BWW Album Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN Shines a Light on the Teenage Soul
If you grew up as a lover of musical theater, especially in those dark years before BroadwayCon, it's likely that your high-school years were not among your best. Of course, high school can be hard for teenagers with other musical tastes, too. Amid growing public awareness of teenage violence, suicide, and depression, and with scientific studies confirming that the brains of teenagers are basically chaos machines, DEAR EVAN HANSEN has turned a spotlight on these issues, and audiences have responded warmly and gratefully. In the story, alienated teen Evan Hansen, who leads a lonely life with his hardworking single mother, has no real friends in high school; neither does another, still more troubled student, Connor Murphy, whose sister Zoe is the unwitting object of Evan's affections. When Connor commits suicide, a series of misunderstandings prompts Evan to pass himself off as Connor's best friend, an identity that gains him access to Connor's intact family, privileged lifestyle, and especially his lovely sister. This charade creates tensions and complications that lead, ultimately, to the truth.
With today's much-hyped release of the DEAR EVAN HANSEN cast album (from Atlantic Records), the show should earn new fans who haven't been able to snag what is now one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. The score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is both accessible and memorable. Most of the songs feel like songs these characters would listen to themselves; they sing in styles that would be familiar to them. The show's sound owes as much to contemporary Broadway as to pop; you can hear the influence of NEXT TO NORMAL and SPRING AWAKENING. "If I Could Tell Her," one of the weaker songs, epitomizes a song structure prevalent in this show: an exaggeratedly awkward start that soon rises to polished pop, lovely but overly familiar, with a heavy musical accompaniment (often, though not always, primarily reliant on guitar). Too many songs end with a repeat of the main line and a final strum or verbal shrug, a wearying pattern in spite of the best efforts of Alex Lacamoire (HAMILTON obsessives will recognize his touch in some of the songs, particularly the way he orchestrates sadness).
The best known song will undoubtedly be "Waving through a Window." It introduces us to Evan Hansen, sung indelibly by the remarkable Ben Platt. While the words are banal, the message is one that most people will relate to and understand, and the hopeful energy of the song demonstrates why Evan, unlike Connor, will be able to survive this phase of his life. As with a talented but raw and impulsive teenager, the virtues of these songs are nearly inseparable from their flaws. The lyrics are full of clichés and the musical shapes are alternately conventional and ragged, but this adds to the authenticity; how many anxious, self-absorbed, miserable high-school students sound like miniature Sondheims (as much as their doing so might be desirable in a musical)? Evan aspires to meaningless superlatives--the "perfect day" and the "perfect girl," things that are out of reach but also vague, at least until he gets to know Zoe.
Arguably the catchiest song, "For Forever" has a refrain so awkwardly phrased that the words seem like filler that was never upgraded. But you will find yourself humming the tune. In keeping with the pattern of DEAR EVAN HANSEN songs, its opening is intentionally fumbling; the music hems and haws along with the perpetually self-doubting Evan, as he begins to embellish a false memory of his friendship with Connor. As a parallel life emerges in his words--true friendship, happiness--his confidence and the music begin to soar. Though it is primarily set in the orchard that figures so prominently in the story, everything about this song suggests movement and driving: the feeling of driving, such an important kind of freedom for suburban teenagers, and the inescapable fact that this is an ideal "driving song," thanks to its thrumming energy.
"Only Us," a love song between Evan and Zoe, in which they finally try to find a place for themselves as a couple and not just Connor's mourners, showcases the beautiful colors in Laura Dreyfuss's voice, one of the album's greatest assets. The music is more artful than it might seem at first; the frequent, folk-y breaks in the notes are appropriate for teenagers whose voices are changing (and whose levels of maturity are equally up-and-down). "You Will Be Found," Evan's inspirational speech about Connor that ends up going viral online, is one of the songs that can stand alone. Proof of this is Cynthia Erivo's haunting interpretation, recorded live at Elsie Fest. You can easily imagine a high-school chorus performing it at a graduation concert. (If GLEE were still on TV, it might devote an episode to this album; but if not a whole episode, it would certainly cover this song as well as "For Forever" and perhaps "Waving through a Window.")
But sometimes the specificity of a song makes for better musical theater; an example is the touching "To Break in a Glove." Larry, Connor's father, offers Evan the baseball glove he once bought for his son, a gift that sat unused, and explains to him the best way to soften the glove. The lyrics are simple, but elucidate many things: Larry's rigidity about the "right way" to do things, his older-guy unfamiliarity with internet culture, his unspoken pain at his failures as a parent. And it shows us Evan, the cipher, ready to step into any role Connor's family offers him. Michael Park, who plays Larry, is just right as this slick but unhappy patriarch. Unfortunately, Jennifer Laura Thompson gets no such moment as the mother, which is a sad waste of her talent.
Although the two mothers actually open the album with "Anybody Have a Map?," in which they both struggle to communicate with their sons, Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan's mother, plays a much larger role in the score. While her chirpy voice and apparent blindness to Evan's need are frustrating, she finally breaks through in the heartbreaking "So Big, So Small," in which she recalls her divorce when Evan was a child. It's impossible not to cry listening to this one. Just before it, Evan has his own shattering emotional breakthrough, "Words Fail," in which he confesses and tries to explain his lies to Connor's family. (It is structurally odd that, at least on the album, these two powerful songs occur back-to-back.) Ben Platt's sincere, emotional, and authentic performance reaches its climax in this song; it is unlikely that any other male performance in a musical this season will top his. DEAR EVAN HANSEN's music should serve as an inspiration and a consolation to teens and parents enduring or remembering the rough high-school years.