Even though I have a singing voice that resembles the Kraken awakening from a thousand-year nap, I sometimes sing in the shower, or if I am playing music while I wash the dishes. A great friend of mine has an annual birthday karaoke party (now canceled for the past two pandemic years, sadly) and I always get just drunk enough so I can rip into “Creep” from Radiohead at that. But what I don’t do is, I don’t suddenly break into Sondheim over my baked beans—perhaps you and I differ on that front. Maybe I am missing out. Neither did I ever belt my innermost feelings at my high school guidance counselor, and I have not waltzed with the woman behind the counter at the drugstore. Not that I can recall, anyway.
This sort of lunatic behavior is tolerated inside the world of the Musical, Stage or Cinematic—it’s encouraged, even. That’s because every Musical, no matter how kitchen-sink they might be, lives in its own reality, and every Musical asks of us that approval and acquiescence. We make that bargain going in—here is a place where a pirouette or gleeful yodel at the coffee shop won’t be met with side-eyes, no frantic calls to 9-1-1. Hell, the barista will probably join in, and something whimsical may happen involving foam art as a transition between scenes to boot.
It’s a tightrope walked by the genre, and its precariousness swings wildly, even from viewer to viewer—some people will accept it right away, and some need to be convinced. I tend to fall toward the latter camp myself, I’ll admit that up front, but I think we can all agree that the bargain I speak of exists—that in order for a Musical to work, it needs to be convincing in its case of a coherent world where the audience buys what is being sold. We’ll meet you on your terms if your terms don’t cast themselves into immediate doubt. If your movie doesn’t, oh let’s say, just for argument’s sake mind you, cast the uncanniest not-teenager as its leading teenager, dropping him PEN15-style into a place where he clearly does not belong, and then have him twitch and sleaze his way through the skeeziest sociopath plot this side of a Todd Solondz film, sans any self-awareness.
Which brings me, three paragraphs of deflection in, to Dear Evan Hansen, the Tony-award-winning musical that’s been brought to the big screen this weekend by director Stephen Chbosky (whose film The Perks of Being a Wallflower is truly wonderful), starring original Broadway star Ben Platt, an actor and singer who is also now a definite and clear case of 27 years old. We’ve all no doubt seen the memes that popped up in the wake of the film’s first trailer—the Steve Buscemi skateboard NARCs stretching from here to Uranus and back—so I don’t think I’m telling you something new when I say that Ben Platt’s age turned out to be a problem. Just how much of a problem though, well—the story digs it own grave, as far as I’m concerned. If the character of Evan Hansen maybe wasn’t such a creep on the page, Platt might have been able to squirm out of its logical pretzels—alas!
If you’re unaware, the story of Dear Evan Hansen is as follows: Evan Hansen has emotional problems and has been seeing a therapist. The therapist recommends that Evan Hansen write letters to himself—say hello to the “Dear Evan Hansen” title conceit—to get his jumble of thoughts and feelings out. Another unwell teenager named Connor (Colton Ryan) who has been bullying Evan at school finds one of these letters in the school printer, runs off with it, and then, uhh, promptly kills himself. When Connor’s grieving and shocked parents (a lovely Amy Adams and Danny Pino) discover the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter on their son’s body, they assume it’s a suicide note, and beg Evan to fill in information about their unbeknownst-to-anybody (since it didn’t exist) relationship. And so Evan lies, first to spare their feelings, then because he’s getting attention. Oh, and also because he says he’s hot for Connor’s sister Zoe (an also lovely Kaitlin Dever). It all spirals spectacularly out of control from there, lie atop lie, until in its final dramatic act, the entire house of cards crumbles down upon poor poor Evan’s head. And never has a character more deserved things crashing down upon their head.
Having seen Dear Evan Hansen on stage and been repulsed by it even at that time, I’ll admit there’s a read of it that has always fascinated me—the one where Evan’s sociopathic behavior can be explained, up to a certain point anyway, by the character being a deeply repressed homosexual. It’s a read that this tone-deaf piece of work adamantly represses every moment it can, giving Evan an openly gay friend Jared (Nik Dodani) who chorus-like comments upon the repressed gayness of everything happening as a series of “jokes.” But Dear Evan Hansen’s bone-deep sense of gay panic about itself only further convinces me that eyeing Evan’s abysmal behavior as that of a person entirely disassociated from his inner self, frantically filling in the dirt behind his every step no matter who this process leads off a cliff—well, that’s a behavior I could actually relate to. That’s a thing I have gone through myself. It’s not great, but it’s explicable at least.
As is, however, Dear Evan Hansen insists instead through its series of treacly songs full of bumper sticker platitudes that the inexplicable is enough—that we are somehow meant to find any of Evan Hansen’s behavior comprehensible, relatable, human. That these are things that people do, goshdarnit, oh that ol’ human fallibility, foibles and such. It’s offensive to be honest, this off-the-mark insistence of it; its determination to paint mental illness as a plot device, suicide as an inspiration, and gussy up abusive behavior with a stampede of indistinguishably saccharine ballads that stomp out anything approaching genuine feeling or truth. If musicals at their best are meant to lift us into a divine space where our frailties and realness crystallize into something bigger, something swooning and epic and sparkling above the stage, Dear Evan Hansen wields that power to the tune of truth’s exact opposite—it’s a feel-good bed of lies. So if it takes one monumentally dumb casting choice at the film’s heart to unmask all of this for good, well then, perhaps we’re better off in the end.
Dear Evan Hansen is available in theaters as of Sept. 24, 2021.
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