The new Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hanson, deservedly snatched up six Tony Awards on Sunday night, including best new musical, best score, best actor and best featured actress. Evan, the show’s lead character, is a socially awkward high school student who doesn’t fit in anywhere. Following the suicide of a schoolmate who bullies him, he gets tangled in a web of lies which spreads beyond his control over social media over a letter that he wrote, which was never never meant to be seen. How is it that a story about a liar wins over the hearts of audiences and critics for such a sweeping victory? We rarely have sympathy for deceivers, as Stephen Colbert pointed out during the award ceremony, about the “production” happening in Washington D.C., with its unbelievable character who has bad hair and makeup.
Evan has no friends and his hardworking, single mother struggles to be present to him. He hates social interactions, he tells his mom that he doesn’t even like ordering pizza because he has to have a face to face encounter with the delivery person. Evan is brought to life by Ben Platt, and through his marvelous performance, Evan’s fears, insecurities and anxiety are completely palpable. There are moments in the musical where you should look away from him–what’s going on is too painful to behold–but because his performance is so gripping you simply can’t.
Right from the beginning, we know Evan is a misfit and he is in therapy. He’s not happy with the state of his life. He knows that he goes unnoticed, and he feels invisible to the world around him. Believing that he lives in complete isolation he sings a heart wrenching:
On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve alway been?
‘Cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass
I’m waving through a window
As an exercise to boost his self confidence, Evan’s therapist asked him to write a letter to himself that begins:
“Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be a great day and here’s why…”
Evan reluctantly completes this task which mentions a girl he’s smitten over. A bully, Connor Murphy, is another teenager who has no friends. He intercepts the letter in the school’s computer lab and is angered because the girl Evan writes about is Connor’s sister. Later that night Connor commits suicide and his parent’s discover the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter on his person. His parents think that it’s suicide letter written by Connor to Evan. Evan sees how devastated Connor’s family is, and they are especially grievous because they believe their son died friendless. Evan doesn’t have the heart to tell Connor’s parents that Connor was no friend to him at all, he allows them to believe that they were friends by making up details about their friendship out of compassion and goodwill.
Because of these lies, Connor’s family takes a liking to Evan and he’s welcomed into to the family as the good son they never had. Being a part of a good family helps him get over his social anxiety and we learn that he no longer needs his prescription medication. One lie leads to another, and another, and another until the truth comes out, yet we never feel a scrap of disdain for this well-intentioned liar. With his lies, he’s managed to comfort a grieving family. And we totally understand why he does what he does, and we don’t judge him for it. This song of lament, “Words Fail” is an eruption of everything that our dear Evan Hansen had pent up in him all along.
While it might seem that this show may disregard the immorality of lying and maybe even promote it, it is in his lying that he ultimately finds who he truly is, gets over his awkwardness and completely accepts himself as enough. It is true that we grow from our brokenness and we learn from our mistakes. These are good things that come out of the bad things in life. Still, the show in no way presents lies as a long-term solution. They cannot be sustained forever, and we watch Evan carry the burden of lies as it eats away at him. His lies drew him closer to people, but it also began to alienate the people he got close to as he continually lied.
People lie out of desperation, and Evan is a character who, frankly, is desperate. He wanted to be found and he wanted to matter so much, that he lied to get what he wanted and it only made matters worse. Dear Evan Hansen, doesn’t promote lying. In demonstrating lies and their consequences in the extreme, what it actually shows is how desperation can drive us to do some crazy things. And seeing what lengths a person–in this case a particularly likable one– will go to comfort others and themselves, we can’t but feel compassion and mercy for the desperate people around us. More importantly, it points to our need to be included and hopefully, it makes us less blind to search out those who need to be found as the song “You Will Be Found” suggests.