If you’ve been reading “View in the Dark”for a while, you have no doubt deduced that I am a huge fan of Washington’s Arena Stage, and have been so since the late 1950’s. Back then it was called the Old Vat, and a prescient teacher escorted our drama class to see a show there, in what I vaguely remember as a somewhat seedy neighborhood. When their new building opened, I was in college, and I’ve hung around the place often enough to know that a truly bad production there is rare.
I confess that my faith in the Arena was tested when I saw the first notice that Dear Evan Hansen would join their 2015 season: It was variously described to me as a brand new untried musical, a romance comedy, featuring teen angst and suicide, and based loosely on the vague memory of an incident in the early life of one of the authors. “Not for me,” sez I. In the current climate, I’ve had it with angst. And teen suicide is now a soaring epidemic, the second leading cause of death in children and teens in the country. “To trivialize it in a musical ‘comedy’ goes well beyond the pale,” sez I. And after all, the title does sound little soapy, doesn’t it? Well I can tell you now, that in my long history of picking which plays to see and which plays to pass on, I have NEVER been so WRONG!
In the past three years, Dear Evan Hansen has gone to New York off-Broadway, where it was quickly pushed on to a Broadway production, with no end in sight. For the off-Broadway production it was nominated for a phenomenal eighteen Obies and other awards, and won twelve. Now there is a big national tour in the works. Suffice to say, it was universally loved by critics and audiences alike, quickly returning a profit for its investors.
For my trip in May,
I was not going to go up against the world’s opinion with my petty prejudices. So I enthusiastically bought a ticket (at nearly twice the price I would have paid at the Arena when it was being discovered.
This is NOT a play about suicide. It’s a love story, and it’s a play about growing up, and families; and how we communicate (or not); and anxiety over what we’re afraid of; and how we see ourselves in a society and in the world at large; and how we set goals, and how we keep secrets. BIG themes, wrapped up in an original beautifully told story that left me feeling not angst, but hope.
Here’s the gist of it: Evan is a chronically shy introverted teen, afraid of almost everything, and lacking self-esteem. His counselor has assigned him to write something positive in the form of complimentary letters to himself. When he takes the disk to school to print it out, it is snatched by Connor, an unhappy school bully and loner. That night, Connor commits suicide, leaving his parents and sister bereft, and no note. Instead, they find Evan’s letter on Connor’s computer screen, and come by to thank Evan for being a best friend to their son that they never knew he had. Evan is forced to play along with it for their sake, and quickly earns school-wide popularity as a Connor’s best friend, before he died. It gives Evan his first taste of a new prestige among his schoolmates, as well as the task of continuing the lie in order to redeem Connor in the eyes of his parents.
In all this drama, you’d be hard pressed to find a real villain. Connor himself, who committed the original theft, is the obvious first choice, until he returns in Evan’s mind and we learn more about why he is who he is. Others come under suspicion, including his mother, Connor’s parents, pseudo-friends from school, and Connor’s little sister, Zoe, on whom Evan has a mad crush. Everyone in the cast on the other side of the “window” is guilty of indifference, meanness, and flagrant misunderstanding, and at the same time everybody in the cast is understandable, sympathetic and motivated by kindness. It’s the best kind of dramatic conflict.
It’s a pretty original story line, but that’s just one of the reasons for the play’s success. Chief among them was the brilliant performance by Ben Platt, who originated the role at the Arena in 2014, and remained until he finally stepped away just last November. Take a peek at Ben singing the Dear Evan Hanson featured song, “Waving through a Window.” His performance featured the display of raw pain and angst, as well as a child-like wonder, innocence and vulnerability, with a firm grasp on comic timing. All together, the play touched hearts, working to wring tears of familiarity and pity from all over the theatre, together with nine Tony nominations, six of which were winners: Best musical; Best Performance by an actor in a musical (Ben Platt); Best featured performance by an actress (Rachel Bay Jones, who had originated the role of Evan’s mother); Best Book (Steven Levinson) and Original score (Pasek & Paul); And Best orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire). That’s not even counting the Bests from The Drama League, The Grammies, and the daytime Emmy Awards. Clearly, this little domestic story lured a lot of audiences back from the glitzy, loud, star-driven extravaganzas that are raking in the tourist dollars now. I grant they are great fun, but this is more human scale, something deeper and more personal
By the time I eventually saw the play in May, Taylor Trensch had taken on the role of Evan, and I can’t believe that his performance was any less moving than Platt’s. Trensch, a recent veteran of both Hello Dolly, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a master of the genuine in looks, style and substance. The variety in style of lyrics and music remain both meaningful and beautiful. It’s not easy music, requiring instant mid-syllable changes in range and pitch that explore a range of sub-surface emotional intensity, digging out our own inner connections to the characters onstage. Lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have set a high standard for themselves, in a new territory, joining their La La Land, and The Greatest Showman.
One other thing, though: No one character or song, even from Evan, threatens to turn the show into a star turn. The entire ensemble reeks with talent, all working in common for the spirit of the play to explore a wide range of the human need for visibility, identity, and purpose. And along with Evan and his two families, we too gradually grow in confidence, more aware and more accepting of all our challenges, our foibles, our half-truths, and the enormity of whatever lies ahead. And there you have it: the ultimate function of fine theatre.
It’s not my job here to sell tickets. But bottom line here, folks: If you’re going to be in New York, or in any of the over fifty U.S. cities in which the tour will land in the next two years, forget the competition, and get yourselves into this little gem. You won’t regret it. I plan to see it again as soon as I can, with my wife and granddaughter (her first trip to New York).
Coming up next: Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.