We often think of the musical form as frivolous entertainment, an act of escapism where we can immerse ourselves in colour and music and dance for a few hours, revel in the spectacle and forget the world for a bit. Since its inception on the American stage though, the musical has also offered potent access to difficult human emotions and conditions. Perhaps it's something about the act of singing - one of the purest forms of expression - that allows us to face difficult truths and engage in confronting conversations, whether that be about race in 'West Side Story', teenage sexuality in 'Spring Awakening' or mental health in 'Next To Normal'. Rather than being a place of safety, the musical can be as emotionally dense and confronting as any drama.
The 2015 Tony-winning 'Dear Evan Hansen' is one of the most complicated thematic minefields the American musical has seen in a long time, mostly due to its surprising premise. 17-year-old Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, ''Pitch Perfect') suffers from crippling levels of depression and anxiety, but is offered a way out of his isolation when, through a misunderstanding, he is assumed to be the best friend of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a fellow classmate who commits suicide. Despite not knowing Connor at all, Evan plays along with the misunderstanding, concocting an entire fake friendship for the benefit of Connor's parents Cynthia (Amy Adams, 'Arrival') and Larry (Daniel Pino) and especially his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, 'Booksmart'). His fiction begins to pull the shattered family together and give Evan a sense of belonging, despite the fact that everything in this new relationship is built on a lie, not just about who Evan was to Connor, but about who Connor actually was.
There's a lot to unpack here, and a lot of difficult themes to juggle. It would be enough of a task to approach teen depression and anxiety in a musical form, but the musical also deals with suicide, drug addiction, the concept of being a parent, the complications of grief, and the perils of social media as a solution to isolation. On top of that, there is Evan himself, as much a villain as he is a hero, and the success of the work depends entirely on how it walks that line - from the text, from the performer and from the execution. This was the challenge the film adaptation of the beloved musical faced - how to handle the complications of a protagonist you need to love and hate in equal measure.
In 2017, I saw the Broadway production of 'Dear Evan Hansen' with Platt in the role that has made his career, and honestly, the entire experience floored me. I was a shattered mess by the end, battered by the emotional beating the production delivered. The songs by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek ('The Greatest Showman') have all the pop ballad requirements for a hit musical, but the text and the performances wrestled with the problematic questions the story presented. Evan's lie becomes the catalyst, first for collective catharsis and then collective collapse, the realisation that his lies and delusions have allowed others to construct their own to both uplifting and devastating effect. At the heart of this is Evan, a character suffering from such extreme levels of isolation and loneliness that he'll do anything, anything to escape this prison. What he does is unforgivable, no question, but there was context to his actions. I remember sitting in the theatre and recalling my own experiences of being a lonely kid, shivering with desperation to have any friends I could turn to or talk to. I dreamed of having someone come and rescue me, and watching Evan construct this dangerous, damaging fantasy as his own form of rescue was difficult to watch, not just for its horror but for how much I could relate to it. His loneliness was so potent, so powerful and so overwhelming. There are also unexpected, difficult conundrums hidden within the work, particularly around the uncomfortable truth of abuse and neglect within a family unit, the kind of difficult relationships you rarely saw in a musical. On stage, 'Dear Evan Hansen' is a knotty, complicated conundrum of a work, and this is what led me to fall in love with it.
Unfortunately, the film adaptation forgoes the problematic questions its premise presents and chooses instead to spin it into a pseudo-inspirational teen drama. This was always the risk, and one you could see coming as the narrative around the musical itself shifted from its breakthrough hit song 'Waving Through A Window', a stirring portrait of intense teen isolation, to 'You Will Be Found', an overwrought inspirational pop ballad whose irony within the work was being polished away. There was some hope that this film adaptation would be as brutal as was necessary when Stephen Chbosky, writer and director of the 2012 masterpiece 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower', was brought on as director, but the specificity and bravery of that perfect gem of a film is mostly absent here, exactly when it was needed most.
The issues with the film are foundational, beginning with Steven Levinson's screenplay, adapted from his book for the stage production. Despite the intimacy that film offers over theatre, there's little effort to dig deeper into Evan's psychology and delusions, at points even less so than what was on stage. Structural changes early on even make it difficult for us to begin to know who Evan is. There seems to be a fear in the writing - and consequently the film itself - to face up to just how potent his anxiety is and just how terrible his actions are, and without the crucial steps and adequate space to understand his actions, it's very hard to accept them as anything other than wanton emotional manipulation. This is most damaging when it comes to his relationship with Zoe, a potential romance built on mistrust that, were it to go further, would constitute as emotional abuse. Weirdly, the film never seems to want to face up to this fact, perhaps thinking that if it ignores it then so will we, rather than offering us a necessary critical lens through which to view it. We're led to believe this is love between them, but what if it's a lonely boy looking for someone to notice him and a lost girl desperate for someone to listen to her and, for once, love has nothing to do with it? Wouldn't that be more interesting, more complex and better serve both characters - especially Zoe - to engage with their trauma rather than paper over it?
This fear extends to any difficult thematic material, discussions around grief, depression, the damage of social media, the appropriation of the grieving process for mass entertainment, even the complications of having a child or sibling you can't love, being reduced to comfortable Instagram-sized bites. It's hard to feel for Connor's family when the film isn't interested in their grief. It's hard to understand fellow loner Alana (Amandla Stenberg, 'The Hate U Give') and her need to use Connor's death as a means of escape of her own. And it's very hard to understand why Evan lies. We don't have to forgive him (and the film shouldn't ask us to), but we do need to understand why.
The mistake is perhaps in the cultural reframing of the musical as inspirational. Maybe this was always the intention and the darkness crept into the original work of its own accord, the film giving Levinson, Pasek and Paul the chance to strip it out, but then it calls into question what the point of the work actually is. Watching the stage production in 2017, I felt it was about how lack of support in a young person's life can lead to terrible consequences, either to themselves or to those around them. The message of "You are not alone" in 'You Will Be Found' was ironic, because the commercialisation of mental health support, of which Connor becomes a part of, contributes to the isolation. Evan does what he does because he is staring into oblivion, and the musical makes his delusions clear, vivid and horrifying. Watching the film though, it was hard to see any of that, and ultimately to understand what its point was. Is it about Evan learning to love himself, find confidence, understand that he is enough? Perhaps if it challenged his actions more, the film could argue that, but the screenplay makes a strong effort to soften the blow in ways that the musical doesn't, adding in moments and scenes that let Evan off the hook, certainly emotionally. The film doesn't want to wrestle with the difficult questions it poses; it seems more inclined to pretend they aren't there.
The film doesn't want to wrestle with the difficult questions it poses; it seems more inclined to pretend they aren't there.
It doesn't help that Chbosky's approach is frustratingly unimaginative, and mostly avoids the material's inherent theatricality. This is most obvious in the musical numbers, which are, with one exception, all disappointments, lacking in flair and energy. In my review for 'In The Heights', I praised the fact that the film listened and responded to its score, but Chbosky doesn't seem to know how to handle this one, with many moments reduced to fellow actors sitting and smiling while Ben Platt sings at them. There isn't even a conceit to explain the fact the characters are bursting into song, such as the songs being a way for us to access the scope of Evan's fantasies. As a consequence, the songs slow the film down rather than driving it forward, and an inability to delve into the psychological and subtextual darkness within them makes their execution at best dull and at worst a grand act of misguided inspo-content.
This avoidance of the theatrical also has a damaging effect on one of the most important characters in the piece - Connor. On stage, he is ever-present, a constant reminder to Evan of his lies, morphing more into Evan's fantasy of him than the reality. Connor is the character in 'Dear Evan Hansen' whom everyone speaks for, that's the point, but his absence from most of the film robs it of that commentary, the way we collectively co-opt the dead for our own selfish purposes. The film lacks accountability for Evan, but perhaps that accountability could have come from a better engagement with the icon of Connor as a physical presence, a reminder that Evan's deception is a result of mental health issues, not just pure manipulative selfishness. We would also be reminded of how the actions and relationships in the film are responses to an act of suicide, something the film handles poorly and without integrity. It doesn't help that Colton Ryan is a quiet standout in the film, and it could have done with more of his presence.
The lack of rigour and imagination in the adaptation has consequences for the performances. Dever, Stenberg and Pino are able to work around the lack of specificity in their material, but Amy Adams is left completely on her own to flounder as Connor's mother. The film's lack of interest in exploring the grieving process, particularly after a suicide, gives her nowhere to go and nothing to play with, and makes it hard for us to truly access or connect with her or the family. Julianne Moore comes out on top as Evan's mother Heidi, chewing in the bits of grit left in the screenplay and offering us a brief glimpse of what the film could have been.
And then there's Ben Platt as Evan. I'm not going to engage in the discussion of whether he is too old for the role, because I think that distracts from the question of the quality of his work in the film. His performance on Broadway was one of the best I'd ever seen, raw and terrifying and devastating, and you can see flashes of it here, but once again, the mishandling of the material and the surprising lack of rigour in the direction leaves him with nowhere to go. This should have been his opportunity to pummel right down to the very depths of this character he helped create, and you can see his willingness to, but there's no one there to guide him. This should have been his opportunity to shine; instead, it feels like a shadow of what could have been.
This film adaptation of 'Dear Evan Hansen' is perhaps a demonstration of the difference between what a musical can be on stage and what it can be on film. On stage, it can look you dead in the eye and demand something of you, ask you to give something of yourself, look into yourself. Maybe film musicals just can't do that anymore; they could once, but this may not be the time for such a thing. In hindsight, perhaps film was never going to serve 'Dear Evan Hansen' as well as its creators thought it could, or perhaps the whole enterprise reveals a fundamental flaw in the material. I can sit here and pontificate on the meaning I have found in this work I love, but maybe that meaning is just different from what the minds behind it intended. This film version certainly makes it unclear what that meaning actually was. For me, the stage production was a powerful, at times harrowing portrait of a collection of lost souls screaming into the abyss. This film adaptation delivers barely a whimper. It doesn't serve the material, it doesn't serve Ben Platt, doesn't serve Evan Hansen and, most of all, doesn't serve its audience. The lost teenager in me no longer saw my experience reflected back, that depths of human loneliness realised in brutal, confronting honesty. It could have given us something to thing about, questions to ask, dark truths to wrestle with, about the way we treat each other, talk about loss and loneliness, comprehend our own grief or co-opt the grief of others, use the modern tools of communication to further isolate one another, and how we sentence young people to prisons of isolation where desperate acts call for desperate, terrible measures. Instead, we've got a handsome-looking square, designed on Canva and filled with digestible inspirational quotes, perfect to post on our profiles as performances of solidarity, a mask to hide the helplessness.