Dear Evan Hansen Review: How This Modern Musical Explores Mental Illness in Teenagers
*WARNING* This article may be triggering for those who sensitive to the subject of suicide and mental illness.
*This review is based off official footage from the Original Broadway show and the West-End production of Dear Evan Hansen, and will include spoilers for the show.*
Dear Evan Hansen is an emotional musical written by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson about a teenage boy, plagued by anxiety, who ends up caught in a web of lies after a letter to himself (assigned by his therapist) is mistaken for another student’s suicide note. This student, known as Connor Murphy, finds the letter after a brief interaction with Evan, and lashes out at him upon discovering that Evan is attracted to his sister Zoe. Later, Connor is found dead, still carrying the letter. His parents believe that the letter was written to Evan by Connor, and quickly become close with him in an attempt to find out more about their estranged son. Evan struggles to admit the truth to them, and instead pretends to be Connor’s friend, leading him to create a fake thread of emails from one another and even creating an online campaign for his late ‘best friend’. This show features beautifully composed, tear-jerking numbers about parenthood, grief, the repercussions of social media and the struggles that teenagers face whilst trying to feel ‘seen’.
Evan was originated by the incredibly talented Ben Platt, who brings the anxiety-ridden character to life; nervous ticks and all. Ben Platt managed to sing incredibly emotional pieces whilst crying on stage every night, and the character resonated with thousands of teenagers who have dealt with anxiety and abandonment throughout their lives. He was extremely believable in the role, even causing him to mess up his posture from the constant hunching over he did on stage as the anxious teen. He had the body language down to a fine art, constant blinking, fast breathing, fiddling with his clothes and hunched shoulders; all physical symptoms of anxiety. He is very relatable, and you can’t help but feel empathy for him, despite the trail of lies he leaves whilst trying not to disappoint Connor’s family. Platt also deserves props for singing so beautifully whilst literally sobbing, as that isn’t an easy thing to do.
In the show we get to see more from the parent’s point of view than you typically do in an angsty musical aimed at teenagers. This musical really allows you to see the plot from everybody’s point of view. Everybody but Connor’s, that is. Connor and Zoe’s parents show the audience how difficult it can be to connect with your teenage children at times, and how heart-wrenching it is to grieve for the loss of a child. We also get to hear about the struggles of parenthood from a single mother, working hard to provide for her family whilst struggling with being able to physically be there for her son at the same time. Rebecca McKinnis originated the role of Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mother, and her emotional numbers (especially her duet with Platt) are enough to bring anyone to tears. Essentially, be prepared to cry a lot when you see this show. Yes, when. Seriously, why have you not watched it yet?
Evan is one of the most honest depictions of a person dealing with extreme anxiety I’ve ever seen in any form of media. I heard the soundtrack years before ever seeing the show (perks of living in the UK), and I immediately connected with the songs before I even knew the context. When I heard Waving Through A Window for the first time, I immediately related to Evan, and continued to relate to him when I listened to the rest of the album, and then saw the show. Evan isn’t a perfectly-polished, sugar-coated version of someone dealing with mental illnesses; on stage he sobs, shakes, fidgets, hunches his shoulders and withdraws himself from everyone he interacts with. Just watching him breaks your heart, especially if you understand what he’s going through. The raw emotion and shakiness in Platt’s voice perfectly encompasses how it feels to feel alone, unseen and like you’re not good enough. His body language is so convincing, it’s hard to believe that the person you’re watching is just acting.
What’s even more interesting about his character? He makes mistakes and actually has to deal with the consequences. Because of his dad leaving at a young age, he jumps at the opportunity to bond with a father-figure and fit in with a family who is able to be around each other all of the time. He even starts to resent his own hard-working mother, because he just wants her attention and she has to work all of the time. He starts to enjoy the luxuries that he’s gained by being ‘friends’ with Connor, and no longer wants to tell the truth until he is forced to. He continuously lies, because he doesn’t know what else to do. He hurts people, and he admits his mistakes. After the truth comes out, he takes the rest of the year out of school and gives Zoe, the girl he loves, space to recover from the pain that he caused and works on himself. Evan never expects Zoe to forgive him, but he accepts that he messed up, forgives himself and instead learns from the experience. Even after everything that had happened, he doesn’t give up on himself. He decides to hold on and keep going ‘till he sees the sun’.
As for Connor himself, he is a character that I couldn’t stop thinking about. After seeing multiple debates online about how good of a person he really was, I decided had to voice my thoughts about him as a character. Connor is the product of a society that ignores teenagers that need professional help with their mental health and then hashtags ‘mental health awareness’ after that teenager commits suicide. Though it’s never actually stated, nor confirmed in the show that Connor is suffering from a specific mental illness, it is highly implied that he does, or at least deals with some form of anger issues. We are told that he had a fit of rage in a classroom as a child, and had seemingly random outbursts of anger towards his sister Zoe.
Before he dies, we see him turn on Evan in the school hallway, paranoid that he is being made fun of, as well as when he sees Evan’s letter and assumes that Evan left it for him to find out about Evan's crush on his sister. Though this could be a side effect of his evident drug use, it seems that his angry outbursts are triggered by paranoia, which may be a by-product of a mental illness. Plus, his first noted outburst happened when he was a child, before the age that people typically discover drugs. His mother even admits later in the show that he had made another suicide attempt before his death, but his father ultimately decided that he shouldn’t see a therapist.
I personally believe that people don’t just starting taking drugs for no reason, and drug use is often caused by other issues in a person’s life, like untreated mental health problems. We know that Connor didn’t have any friends, his family never got him professional help and he had been having these outbursts for years, so it isn’t difficult to see why he may have felt that drugs were a way for him to cope. However, nobody in the show bothers to try and figure out if there were deeper issues that Connor was dealing with. Everyone just assumes that he is a ‘monster’, whilst either ignoring the problem, arguing with him or tip-toeing around the issue. Even after his death, nobody really tries to understand him, instead creating a fake version of him in their minds for them to mourn over.
That being said, people are still allowed to feel hurt over Connor’s actions, and I like that the show allows Connor’s family to process their anger while they grieve. Zoe admits that Connor had put her through a lot while he was alive, and she gives herself permission to process things her own way, rather than how everyone else is expecting her to. Nobody tells her that she should just forget all of her awful memories of her brother and paint him as a saint. She gives herself permission to be more than just the sister of somebody that commited suicide, and takes her life back. Zoe goes on to build her own relationships, reconnects with her family and allows herself to think about her own life for a change.
Though Evan’s lies create a faux version of her brother in her mind, she admits that it helped bring their family together, and think of Connor as more than just the surface of what they saw, more than just a monster; a person with deeper thoughts and issues preventing him from connecting with his family the way he wanted to. This version of Connor may be fake, but it reminds us that there was still a possibility that he really did want to connect with others, but was prevented by other things going on in his life. We are given a hint that this side of him may have existed at the beginning of the show, when he brings Evan his letter back and signs his cast. I can’t help but wonder if Connor was given professional help earlier, would he still be alive? Would he have finally connected with his family, made friends and become closer to the version of him that Evan tells everyone he was?
I remember reading a news article not so long ago about a teenager who threatened to shoot himself in his school, and by actually talking to him and offering him help, a teacher was able to prevent him from taking his own life. Now imagine if every teenager dealing with mental illnesses were offered help. Situations like these could be prevented every day in real life. Because despite it seeming unlikely that these situations happen often, there are thousands of teenagers in the world who are dealing with undiagnosed mental illnesses, and even those who are diagnosed and either can’t afford or aren't given access to mental health practitioners. If these teenagers were offered help, there would be less people in the world who grow up to be like Connor.
If we’ve learned anything from Dear Evan Hansen, it’s that you are never alone and there are thousands of other people out there who feel the way you do and are willing to help you. Nobody deserves to be forgotten, and if you hold on you will find that there are lots of wonderful things to discover and people to meet. The one thing that everybody secretly wants is to connect with other people, and if you reach out to somebody, you may just save their life. Don’t wait until someone is gone to post about what a great person they were and how much you wished you’d gotten to get to know them more. Reach out now and get to know them. You’ll soon realise that you’re not as invisible as you think.
If you haven’t seen this eye-opening show yet, I highly urge you to. Dear Evan Hansen is currently performing on Broadway, the West End, and touring the US.
Get your tickets here:
If you’ve dealt with any of the issues mentioned in this article, please reach out to someone. Here are some hotlines you can call if you’re in a crisis situation:
(UK) Samaritans crisis line: 116 123
(US toll-free) The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
List of international suicide hotlines: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html