“Maybe we owe [Cats] an apology”
- Lily, Letterboxd Review
In the return to cinemas after COVID, many are itching for a classic film musical for them to remember for their whole year. Earlier this year we had In The Heights, and anticipated projects include Netflix’s Tick…Tick…Boom! And Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story. Dear Evan Hansen (2021) is a film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name, which debuted in late 2016 on Broadway. The 2021 film is directed by acclaimed director Steven Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), Wonder (2017)) and the screenplay is adapted by the original writer of the musical, Steven Levenson. The film stars now 28-year-old (we’ll return to that later) Ben Platt leading the show as the titular Evan Hansen, a high school senior with social anxiety. Other notable cast members include Kaitlyn Dever (Zoe Murphy), Julianne Moore (Heidi Hansen), and Amy Adams (Cynthia Murphy). The direct premise of the film from TMDB describes that Evan “unintentionally gets caught up in a lie after the family of a classmate who committed suicide mistakes one of Hansen’s letters for their son’s suicide note.” You can make of this story what you want, but despite the clear attempt of a positive perspective on this story, Dear Evan Hansen fails in every respect both onstage and even more onscreen to deliver any sense of sympathy or entertainment for the leads and their actions, and overall creates a dystopian social climate that should not be credited with any nuance or acclaim regarding the issues modern teens face today.
To get the things I did admire out of the way, I think that the newcomer performances were very strong in their portrayal of the characters. Kaitlyn Dever has been one of my favorite actresses for some time now, and she really delivers a passionate performance as Zoe Murphy, despite the lack of chemistry between her and Platt, as well as being stuck in the musical Dear Evan Hansen. I also thought the execution of the song “Sincerely, Me” was very well done and took advantage of the fact that this is now a movie. Changing locations, quick cuts back and forth from the letter and Evan and Jared, almost make me forget the circumstances and morals that are the context of the song! Julianne Moore and Amy Adams deliver good performances, but are brought down by the cuts that were made to the story. These are the only redeemable features of this movie, especially for someone who was critical of the broadway production too.
In a lot of ways, the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen is very reminiscent of the 2005 film adaptation of Rent, coincidentally also written by Steven Chbosky. Both feel like vanity projects for the leading actors and producers, with the project being made way after the musical’s cultural impact was relevant. Many, many mistakes are also followed in each project, whether that be the omission or obstruction of the original material, poor technical choices, and the miscasting of the former broadway cast in the attempt to restore the original musical’s message and vision. Rent arguably gets a slight pass due to a more empathetic and competent story, and the difference between young adults and adults is much less obvious than a 28-year-old playing a teenager. The moral of Steven Chbosky’s career is that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes. Chbosky must’ve studied this quote day and night, because it’s explicit in this 137-minute musical directorial stumble.
In the film version of Dear Evan Hansen, several changes are made to the script and story. The most prominent change to the film fans will notice is the removal of 4 songs, that being "Anybody Have a Map," "Good For You," To Break in a Glove," and "Disappear." Anybody Have a Map is an interesting choice to remove, since it was the opening song of the broadway musical. The musical opens on Evan Hansen writing a letter to himself for a therapy assignment, and his mother suggests he should ask kids at school to sign his cast, which he got from falling out of a tree. Meanwhile, we examine the wealthy Murphy family getting ready for school, with the kids Zoe and Connor living great lives but also distant with their parents, as lots of teenagers are. Anybody Have a Map is a song sung between Heidi and Cynthia wondering how to connect to their sons. The song is one of the only songs outside of the major conflict and ultimately delivers a very genuine appeal to the audience’s emotions regarding the themes of motherhood for a teenage son. The film decides to do away with all of this, never shifting the focus to the Murphy household in the beginning, and instead jumping into one of Evan’s big famous solos “Waving Through a Window”. Not only does this completely cut off a major string of the show’s heart, but ultimately accelerates veterans of the show straight into Evan’s story, giving not much perspective around him. “To Break in a Glove” is a song between Larry Murphy and Evan opening the 2nd act that tackles the lack of Evan’s father in his life, all centered around the idea of breaking in a baseball glove by playing catch. The replacement scene for it delivers the same quality the song did, but shortens it overall and takes away a lot of emotional resonance to it. The final omission to touch on is “Good For You”, which is where spoilers come into play (SKIP TO THE FINAL PARAGRAPH TO AVOID SPOILERS REGARDING DEAR EVAN HANSEN (2021) AND THE BROADWAY SHOW).
After Alana notices inconsistencies in Evan’s fake emails to Connor, Evan and Jared argue regarding fixing them, and Jared exposing him. Evan retaliates by saying he could expose Jared too. The two have a falling out, and Alana, Heidi, and Jared enter Evan’s conscience, compounding his guilt and doubt over his decisions. This serves as an important falling action in Evan’s story, which spirals even more into events later. The film does away with almost ALL of this and instead opts for no real fallout between Evan and Jared, and Evan and Alana still fall out due to Alana posting the original suicide note online. It also opts for a new falling action for Evan, where he posts a video on social media admitting to everything, and then doesn’t look at it. Evan has taken practically all of the blame off of him. The film in its final scenes progresses as it did before, however, once Evan wants to truly learn who Connor Murphy is, he begins emailing former rehab friends in search of things about him. In the play, Evan just reads his favorite books, but in the film, he does this on top of something new. One of Connor’s old rehab friends sends Evan a video of Connor singing and playing an original song on the guitar. Evan knows this is incredibly important to the Murphy family, as they knew that Connor wrote music, but they never were able to hear any of it. Evan duplicates the video onto a flashdrive and sends it anonymously to Alana, Jared, and the Murphy Family. Everyone loves it, and nobody but Evan knows he made this impact. Evan to himself has cleaned the wounds of everyone he hurt personally, and even reconciles with Zoe at the end just as the musical did. If this doesn’t establish Dear Evan Hansen as an attempt for a response for critics of the morals of the show, then I’m not sure what does.
Finally, the main conversation circulating the film is Ben Platt’s casting. Ben Platt originated the role on Broadway and was a staunch defender of his casting. Stating in a 2021 interview that “I think the reactions are largely from people that don’t know the context of the piece; the fact that I created the role and workshopped it for three years and did all of the out-of-town productions and originated on Broadway and received the accolades that I did… Were I not to do the movie, it probably wouldn’t get made.” Platt is essentially saying that Dear Evan Hansen would not exist without the famous portrayal of Evan Hansen by himself. This is a false statement, confirmed by both critics and fans of the musical. Many people on the internet asked why not cast actors Andrew Barth Feldman or Jordan Fisher for the role of Evan Hansen; 2 actors who have had the experience with the role on Broadway, as well as being much closer to the character’s age. The film had a huge discussion regarding nepotism in Platt’s casting. This is due to the fact that one of the film’s producers is Academy Award-nominated producer Marc Platt, which- you guessed it- is Ben Platt’s father. While obviously, both the studio and the Platt family have denounced this controversy, it still doesn’t change the fact a 28-year-old man is out of place in this environment. Many musicals have gotten away with this before, Grease being a classic but infamous example. However, it’s 2021 now, and with even the self-casting Lin Manuel Miranda not reprising the role of Usnavi in the film adaptation of In The Heights, this idea of retaining original cast members despite their age is an outdated practice, and should be rightfully criticized.
To shift the conversation to a general review of Dear Evan Hansen, the musical is not written in any way to truly sympathize with Evan or any characters. Evan is a manipulative liar, Connor abused Zoe, Alana uses Connor’s death for social justice and her status for the future, Jared uses it for money, and the whole tone of the setting is centered in this satire of social justice. While that final inclusion could be interpreted in a strong way- perhaps addressing the shallow nature of using a slogan for equality and justice and then not providing any help, it doesn’t really work that great for Dear Evan Hansen, especially if the director doesn’t care about it. The film takes all of these elements and arguably does each one even worse. Evan is given less overall blame for the situation, and by the time the big reveal happens that he also tried to commit suicide, the film has already shifted a perspective on Evan for you to not really care. Zoe speaking out about Connor’s emotional abuse was completely thrown under the rug by the characters in the show, and even the scriptwriter in real life, and Alana is made a more “complicated” character by the incorporation of her having mental illnesses too, with that bringing two new songs. All of the Alana additions feel very artificial, and despite an original song and reprise, still feel like the concepts aren’t given enough time to grow. As for the social commentary, posters saying “black lives matter!” and pride flags fill the schools. However, that’s it, and nobody really comments on it. The bare minimum is what constitutes a good job for them. There isn’t even any throwaway comment talking about how there are still problems in the world or even at the school. This is all interpretation, for all we know, this is fine for people. You could even interpret it as since Evan is so anxious about the world around him, and the world consists of all this social justice, perhaps he’s a bit against it for the sake of his mental health. The posters and their lack of commentary is not an intentional decision, but rather all of this analysis contributes to making Dear Evan Hansen look like a horror movie. Dear Evan Hansen does not benefit from being a film or existing at all.
There are four audiences that will go to see Dear Evan Hansen: Fans of the musical that will enjoy it, fans of the musical that will be disappointed, critics of the musical who will be instantly validated, but also feel worse. And finally, the mass audience of movie-goers, who will leave the theater a mixture of slightly sad but also very conflicted and confused. For a 2016/2017 musical that deserves more accolades and film attention than Dear Evan Hansen, I recommend Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. If you are interested in seeing a better, more heartfelt portrayal of mental health in a family setting, I recommend the 2009 musical Next To Normal. What Dear Evan Hansen lacks in character and empathy, these musicals make up for it in abundance. Honestly, I would’ve liked Dear Evan Hansen (2021) to be actually good, however because of the source material, ironically nothing could be found to save it. I would not recommend Dear Evan Hansen to anyone, and overall give it a 5/100 (½ Stars/5 Stars).