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Dear Evan Hansen

November 13, 2018

Growing up as the daughter of a theater professor and director, I’ve seen a lot of musicals in this country, Canada, and London, but I’ve listened to the soundtracks of a lot more.

For years I’ve listened to the soundtrack of Next to Normal, and then last weekend I got to see a very small-scale production of it at Kenyon–there were surprises, as there always are. The best one was the scene with the “rock star” psychiatrist in which he says some of his lines normally and wails others on a rising note in an almost eardrum-shattering falsetto. The most fun one was seeing one of my students do a quite realistic job of playing the stoner boyfriend, Henry. The least surprising revelation was how much sadder it is to see the show than to listen to the music. I was telling Walker and Ariel, who went with me, that he knows a woman, a friend of mine, who has had electroshock therapy in the last few years. Filling in the lost memories is hardest for her husband, I said, and Walker pointed out that one of the things the musical makes you realize is that mental illness is hard for everyone but hardest on the ill person. It’s not a contest, and if it were, it’s the kind you don’t want to win.

Dear Evan Hansen is another musical about mental illness with a soundtrack I’ve listened to and probably won’t be able to see on stage anytime soon. So when I noticed that the creators of the musical had written a novel, I picked it up to know more of the story.

The title comes from the letters Evan’s psychiatrist wants him to write himself every day about how “today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.” When Connor Murphy, a guy he barely knows, takes one of these letters out of a school printer and refuses to give it back because it mentions his sister Zoe and so he thinks it’s all about him, the action of the play is precipitated. Connor’s subsequent suicide and his parents’ discovery of the letter addressed to Evan make its last question poignant: “would anybody even notice if I disappeared tomorrow?”

The answer of the musical is yes, which is why I love musicals. In real life, it seems like the answer is often less positive. People come and go; we don’t always make much of a mark in the world. Evan makes his mark by lying about being Connor’s friend. He doesn’t really mean to lie, at first, and he does it with the best of intentions—to make Connor’s parents and sister feel a little better. As we often point out with evil acts, however, the ends do not justify the means. The feel-good middle part of the musical is based on a lie, so all the good Evan does with his new prominence at school and on social media, where he co-founds “The Connor Project,” is ephemeral.

As with all dreams, however, “The Connor Project” takes on a life of its own, and its effects go beyond those that its co-founders intended. Even working with a co-founder is a new experience for Evan, and imagining what it might have been like to be friends with Connor leads him to become better friends with a family acquaintance, Jared, and with his crush, Connor’s sister Zoe.

Onstage, Connor is gone after the first few scenes. In the novel, however, he gets a few ghostly point-of-view chapters in which he reacts to what is being said about him after his death. Luckily, these chapters are short and don’t give away much of the plot, so they don’t turn comic and they serve to make Evan’s actions more understandable, as they underline how lonely he and Connor both were and how one of them can “save” the other—even if Connor didn’t literally find Evan lying on the ground after falling out of a tree, as Evan claims, the claim itself helps Evan find a way to keep living after the fall from the tree, which no one else realizes was a suicide attempt. Connor’s ghost, listening to Evan tell a story about Connor finding him on the ground under the tree, says “the spirit of what he was saying, how he was saying it—in some weird way, it felt true.”

The other transformation that happens in the novel and onstage is that Evan finds out that it’s not all about him, something Connor didn’t live long enough to do. With his mother, a single parent doing her best, Evan finally stops reacting as if “she’s still trying to tweak me just a little bit more to her liking” and sees that she’s always been on his side. The novel has a speech about how she’s tried to be there for Evan. The musical, as far as I can tell, has a climactic song about a truck.

It’s an interesting novel, a quick read and a good reminder, at this point in the semester when everyone feels overloaded, that as the characters sing in Into the Woods, “while we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot that they are not alone; no one is alone.” We all go through the day thinking it’s about us, when a little more imagination might clue us in about how what we’re doing looks through someone else’s eyes, or the eyes of their friends and family… my comments on a student’s paper… the way able-bodied people race impatiently around as I haltingly try to get through the heavy doors into a college building… that woman in the Kroger parking lot wearing a MAGA hat and a scowl who would probably like to be able to buy whatever she wants without worrying about the total, as I can. We pull our coats around us and hurry to get in out of the damp cold of a November Ohio dusk. In our cars, though, parked head to head, we both play music. I play the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack and wonder what song is making her open and close her mouth behind her windshield.



15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2018 8:17 pm

    I’ve heard good things about the play and tried to get tickets to it but really had no idea what the story was about. It sounds good – now I’d like to read this book and see the play.

    • November 13, 2018 9:35 pm

      The book’s publication was timed to match the start of the U.S. tour, so depending on how far you’ll travel for theater, you could be in luck!

  2. November 13, 2018 8:20 pm

    Good point – ‘mental illness is hard for everyone but hardest on the ill person’ – and it’s just as true about chronic physical illness as well.

    The ill person bores others very quickly with the annoying to hear about fact the the illness is still there, always there, isn’t better, and isn’t going away just because that would be convenient for everyone. So the ill person has to learn to dissimulate as well, which is an additional burden for someone whose resources are already strained.

    Books and films and plays help a bit to educate those who are more able-minded – but each is over in a few hours, and only can hit the high points of the lows.

    It still needs to be said: ‘mental illness is hard for everyone but hardest on the ill person.’ We all struggle with something – compassion is much appreciated.

    • November 13, 2018 9:41 pm

      Of course the things that come easily to me are the things I have less empathy about, while the things I struggle with are the things about which I am learning to appreciate the way other people struggle with them too.

      • November 13, 2018 10:40 pm

        Which is where well-written – and carefully designed – fiction can help. It can’t be preachy, but a few extra words here and there, and a character with an illness makes it easier for someone to empathize – because they have ‘lived’ the illness with the character.

        No one likes to be preached to, but readers like characters who struggle. Remember Ordinary People?

        • November 14, 2018 7:42 am

          I didn’t remember much about Ordinary People–the book came out and had its moment of fame when I was too young to care very much–but I looked it up and see what you mean.

  3. November 13, 2018 9:39 pm

    I have been wanting to read this book a lot since I learned of it from reading What If It’s Us. I love that song Requiem from Dear Evan Hansen on YouTube. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this book! Great review!

    • November 14, 2018 7:37 am

      Requiem is a good song. My current favorite is For Forever, but it’s the big song of the show, the one that gets a reprise. I sometimes appreciate a less obvious song more after a while.
      There is a similarity to What If It’s Us, but I didn’t want to give it away here (one of the characters has a same-sex love interest).

  4. November 15, 2018 2:33 pm

    Funny, this book/musical was the answer to a Final Jeopardy question on the Teen Tournament last week. I had no clue what the answer was. Good to know a little more about it.

    • November 15, 2018 2:44 pm

      Ha! It’s obviously having its fifteen minutes (at least) of fame.

  5. November 16, 2018 8:33 am

    I’m reading the book at the moment! I’ve listened to the cast album over and over, and am waiting for it to make the transfer to West End, which would probably be my best chance to see it. (That, or wait another few years for it to maybe come to Singapore!)

    • November 16, 2018 9:07 am

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the chapters by ghost Connor, in the book. And your review of the show, which you may get to see before I do!

  6. November 18, 2018 9:57 pm

    We’re going to see this show in early 2019 when the tour makes it to Minneapolis. I didn’t realize there was a novel too, which is interesting. I really loved this review, especially your last paragraph. It is important to remember empathy, especially when it’s easiest to stay in our own bubbles.

    • November 18, 2018 10:13 pm

      Yes. And it’m impossible for someone who works at Kenyon to think about this without thinking of what David Foster Wallace said in his 2005 graduation speech:

      “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real-you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue-it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

      By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home-you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job-and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out. You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

      Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV- intensive rush-hour traffic, et cetera, et cetera.

      The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to foodshop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.

      Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-theday traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth…

      Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do-except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am-it is actually I who am in his way. And so on.

      Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line-maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible-it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important-if you want to operate on your default-setting-then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars-compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. “


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