I saw Dear Evan Hansen last Saturday. I knew it won a bunch of Tony Awards. I knew it was well loved and very popular.
And I did not like it.
I loved parts of it, I must admit. There were some great songs. The acting was really good but the characters weren’t as developed as I would’ve liked them to be.
But what I hated most of all was the…commonality of it. The old tropes of “awkward kid nobody notices or cares about does big thing, gets noticed, enjoys popularity all based on lies, is never really held accountable, but figures out that he matters because of all the experiences from this big thing.”
We’ve seen this way too many times in movies, books, plays, musicals, etc etc etc. Except that it’s not real life. And the “big things” that ordinary people do rarely get them noticed by anyone who will actually care. Boy #3 stood up for his friend from the neighborhood, brought him into the friend group and helped him make new friends, and now this friend and Boy #3 are going to camp together. And not one teacher or staff member, or even other kid, seemed to notice or care about this tremendous act of kindness. But the friend knows and his mother knows, and that’s where the recognition comes from.
There’s no viral post about anti-bullying, or special story about my kid. Because it shouldn’t be that big of deal. It’s everyday courage in being a good person, standing up for a friend, and just being kind.
But in DEH, this lie just grows and grows until it becomes unmanageable and he can no longer control the outcome. And naturally, once he’s shunned the people who cared about him originally, the lie comes tumbling out and there’s the truth, just sitting there in plain view. The people who were always there for you, that didn’t need anything special to love you, and THOSE are the people you reject in favor of the new people who only like you because of the lie.
But another side of this story, which is similar to movies like Ms Congeniality and She’s All That, is that there is this strict set of criteria that determines if you are cool, pretty, desirable or not. And if you are uncool, ugly, or undesirable, you must strive to change every single one of those things about yourself. If you wear glasses, if you don’t play sports, if you prefer small groups of friends, if you’re an introvert, or if somehow you really love learning and school. If you have any mental health issue, you are uncool. Change yourself. Seek therapy and learn to believe in yourself. Work hard to force yourself to talk to people and not be so shy. Get rid of those attributes which make you uncool.
But why? Why can’t people just embrace and love themselves? Why don’t we tell extroverts to shut the hell up and stop talking so much. “You talk more than you listen. You need to learn to listen. Stop talking to hear the sound of your own voice.”
Instead it’s the introverts who are told to “come out of their shell” and “stop being shy, we don’t bite.” What’s wrong with needing to warm up to a group or not feeling like introducing yourself to everyone at a bar? Why is extrovert the “cool” option and introvert is not? Who set this criteria and who the hell thinks making a ton of movies and books all about learning to be cool would appeal to anyone? Why can’t we just live in a world where everyone is cool with whatever they are and we add friends to our circles based on what we like about them. And then everyone has their hobbies and fun things they enjoy and no one determines what is cool and uncool?
I also read a great, equally unflattering review about DEH and how it attempts to normalize mental issues but also allows the Evan Hansen to completely escape accountability because of his mental issues. And through that process, it actually prevents Evan Hansen from learning to actually cope with his mental health and whatever else they’ve decided to write into him, whether it’s autism or something else. Supposedly he’s forgiven in the end, but it all felt so unfulfilling. When the truth came out, it was awkward but it felt like so much more was missing.
All of the thinking I’ve done about Dear Evan Hansen this past week has led me to a book idea about a “cool” kid with no perceived issues who actually has everything high school kids are supposed to want but STILL struggles with mental health problems. That’s the story I want to see unfold. Not the standard “uncool kid becomes popular, is seen, and completely lied about everything just to realize that there were always people who cared him” story.
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