Dear Evan Hansen premiered on Broadway in 2016 and critically acclaimed. He won the Tony Award for Best New Musical and Ben Platt won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as the main character. Evan Hansen, a lonely and anxious teenager, has a chance at whatever he wants – popularity in school, the girl of his dreams, and a stable two-parent home – all thanks to a lie.
Reviews rented the musical to stimulate conversations about mental health, suicide awareness and the effects of technology on adolescents. I had the chance to see Dear Evan Hansen during her original Broadway run, and all of the cast gave moving performances with emotional weight. A film adaptation seemed inevitable for such an acclaimed and popular musical, and, of course, last weekend Universal released Dear Evan Hansen in cinemas. We could hope that in 2021, with the social networks of adolescents use and mental health issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns – that the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen could have the same impact. Unfortunately, it is not the case.
The basic plot of the musical and film is this: Through a series of intrigues, Evan is mistaken for Connor Murphy’s best friend, a classmate who committed suicide. Misunderstanding turns into deliberate fabrication. Evan runs a massive social media campaign to remember Connor, becomes the second son of the Murphy family, and wins the affection of his crush, Connor’s sister, Zoe.
Only Ben Platt and Colton Ryan, who played the role of Connor on Broadway, reprise their roles for the film. The rest of the cast are replaced by Hollywood actors with varying levels of singing talent. Platt’s vocal performance is as strong as it was five years ago, but he looks too old now to play a high school student. The aging CGI used to disguise this might work, except the director relies endlessly on close-ups of the characters’ faces.
But beyond the nit-picking, the central problem with Dear Evan Hansen is the one that most afflicts musical adaptations in cinema: the exaggerated style of musical theater does not translate into the realistic medium of the film.
Audiences attend the live theater with a greater suspension of disbelief than when they see a movie. For example, the audience accepts that an actor rushing across the stage, hissing and clawing in a fur suit, is an acceptable portrayal of a “frozen cat”. In a film however, such a depiction strikes viewers as physically unreal and disturbing To look. Fortunately, Dear Evan Hansen is not as stylish as Cats, or most musicals for that matter. It tells the story of ordinary teenagers wearing ordinary clothes and facing real world problems. Unfortunately, while the film succeeds in physical realism, it struggles to emotional realism.
The gigantic swings of emotion during the songs seem out of place compared to the realistic gameplay and grounded in the rest of the film. This inconsistency is especially apparent in songs like “For Forever”, where the lyrics are meant to represent real dialogue from one character to another. While Platt passionately wears this number, his co-stars react as if he’s talking to them normally. The lack of realism in the musical numbers bleeds into the script of the film. The most clichéd dialogue always comes right in time to start another song.
Tellingly, the only number that really gets him out of the park is a fantasy. “Sincerely Me” is a song and dance duet between Evan and Connor’s “ghost”, while Evan forges emails to indicate that he and Connor were friends. The scene is campy and a lot of fun Broadway-style, and it works because it represents something not real.
It’s especially disappointing whenever a musical number interrupts the flow of the story, because the acting is so loud. Amy Adams plays Connor’s grieving mother with a fragile poise that always expresses her desperation for comfort. Julianne Moore plays Evan’s loving but overworked mother. A particular confrontation between her and Evan hits hard because the characters talk to each other rather than singing.
In many ways, Dear Evan Hansen the film enhances the musical. The plot is simplified and some characters seem more likable than their musical counterparts. The film deals with the same sensitive issues, arguably with more nuance than the musical. Unfortunately, in art form often trumps content, and Dear Evan Hansen joined a long listing of failed musical adaptations for the cinema.