Dear Evan Hansen

Explaining my obsession.

If you follow my Facebook and Twitter accounts, you’ve probably noticed quite a few posts about the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” and the recent journey my son and I took to New York to see the original cast perform. I’m usually not so quick to spend the considerable money and time it takes to go to NYC (we get road companies of most major musicals here in Pittsburgh), but Dear Evan Hansen struck an unusually powerful chord with me. Plus its star, Ben Platt, is leaving the show on November 19. Having not made the effort to get to NYC to see Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton,” I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

But why can’t I stop talking about Dear Evan Hansen?

Anyone who knows me knows my first love — obsession really — was musical theatre. By the age of six or so, I knew all the words to all of the original cast recordings my mother owned, including every single Rogers and Hammerstein show. By age 8, I was writing my own plays, mostly so I could perform in them. In junior high and high school, I took acting and vocal lessons, performed in all the high school productions and attended summer drama camps. In a very real sense, theatre saved my life when I was a chubby and shy adolescent. Once I found my fellow theatre geeks, I was ok. Some of the members of that tribe are still good friends today.

My acting career was short lived, but I still love theatre, especially musical theatre. I listen to cast recordings in the car, and have a Broadway Pandora playlist that helps me stay up to date on new shows. This summer, I started hearing music from a show that I didn’t know anything about other than it had won the Tony award for Best Musical.  The first song that caught my attention was, “Anybody Have A Map?” which opens the show and portrays two mothers trying to engage in early morning conversations with their teenage sons. Evan Hansen’s mother sings:

Another stellar conversation for the scrapbook
Another stumble as I’m reaching for the right thing to say
I’m kinda coming up empty
Can’t find my way to you

Does anybody have a map?
Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?
I don’t know if you can tell
But this is me just pretending to know

So where’s the map?
I need a clue
‘Cause the scary truth is
I’m flying blind
And I’m making this up as I go

I was like, “Hey, they’re playing MY song!” It felt like every mother’s hymn. It felt like my hymn.  I listened to the rest of the album and I was hooked.

Dear Evan Hansen is a show about loneliness, loss and, ultimately, about the need for human connection and how difficult it is to find and trust those connections.

The primary character, Evan Hansen, is a lonely, socially anxious, perhaps autistic 17 year old who longs to find his place in the world.  We are introduced to Evan’s inner life through a beautiful song,  “Waving through a Window,” which gives us a sense of his disconnectedness:

When another socially isolated student, Connor Murphy, commits suicide, Evan inadvertently provides comfort to Connor’s family (PLOT DETOUR: Before he died, Connor bullied Evan about an encouraging email Evan wrote to himself as part of his therapy. Connor steals the letter from a school printer and has it in his pocket when he kills himself). Before long, by telling a series of lies leading Connor’s family to believe their dead son actually had a good friend while he was alive. Evan receives everything he thinks he ever wanted: a intact family, a girlfriend, and something every teenager dreams of — social media fame which translates into instant high school popularity.

Of course, Evan’s dishonesty is revealed in time. Although he does not have the life of his dreams or the girlfriend of his dreams or even the family of his dreams, he discovers/remembers that he deeply loved, especially by his single mother who, though frequently absent due to work and school as she struggles to keep their small family afloat, is fiercely dedicated to her son. More importantly, Evan understands that the person he is really is enough.

The more I think about this show, the more I think a story like Dear Evan Hansen has so much to say to the church and the people who work with young people in our congregations.

What I appreciate most about Dear Evan Hansen is how it speaks to:

  • How unbearably painful it is to be an outcast, especially in the hyper-connected yet not-really-connected age of social media. I am not sure how well or how honestly churches support kids who struggle with anxiety or depression or sexual identity questions or being on the autism spectrum or perfectionism or any of the number of ways the culture tells kids they are not enough.
  • How difficult it is to be a parent, especially to an out-of-step and/or struggling kid. One of the things I appreciated about Dear Evan Hansen is that it shows parents who are not at all sure how to help the person they love most deeply. The issue of suicide is taken seriously here — its effect on a family and in the wider community. I am not sure how well churches support parents who are wading, without a map, in the thick of these issues with their kids.
  • Hopefulness without a “happy” ending. The show ends on a redemptive note, but also a realistic one. Evan’s life isn’t perfect — he’s graduated from high school, working at Pottery Barn, trying to save money for college, and he didn’t get the girl he wanted. He is still anxious and still struggling. But he has come to know that one thing we want all of our kids to know. He is loved. He matters in the world. He is a child of God. And that’s enough.
  • It is a show that has reached out and made an impact on millions of young people who will probably never get to see the show (at least not in New York), but have found hopefulness and encouragement in it. This is one of literally dozens and dozens of Dear Evan Hansen fan videos from You Tube.

I am not a youth director or youth pastor or CE director. But after seeing my son respond to the message of Dear Evan Hansen in a way he seldom responds to anything not presented on a computer screen, I wonder if there isn’t a case to be made for someone who is a creative youth pastor type to develop a CE curriculum or youth program based upon the “Theology of Dear Evan Hansen” — and yes, I see theology in it, whether its creators intended it or not (remember “The Gospel According to Peanuts?”) Although it’s not my gift, I’d love to help someone smarter at this stuff than I am take a crack at it.

I can already hear a church choir singing the song that comes at the end of the first act:

Have you ever felt like nobody was there
Have you felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere
Have you ever felt like you could disappear
Like you could fall and no one would hear

Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay
Cause when you don’t feel strong enough to stand
You can reach, reach out your hand

And oh, someone will come running
And I know they’ll take you home

Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found

So let the sun come streaming in
Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
Lift your head and look around
You will be found
You will be found
You will be found
You will be found
You will be found

Anyway, that is a partial explanation for why I’ve been on a Dear Evan Hansen kick lately. I am grateful I took my son to see it and I am incredibly grateful for the rich conversation between us that it inspired.  If the show plays anywhere near your city/town, take yourself to see it. Better yet, take your church youth group to see it and build conversations around it afterward.









1 thought on “Dear Evan Hansen”

  1. Thanks for this lovely piece. And how did I not know you are a B’way musical geek – me too. You owe me some serious playlist next time I ride in your car! Love you!

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