansen Update" (2/3/19)
   "Three Evan Hansens" (2/19/19)




3 comments:

  1. I don't remember when All Hamilton All the Time segued into Michael in the Bathroom but my daughter Sylvia got hooked. Les Mis is as far back as she will go, though.

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  2. So tonight I gave Sylvia the highlights of this post and she was appalled that I thought that Michael in the Bathroom was from Dear Evan Hansen when it is actually from Be More Chill. Dad fail.

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  3. Ha I had to google it myself. Dads are so out of touch.

    ReplyDelete