Film director Robert Altman’s son Mike was a teenager when he wrote the lyric (to Johnny Mandel’s melody) that became the theme of M*A*S*H. You remember it:
The game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I’ll some day lay
So this is all I have to say:That suicide is painless…
That adolescent fantasy of self-annihilation takes a definitive drubbing in Dear Evan Hansen, the exquisite new musical that opened Sunday at off-Broadway’s Second Stage. Played in an astonishingly sensitive, career-making performance by young Ben Platt, Evan is an outsider so withdrawn and so determined to be invisible he can’t work up the courage to order takeout for fear of having to speak with the delivery person. All that changes when another boy in his class takes his own life and, through a fateful accident, Evan becomes a local hero.
Loser-to-hero stories are of course the stuff of YA fiction and too many movies, but Dear Even Hansen is unlike most for a number of reasons. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — who wrote the equally beautiful, oddball musical Dogfight, presented on this stage a few years back — is similar to the Broadway hit Fun Home, oddly another suicide-themed show, in the charm of its accessible tunes and insightful lyrics. The book by Steven Levenson (The Unavoidable Disappearance Of Tom Durnin, The Language Of Trees) portrays teen angst taken beyond the normal boundaries with compelling dignity. Equally important, the team is equally smart and attuned to the role of adults in what to outsiders must seem impossible to believe.
Evan (Platt, a star of the Pitch Perfect films who also had a much-praised run in The Book Of Mormon) has been encouraged by his therapist to write letters addressed to himself articulating his daily experiences as well as his hopes and dreams. He’s urged on by his mother, who works too hard and is away too much trying to pay the bills and fill the void left years ago by an abandoning husband. Evan finally complies with a letter expressing his hopelessness but for the existence of Zoe, the girl he has a secret crush on. “All my hope is pinned on Zoe,” he writes, signing the letter, “Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend, Me.”
Zoe’s brother Connor is, like Evan, an outsider; unlike Evan, he’s an angry bully who mockingly signs the cast on Evan’s broken arm and has found the printout of his letter before the boy could retrieve it. When the letter is found in Connor’s pocket after his suicide, his parents conclude that their son actually had one true friend and actually loved the sister he spent most of his life torturing. Evan is swept up in the deception, which grows into a movement memorializing Connor and briefly turning shy, self-loathing Evan into a local hero. He even gets the girl.
Platt embraces Evan with such fierce devotion that he seems more to inhabit than portray him. The halting delivery of soulful lines, the arms that flutter out in birdlike spasms as if grasping for logic or reason and, most of all, the voice that rises from assured tenor to plaintive falsetto all conspire to bring this character to life — he could be cousin to The Glass Menagerie‘s Laura Wingfield. Evan’s attempt to set the record straight about Connor doesn’t stand a chance against the need of the dead boy’s family to believe something good and hopeful about him, to imbue his death with meaning. More than any other aspect of Dear Evan Hansen, this poignant fact has the ring of truth.
Director Michael Greif’s resume (Rent, Next To Normal) suggests a special affinity for this delicate balancing act of material, and the show is knowingly cast and staged. There are distinguished, all-in performances from Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s mother; Laura Dreyfus and especially Mike Faist as Zoe and Connor; and John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson as their parents. In comic (but not-too-comic) roles, Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland also are fine. Noteworthy as well is the beautifully integrated musical supervision of Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton) with vocal arrangements by Justin Paul and musical direction by Ben Cohn. The score soars. Dear Evan Hansen is an intimate show with a gigantic heart.