The Disaster That Was "Dear Evan Hansen"
Broadway musicals have not always made smooth transitions to film. Although there are some outliers such as West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, etc, there are plenty more musicals with promising source material that didn't translate well to the silver screen. After all, for every Tick...Tick...Boom! there's a Dear Evan Hansen.
If you're a someone like me who has been keeping up with the world of theater for the past couple years, the Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen has been downright impossible to ignore. The show first began playing at The Music Box theater in NYC in 2016, with a book by Steven Levenson and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the same composers behind The Greatest Showman. Ever since its initial run in Washington DC, Dear Evan Hansen has been met with rapturous applause from people of all ages. What set it apart from other Broadway shows at the time was how it catered to teenagers and the struggles of living with anxiety in high school. Audiences resonated with the story of 17 year old, Evan Hansen who suffers from crippling social anxiety but rose through the social ranks by pretending to be friends with a boy in his school who committed suicide and somewhere along the way he ends up making the world a better place for teenagers with mental illness. In 2017, it won the Tony Award for Best Musical, the most prestigious honor the world of theater has to offer. For the longest time it seemed like there was nowhere to go but up for Dear Evan Hansen! That is until May 18th, 2021...
In the spring of last year, the official trailer was released for the Dear Evan Hansen m0vie, directed by Stephen Chbosky, the writer/director of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. While a very select few were excited about the trailer, I would liken the reaction to that of Tom Hooper's Cats, and that was for one very specific reason... but before I get into that, it's time to talk about one of the most important players in the story of Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Platt. It's impossible for me to imagine Dear Evan Hansen without Ben Platt in the lead role, it's the character that caused him to win the Tony Award for Best Actor in 2o17. His performance was met with unanimous praise from every outlet possible. So when rumors started floating around that the musical would be turned into a movie, fans wondered whether or not Platt would be reprising his role. On May 18th we got our answer: yes. And that's precisely the reason why the trailer got the reaction it did. You see, Ben Platt is twenty nine years old, and he looks like it. He's been playing the role since he was 21, but there comes a time in every actor's career when they can't keep playing characters in a certain age group and in Platt's case, he is simply too old to be playing a seventeen year old anymore. Once Twitter saw the trailer of a man pushing thirty pretending to be a high schooler with some of the most bizarre makeup imaginable, the site exploded with tweets, memes, and more ridicule than you could possibly imagine. It was an absolute disaster. It seemed like the movie was doomed become even coming out.
One of Dear Evan Hansen's fundametal flaws is that it's simply much easier to suspend your disbelief in front of a live theater production than a professional film. It's like Ben Platt's face was been altered with prosthetic makeup or de-aging CGI and you never truly get used to it. He just looks so out of place among his co-stars who could mostly pass for actual high schoolers. Ben Platt doesn't even look like himself. It's so unbelievably awkward to see him have romantic scenes with Kaitlyn Dever, who looks like a teenager. He looks like a cop going undercover at a high school to bust kids with vape pens. Every emotional moment is completely tarnished as soon as you see Ben Platt's de-aged alien face. It's like if you took Grease, but made all the actors real teenagers except for Danny Zuko. Like watching John Travolta go to school with a bunch of children. Platt came under more fire when people found out that his father, Marc Platt would be producing. the film, leading a lot of people to draw the conclusion that he only got the role because of his father's position. It also seemed that when the trailer dropped, thousands of people who were unfamiliar with the show were shocked to find out that Dear Evan Hansen wasn't about a gay kid, which is a strange misconception but apparently it's what a lot of people thought the original show was about.
With all the negative attention the trailer was getting, the show's plot was being called into question. As someone who's been keeping up with the show since 2016, I've always found it difficult to explain the plot to someone without it sounding cynical and bleak. Dear Evan Hansen is about a kid who pretends that he was friends with Connor Murphy, the quiet kid at school who kills himself early on in the show. He lies to Connor's parents to build a reputation at school and eventually become closer with Connor's sister Zoe, whom he's had a crush on for years. It felt a lot more inspirational and uplifting onstage but on paper, it's a pretty grim story, and at multiple times you question if the main character is actually the villain. To be fair, I understand where people are coming from when they criticize the plot, and over the years I've found myself becoming less and less fond of the story. While it certainly tries its best, Dear Evan Hansen regularly feels like a pseudo-inspirational puff piece that clearly doesn't understand the modern teenager as much as it thinks it does. The topic of anxiety is grossly oversimplified at times and not everyone has a Connor Murphy they can leech off of. It's not a far stretch to say that the character of Evan Hansen is a plain bad person. It's a truly grim story sugar-coated in a surface level, shallow "inspirational" facade. It's hard to believe that for the longest time this show was considered "revolutionary" and doing some real good in the world.
Despite priding itself on being progressive and heartfelt, Dear Evan Hansen really does pick an incredibly sanitized view of mental illness to portray on stage and on screen. Contrary to what the show will tell you, clinical anxiety does not just include stuttering, having sweaty hands, and being socially awkward. There are so many less audience-friendly symptoms that come with the disease that are rarely brought to light in mainstream entertainment. Despite being someone with anxiety and depression, we don't get to see the true extent of Evan's solitude, his struggles with personal hygiene, his trouble sleeping, outbursts of anger or panic or sadness. In a lot of ways, Dear Evan Hansen oversimplifies anxiety disorders, accomplishing the opposite of what the writers set out to do.
I didn't go into Dear Evan Hansen wanting to hate it. In fact, for the longest time I was probably one of the biggest fans of the musical you could find. I had T-shirts with the logo on it, and I even saw the show twice on stage. I still find myself having a fondness for a few of the songs, but my perspective on the show drastically changed when I got diagnosed with clinical anxiety and depression. I realized that Dear Evan Hansen isn't nearly as realistic or accurate as I was led to believe, and that forever changed my relationship with the story. I really do appreciate when people in the film industry try to bring the subject of mental health to light, however there are some serious revisions that need to be made for future projects. While it may seem risky, I promise that showcasing the not-so-savory aspects of mental illness will yield positive results, not only for studios, but for the community of people who have to deal with these afflictions on a daily basis.
If you're looking for media that accurately portrays mental illness, I reccomend Miloš Forman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, and Brian Yorkey's stage musical, Next To Normal.