The movie version of Dear Evan Hansen illustrates almost everything that’s wrong with the contemporary Broadway musical. It’s the product of an artistic hub so limited in perspective and attitude that it has recently become a political bubble: Coterie members communicate among themselves and then sell elitist rhetoric to wide-eyed, gullible tourists. (The NY1weekly TV show On Stage gives a platform to Broadway’s incessant wokeness as if New York theater was still part of a politically mixed popular culture.)
A show about nearly autistic high-school student Evan Hansen (played by Ben Platt) is almost a metaphor for this creative crisis. Evan, so socially awkward that he seems queer (which the show exploits) and so pathologically insecure that he takes meds, is encouraged by his psychoanalyst to write letters to himself expressing his loneliness and fear of connecting with others. These exercises become the source of a deception — a hoax — involving another distressed classmate, his family, and the entire student body. Evan’s deception and the community’s secrets are sung in therapeutic show tunes by the duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote songs for the awful La La Land.
Transferring a Broadway show to Hollywood was traditionally the convention of a cohesive society — when a showfolk subculture spoke through a universal (in fact, unified) moral sensibility and a film adaptation would bring that artistic expression to a larger popular audience. But Dear Evan Hansen glories in Millennial fragmentation. Pasik and Paul celebrate how divided we are — our individuality and insularity are sentimentalized.
Pasik and Paul’s diversity anthems are musically mediocre, using the facile, out-of-touch idiom (via Spring Awakening, TV’s Glee, and the horrid Pitch Perfect movies) that separate Broadway songwriting and belting from livelier forms of pop music. Evan’s signature song, “Waving through a Window,” is full of tremolos and overarticulated self-pity that are blatantly false to youth music expression.
The performance by Platt (extravagantly praised on Broadway, and often congratulated for overcoming his own anxiety) seems grotesque on film. The material isn’t emotionally strong enough to achieve the adolescent essence that Julie Harris conveyed in The Member of the Wedding. Platt’s off-putting doofus is such a self-congratulatory stunt — and of a piece with the entire film. (It’s predictably annoying that Amy Adams is enlisted to waste her amiable gifts on a grieving-mother role; Julianne Moore brings her patented dedication to phoniness; and Amandla Stenberg plays the token sensitive black girl again.)
Here’s the greater hoax: By the time Evan’s embarrassing secret is made known — and the maudlin “You Will Be Found” becomes a literal showstopper (director Stephen Chbosky stages a TV commercial mash-up of Mean Girls; Love, Simon; and Footloose) — the show itself is exposed as a justification for the most deceptive practices of our era, whether small-town or in D.C. That’s the truth about insidey, politicized Broadway, as exemplified by the totally fraudulent Hamilton.
It is, perhaps, encouraging that Dear Evan Hansen, In the Heights, Rent, and Hamilton don’t pass muster with movie and streaming audiences. Broadway’s political fakery is disinfected by the key light of cinema and the rousing, cleansing energy of genuine pop music. “You Will Be Found” is a saphead’s version of the intricate, intense, and probing meditations in such authentic youth pop as “To Step Aside,” by the Pet Shop Boys. In Hansen, Broadway progressives manipulate suicide and public tragedy (a cowardly substitute for the national school-shooting craze) yet lack the robust candor heard in the defiant rock ’n’ roll challenge of Morrissey’s “Jim Jim Falls.”
Pop music can reach beyond the bubble of its subcultural and political market and articulate emotions that even far-flung audiences have been waiting to hear expressed. Nomadland proved this unexpectedly when one of the real-life bit players cited Morrissey’s “Home Is a Question Mark” and then pointed to a tattoo of song lyrics from The Smiths’ “Rubber Ring.” If “You Will Be Found” is the best that Dear Evan Hansen can offer — a Broadway nerd’s imitation of REM’s treacly “Everybody Hurts” — then it is a pathetic example of shameless pop exploitation. Another repellent Broadway musical smears its politics on the screen.