Their song could be our song

Helen Maltby watches the musical 'Dear Evan Hansen'.

There are many ways that serious issues can be brought to the forefront of people’s minds. Soap operas are renowned for tackling topical, hard-hitting mental health storylines – usually followed by an action line number to call ‘if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in the programme’. But is the rise in mental health issues amongst our young people – from anxiety to eating disorders, and even suicide – suitable fodder for the frivolous world of musical theatre? 

I would find out in October, when I went along to London’s Noel Coward Theatre to see the Broadway smash hit Dear Evan Hansen. Evan is a 17-year-old, about to start his senior year of high school. On his first day he is struggling to write a letter – to himself. This is an assignment, but not from school… from his therapist. ‘Dear Evan Hansen. Today is going to be a good day and here’s why …’

Evan suffers from social anxiety, and, although never explicitly stated by the writers, many interpret him to have Asperger's. He is socially awkward and feels invisible amongst his classmates. But then another boy, Connor Murphy, kills himself. Through a series of events Evan finds himself cast as Connor’s only friend and becomes the centre of ‘The Connor Project’, which uses social media to raise awareness of teenage suicide.

It’s perhaps surprisingly common for today’s musicals to speak to the audience’s experiences more. I grew up with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I couldn’t relate to early 20th century life in pioneering America when I saw Oklahoma!. I just liked the songs. But when I sit and watch shows like the hugely successful 9/11 based Come From Away in London I can relate, because not only do I remember 9/11 but I can identify with the emotional journey that the characters go through. 

Who knows when this changed? Some point to shows like Les Miserables, which opened in 1985 and was certainly not designed to be a jolly night out. It was designed to move you emotionally, and maybe think about inequalities in the world. And the opening of Rent on Broadway in 1996 no doubt changed musical theatre in many ways. New Yorkers saw themselves on stage. Characters dealing with the AIDS epidemic and seeking ways to survive in the heart of Manhattan, when you don’t know where next week’s rent is coming from. Rent also saw the style of music change. Here was music that appeared to come from the charts, not from the world of musical theatre. It directly inspired Lin Manuel Miranda’s hugely successful Hamilton

Other musicals deal with topics such as ‘girl power’ and the ‘me too’ generation – Six, currently running in London, is a rock concert style musical where the wives of Henry the VIII are recast as strong women with lives of their own – speaking to the girl power and ‘me too’ generation. You only need to experience the stage door after a performance to see the dedication of the fans, predominately girls and young women (my 12-year-old daughter among them). 

What does psychology have to say about the power of musicals? A 2012 study ‘Do you hear the people sing?’, led by psychologist Frederick Heide, found that musical theatre has an ability to incite a change of attitude towards an emotive issue dependent on the level of emotional engagement they felt during the performance. The song which gave that paper its title – ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from Les Miserables – has recently been sung as a protest song in Hong Kong (and has been removed from music streaming platforms in China), and an Arabic version was performed in the finale of season two of Arab Idol in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

So does Dear Evan Hansen work as a musical? In a word, yes. Written by Pasek and Paul, the duo behind the phenomenal success that was The Greatest Showman, this show works in a way that wouldn’t have worked as well as a straight play. Musical theatre has the ability to draw you into the character’s inner thoughts and feelings. Through song we learn of the desperation and frustration of parents as they try to navigate parenting, always afraid that they are saying the wrong thing to their teenage children (‘Anybody have a map?’). Early on in the show you are given insight into Evan’s life as he feels it is passing him by and no one cares for him (‘Waving through a window’). The power of music to evoke emotions is clearly present here. The anthem of the show, ‘You Will Be Found’, is finding its way into school choirs. It speaks to the desire for children today to know that they are not alone and someone is there for them.

So I turn to my 15-year-old son, who was the driving force in us going to see the show. ‘I get Evan', he says. ‘I understand what he’s going through. He’s not alone, lots of us feel like that. His song could be my song.’

- Reviewed by Helen Maltby, a teacher and musical theatre fan, based in Milton Keynes.

Find out more at https://dearevanhansen.com

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