BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN by Val Emmich
"Call it habit, but I can't shake the feeling that they're only fucking with me. How can I not? They stand here, talking about how much I meant to them. How much they relate. How they feel the things I felt. The isolation, unworthiness, loneliness. But how the fuck do they know how I felt? I had to die for them to notice I was ever alive."
~Connor, DEAR EVAN HANSEN
The novelization of the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen comes out tomorrow by Val Emmich from Poppy / Little, Brown and is a MUST for any fan of the show. It doesn't simply re-hash the moments of the musical. It doesn't just take Steven Levenson's book and the lyrics of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and put them in writing. It expands and evolves the world fans already know and love.
For example, did you know that Evan is Evan Hansen's middle name? I didn't. I went back and re-read the script (Published by Theatre Commincations Group, out now) to see if I had someone missed that and didn't see a mention. We find that out in the very first chapter, and I was already intrigued to see what else I could learn about this show I thought I knew so well. Evan is also really into documentaries, especially ones about loners and outcasts because he can relate. We also get a lot more story revolving around Connor Murphy that we never saw in the show and it really fleshed out his character. In fact, if you buy the Barnes and Noble Exclusive Edition, you'll be able to read "Connor's list of ten favorite books as well as never-before-seen lists from all four of the DEAR EVAN HANSEN authors." I also love that we can see a few of Connor's books in this novel. I don't want to tell you about all the cool new additions, though, because I loved the discovery of finding them all and know you will as well.
Do you need to be a fan of the musical to read DEAR EVAN HANSEN? No, certainly not! Emmich recreates the story and doesn't assume readers already know it. There are plenty of new bits in there for people who know the show so they won't get bored, and plenty of development for readers new to the story. Evan's story--Connor's story--are both important and should be accessible to teenagers who can't afford to go to Broadway or may not watch musicals. With a book, they can experience the story through a new medium. There are times when the lines from the musical are woven into the book, and they almost always work--there's only a couple of occurrences where the medium doesn't work as well. Mostly, however, it's cleverly woven in and just helps flesh out the story more fully for fans.
Evan Hansen has always been a loner. He doesn't have a lot of friends--in fact, the only person he can kind of call a friend is Jared Kleinman, a family friend who only hangs out with Evan to stay on his parents' good side. He can't even talk to the girl he has a crush on, Zoe Murphy, due to his severe social anxiety. His therapist makes him do a weekly letter to himself:
Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be a GOOD DAY,
and here's WHY.
Evan, however, has been seriously slacking. How do you convince yourself today is going to be spectacular if it's just another ho-hum, ordinary day? Nevertheless, he does the assignment in the school library, where it is picked up by Connor Murphy. Connor frequently bullies Evan, and even pushed him down earlier that day at school. First, Connor writes his name on Evan's cast in huge letters, then reads Evan's private letter, sees a comment about his sister (Evan's crush, Zoe) and thinks Evan is making fun of him. He takes the letter and leaves, and this small interaction between the boys becomes the catalyst for everything to change.
Connor Murphy is not a happy soul, which the novel explores more deeply than the musical did. His two encounters with Evan that day are minor, but a tipping point for him. When something happens later that evening, he can't take it anymore and commits suicide. His parents find Evan's therapy letter on him and assume it is a suicide note. They bring it to Evan, and though he tells them Connor didn't write the letter, they don't believe him when they see their son's name on his cast. They decide the boys were best friends, and Evan wants to help them heal, so he lets them believe this.
Lies, of course, always have a way of spinning and growing, and before he knows it, Evan is at the center of The Connor Project and goes viral. His life has changed completely and he's finally learning to deal with his anxiety, but everything he has is built on a lie...and what happens if everything comes toppling down?
DEAR EVAN HANSEN deals with a lot of hard topics that teens face every day. Suicide is more rampant than ever, as teen bullying and the pressures of social media get more and more extreme. How do we deal? And if we're so focused on ourselves, how do we know it's how others see us? Getting into Connor's headspace through this novel deepens his character so much and shows readers that there is more than one way to see things. Evan and Connor have completely different views of the same interactions. Both respond and reflect in ways that fuel their own issues along. We never have a fully clear picture, even through our first-person experiences. It's a powerful thought, and one teens need to hear.
Evan's journey is also important as he deals with his social anxiety and learns how to adapt in a world where he has always been invisible. He abhors speaking in public--in the musical, one of the stand-out moments is when he curls into a ball on stage when he has to give a speech. I was lucky enough to see the show when Ben Platt was still in it and the way he curled up and sweated and practically puked on stage due to his anxiety was one of the most emotional acting scenes I've seen in recent years. It really felt like Evan and the audience absolutely understood his insecurities and wanted to help him. He manages to recover enough to get through his speech, and while he thinks the way he freaked out will make him even more of a laughingstock, the opposite happens. Both the book and the musical focus on what it means to go viral in today's world and the implications it may have on us. For Evan, who has always been invisible and overlooked, there are now people looking at him, interacting with him, even encouraging him. If you can find one person to believe in you, to hold you up, to be there for you, that one encounter can take you off a horrible path and put you instead onto a positive one that can change your life for the better.
There are so many great talking points in DEAR EVAN HANSEN and the fact that it is now a novel means that it can be taught in schools and brought up in book clubs, and discussed in more detail with teens across the world. While fans of the musical will embrace the new elements and the fact that we can get into everyone's head a little more deeply and learn some new tidbits omitted from the show itself, it will live on for new readers and new fans as well, and possibly even save lives.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN: The Novel releases October 9, 2018 from Poppy / Little, Brown.