It might be April Fools Day, but I am not kidding when I say that “Dear Evan Hansen” is one of the best musicals I have seen in years. The phenomenal Ben Platt portrays Evan Hansen, an awkward, anxiety-ridden, painfully shy teenager, trying to survive his senior year of high school. The story all begins when Evan (Platt) encounters Connor Murphy, excellently portrayed by Mike Faist, in the computer lab at school one day. While Evan is printing out one of his daily pep-talk letters to himself, at the suggestion of his therapist, Connor snatches it from the printer. He laughs at Evan and then stuffs the note into his pocket. Noticing that no one has signed Evan’s cast for his broken arm, Connor obnoxiously scrawls his name on it, taking up the entire blank area.
You may be wondering how an entire story can unfold from this single encounter, but we soon discover that Connor’s psychological sadness and anxiety are far more severe than Evan’s, and Connor kills himself within the first few minutes of the play. Connor’s family finds the letter in his pocket, and everyone takes it as a suicide note, jumping to the conclusion that he and Evan were great friends. After all, the note did begin with “Dear Evan Hansen.” In their extreme grief, Connor’s family reaches out to Evan, hoping he can remind them of times when Connor was happier and why he decided to take his own life.
Evan has never been noticed by anyone at school before, but as soon as everyone finds out about the letter, assuming Connor wrote it to Evan, he instantly becomes popular. The musical brilliantly hits the concept of grief on the head— including the narcissism often involved when a young person dies. Every student at school wants to connect themselves to the deceased, despite the fact that none of them knew Connor, and at times, many bullied him. Connor’s parents thank Evan for being such a good friend to Connor in his time of darkness, and even though Evan tries to tell the truth, his social anxiety overtakes him. Evan cannot bear to tell them that the letter was not written by Connor, for both compassionate and self-serving reasons. He knows that Connor’s parents want to believe that Connor was not just the drug-addicted, dark kid he was. However, Evan has also always had a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe, who is played by Laura Dreyfuss.
Everyone at school finds out about Evan’s (fake!!!!!) friendship with Connor, and suddenly, everyone is talking to him in the halls. An overachieving, ambitious student, Alana, starts a foundation in Connor’s name and appoints herself Co-President. Evan is talked into giving a speech at an assembly by Connor’s parents, and his words became an Internet and social media sensation after someone anonymously posts it on Youtube. Evan Hansen’s popularity is all because of another student’s death. Evan is both happy that he has temporarily escaped his world of being an anxious teen with no friends, but he also feels overwhelming guilt.
Although the musical is often heart wrenching, it is also quite funny at times. The musical’s lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who recently won Academy Awards for their work on “La La Land” are both insightful and humorous. Although all of the songs are catchy, one of my personal favorites is “Sincerely, Me,” which incorporates some much-needed comic relief. Evan’s attempts to write letters to Connor are laugh-out-loud hilarious: “Dear Connor Murphy / Yes, I also miss our talks / Stop doing drugs / Just try to take deep breaths and… go on walks.”
The song “Looking Through a Window,” is much sadder with the beautiful lyrics, “On the outside, always looking in / Will I ever be more than I’ve always been? /… I try to speak, but nobody can hear… / Can anybody see, is anybody waving back at me?” Even the names of some of the other melodies are heartbreaking, such as “You Will Be Found,” “Words Fail,” and “So Big, So Small.” One of the best lyrics from another one of the songs is “No one deserves to be forgotten / No one deserves to fade away.”
The cast’s performance is nothing short of outstanding, but Ben Platt is truly the star of the show. His performance is so incredible and intimate that it almost forces the audience to look away— the vulnerability is so raw, real, and authentic. The set design perfectly echoes the book by Steve Levenson, with social media posts swirling around as fast as Evan’s mind when he realizes that everything he is presenting to the world is a lie. Although he is largely responsible for creating this colossal lie, the audience absolutely empathizes with Evan’s plight.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but “Dear Evan Hansen” is truly a show for the ages— a magnificent masterpiece. It is currently playing at The Music Box Theater in New York City and has a running time of two hours and 30 minutes.