After I saw actor Ben Platt perform on the Tony Awards, I couldn't buy my ticket to Dear Evan Hansen fast enough. (I should preface all this by saying that I worked in the theater as an actor and playwright for more than a decade, so my awe was informed by knowing how almost impossible some of what he did was.) What I saw in Platt was a combination of musical genius, vocal and acting depth, technique—equal parts spontaneity and control—that delivered a once-in-a-lifetime performance that might end up on my list of spiritual high points in the theater—which has only one other member, Peter Brook's 1970 Broadway production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"I want to be guaranteed to see Ben Platt," I told the box office clerk.
"His contract runs out in November," he answered.
"Okay, what's the first ticket where you can guarantee he's in the show?"
Three hundred dollars later, I walked home stunned. But it was once in a lifetime.
JUMP CUT to yesterday. A little sign at the theater entrance and a little piece of paper in the program announced that in this performance the understudy would do Ben Platt's role. To say I was fuming is an understatement. I have no wish to hurt the actor who played the role of Evan Hansen, so suffice it to say he was not Ben Platt, did not have the vocal qualities, etc. that had made me lay out hundreds of dollars, and did not make the choices that sent vibrations through my soul. Nevertheless, before the first scene, I managed to suspend my resentment and committed to remaining open to being amazed.
And I was. Not by a brilliant actor, but by the complexity of the lie: the show is a lie. A big horrible lie about telling horrible lies.
A lonely boy inadvertently tells lies, gets embroiled in a masquerade about being the best friend to a boy who has killed himself, sings his fantasies of friendship, is taken into the dead boy's family, and, through brilliantly seductive music and orchestrations, we are told that this is a show about being a loner, yearning for connection, and that if you fall somebody will always pick you up and you can come out into the sunshine. And at the end of the first act, when Evan sings this fantasy, duping a whole assembly of his schoolmates, the audience, identifying with his longing, cheered!
Not me. At this point a sickened feeling took over my solar plexus. And it stayed throughout the second act, somewhat mitigated when Evan finally tells the truth and people get angry with him.
According to the interviews with the cast, the message—and the reason everybody but me and maybe a few others sob—is that everybody feels like an outsider and so they connect to Evan's pain.
But what about the message that brings this identification and eventual magical relief? That it's okay to lie, pretend, dupe, and after a boy's suicide—never examined, by the way— when you fall, somebody will pick you up and then, poof, with no real consequences, you will learn from your mistake and be okay in the sun just being who you really are?
Please! We are a country roiling in lies these days—well-orchestrated and, for many, seductive. Are they really proving that all anxiety will drop away if we just pretend that somebody will take care of us?
As a friend who reacted similarly to me (and even started an "I Didn't Love Evan Hansen" support group—I'm the third member) said, "Is there something wrong with ME or the entire rest of the people that have seen it? Neither answer is comforting."
Postscript. After reading this blog, a friend asked for more of an explanation. Here it is:
I think the whole thing went wrong at the end of the first act. The scene is Evan in front of his school assembly, having been pressured to talk about his bogus friendship with Connor who committed suicide. (They had no friendship.) Looking back over it, I think I know what the writers decided to do, faced with a conflict. The truth is that Evan is perpetrating an ever-ballooning charade and using and abusing many people. He is lonely and the interest of people now that he is a celebrity due to the "friendship" is seductive. But the end of the first act is a song. I've heard that Ben Platt sings it through pouring tears and snot, and I believe that is privately his mortification for what he is doing, as well as his pain and longing.
But the song he's been given to sing is of a fantasy perfect day with this friend. It is lovely and completely bogus. There is no lyric or music in it to express the conflict of what he's doing, and the whole thing is seductive, and rather than stick with the reality of what he's doing, the audience leaps out of reality and grabs this fantasy of perfection and relates to his pain at wanting it, erasing the reality that the actor himself may be playing--which does not read as self-loathing, because there is nothing in the material to support that.
That's when the big lie happened for me.My whole solar plexus went sick and hard. And then when all these kids in the audience screamed and cheered at the end of the song (which is exactly what the producers would have needed for the end of a first act), I felt sicker and also angry at the audience.All that set up the complete lack of serious consequences that ensued in the second act after Evan admits to the family he's duped and his mother what he's done--it made that exponentially more false. The family tells nobody about the ruse and people contribute money to create an orchard in the name of the dead kid who had no interest in trees. Evan gets off scot free. The girl he seduced (sister of the dead kid) forgives him. He now can connect to people--magic!
During the ruse he stopped taking his antianxiety meds because apparently rather than cause even more anxiety, pretending to be somebody he's not and taking a ride on somebody else's tragedy is a great remedy for social anxiety. His mother assures him she'll always and forever love him. He lives happily ever after. And we (the gullible audience) are assured that if you fall, you will always be found (forget the fact that the dead boy fell big-time, was in terrible trouble before killing himself, and obviously he was not "found" or saved or taken care of or even really acknowledged for who he really was in this play).
What was sickening was that the writers and director solved the first act technical problem by creating a lie, ignoring real pain of a kid who committed suicide, promising kids who watch this that, as one kid interviewed said, "You can fall and somebody will catch you. There's hope." And you can lie without consequences and if the lies are good enough, people will just pretend they didn't happen.Truth is ignored because the fantasy is so much sweeter: everything will be all right, somebody will always be there for you, you are never alone.
Truth is hard: We are all ultimately alone. Bad things will happen and we can tolerate them and face our mistakes. Real peace comes by entering the void of our ultimate aloneness and finding our Self. And that takes courage and the willingness to be very uncomfortable. Perhaps that is just too hard for people to understand.