By JESSICA NEU
The 2016 musical, Dear Evan Hansen, tells the story of Evan Hansen, a teenage boy with debilitating social anxiety disorder who desperately wants to be found.
Evan Hansen’s therapist instructs him to write a letter to himself each day to overcome his social anxiety. (“Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a great day!”)
As the musical begins, Evan is struggling to complete these letters. His struggle does not necessarily indicate defiance or writer’s block, but it represents Evan’s desire to engage with others instead of writing to himself.
With a score made popular by such songs as “Waving Through A Window,” the musical addressess mental health concerns including social anxiety, depression, and suicide and explores how mental health diseases can impact an individual’s life, family, and friends. The script provides pragmatic examples of destigmatizing the discussion around mental health without reducing these incredibly serious disorders down to a trend or fad.
Evan’s begins the show with a broken arm in a cast from falling out of a tree during summer camp. One of his peers, Connor, signs his cast during an altercation in the school library. Connor then discovers a letter that Evan typed to himself (“Dear Evan Hansen…”). An altercation ensues because, in the letter, which was never meant to be read, Evan talks about his love for Connor’s sister, Zoey.
Connor, who also struggles with mental illness, accuses Evan of trying to trigger him with the letter. The following day, Hansen is called into the principal’s office, where he is greeted by Connor’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy. They tell Evan that Connor died by suicide the night before and that they found a letter in his room that began “Dear Evan Hansen.” The Murphys assume Connor wrote this letter to Evan because the two boys had a close friendship. An anxious, confused, and distraught Evan placates the Murphy’s beliefs and begins to develop stories of a fictitious friendship.
Henceforth, a relationship develops between Evan and the Murphys. What also emerges are students’ tributes to Connor. Mainly presented online, Connor’s peers share their emotions online, culminating in a video campaign entitled “The Connor Project.” The campaign ultimately goes viral and is centered around the concept that “no one deserves to be forgotten.”
This exploration of the relationship between social media and mental health has become one of the most potent metaphors in Dear Evan Hansen.
The Connor Project targets the underlying theme of how someone presents themselves online versus how others perceive them.
The project encourages people of all ages to check on their peers and not be afraid to ask for help, regardless of the problem, because “you are not alone.” People begin to post online via The Connor Project page and share their own stories about mental health concerns or grief over a lost loved one.
Evan Hansen’s relationship with the Murphy family prompts audiences to consider whether a lie is ever justified. This relationship, and ultimately The Connor Project, developed from a letter that was never supposed to be seen and Evan’s creation of his fictitious friendship with Connor.
The show sheds light on those struggling with mental illness while magnifying the power of community. Evan Hansen re-writes his own story to find community, unite a grief-stricken family, and remind us that “no one deserves to be forgotten.”
Dear Evan Hansen fills the spaces between mental health, suicide, and bereavement by demonstrating empathy, compassion, and never being afraid to ask for help and to share your own story because “you matter.”
Written by Steven Levenson and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, The original Broadway production won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Actor for Ben Platt. It also won the Drama League Award for Outstanding Musical Production and for the off-Broadway production, two Obie Awards, a Drama Desk Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards, and two Helen Hayes Awards.
Dear Evan Hansen at the Benedum Center, May 2-7, 2023, is presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, part of the 2022-2023 PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. For tickets, visit: https://trustarts.org/production/81546/list_performances
Categories: Arts and Ideas