“Dear Evan Hansen”–A Note to Loneliness

 

“Dear Evan Hansen” is “13 Reasons Why” meets “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” This original Broadway musical premiered this year and has received critical acclaim. At the upcoming 71st Tony Awards (this Sunday, June 11), “Dear Evan Hansen” is nominated for nine awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Actor in a Musical.

The title character, Evan Hansen, is a shy teenager almost incapacitated by some sort of cognitive or  social anxiety disorder.   Assigned by his therapist to draft letters about why each day will be good, one letter becomes the catalyst for the plot of the story. This letter was never meant to be shared, a lie that was only meant to be seen by the therapist. But for Evan a life he never dreamed happens as the letter’s impact unintentionally gains momentum and opens a portal for a chance to finally fit in. With unintended consequences, Evan Hansen’s letter reshapes events of a fellow student’s (Connor Murphy) suicide, resulting in both Hansen’s mom and Connor’s family experiencing heart-piercing grief. There is no justification for those left behind by a suicide and Connor’s death threatens the very existence of his family.

Deeply personal and profoundly contemporary, Dear Evan Hansen is about social media’s ability to unintentionally magnify “little lies” until they take on a life of their own. At that point there is no easy way out. As the lonely protagonist, Evan Hansen desperately wants to connect, even in cyberspace, but remains in an emotional abyss.   It’s also about how we project ourselves in our world, both physical and digital–but it’s not the “real you.” Our vanity metrics of “likes” become addictive and the dependency continues its hold on us.

The memorably soulful and emotionally resonant songs, by composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, based on a story from Pasek’s adolescence, strike the same complex notes that expose the tensions and conflicts of Evan Hansen.  The breathtaking stage design simulates social media’s continuous flashing and lightng, with computer screens in long hangings cascading behind and next to the performers on stage, reminiscent of the imaginative and Tony-award winning design for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is unforgettable, operatically emotional theater that should become a national sensation.

 

“Thirteen Reasons Why”–The Amber of the Moment

Thirteen Reasons Why

The Netflix Orginal Series, Thirteen Reasons Why, is based upon the 2007 YA novel by Jay Asher, depicting the trauma of teen angst, cyberbullying, sexual assault, and suicide. All thirteen episodes were released for streaming March 31.Co-produced by singer and actress Selena Gomez and her mother, Thirteen Reasons Why has evoked heated commentary, leading to the most-tweeted TV show this year.

Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on two narrators: Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) and his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker (Australian newcomer Katherine Langford in a breakthrough role). In the opening scene Clay returns home from school to discover a box containing six double-sided cassette tapes lying on his front porch. These are Hannah’s tape-recorded diary, an account of why she concluded that suicide was the only way out of her pain. The twelve reasons why (later, Clay adds the thirteenth) are an intricately woven, searing and gut-wrenching fabric of young Hannah’s life– confusion and desperation that rips out her will to live. Each of the twelve tapes calls out in detail a high school student’s grave injury to Hannah, leading to her unraveling.

Hannah, a beautiful teenager new to Lincoln High School, is an only child with devoted parents.   She is eager to make friends. Rather passive at first, succumbing to boys’ arrogant and callous mistreatment in order to be accepted, Hannah soon finds the role and status assigned to her to be overwhelming and demeaning.   The confidence needed to stand up and report to school administrators is just not there. Moreover, Clay–who is secretly and awkwardly in love with her–exhibits the same lack of confidence necessary to express his feelings towards her. This is a Romeo-Juliet dance ending with horrible repercussions for all involved in Hannah’s undoing.

Hannah’s parents—concerned, compassionate, and determined to understand their daughter’s suicide—are ultimately absent from Hannah’s life. Neither is able to even identify Hannah’s friends, let alone her enemies or tormenters.  The other parents can’t deal with what is happening and bewildered, distance themselves from Hannah’s parents. In the end, what’s most responsible is the failure of parents to understand the stresses in their teenage sons and daughters’ lives and of the administrators to care enough to intercede.   Alarms bells should ring. As Clay says in the final episode, reflecting on the student body’s treatment of Hannah: “It has to get better somehow–the way we treat each other.”

Thirteen Reasons Why is, in no small part, controversial because of its graphic portrayal of the act of suicide and of assault. Some have criticized the series as a how-to manual–an inspiration, even a glorification or act of revenge– for copycat teenage suicide.   But it is an expose of teenage angst and how it can accelerate and lead to tragedy, when there is no one to help. For those of us who only vaguely remember those years in which a glance or an insult could deeply wound and be almost unbearable, Thirteen Reasons Why may seem overwrought and slow in pacing. But give it time to sink in: that teenagers are unbelievably vulnerable. In the thirty-minute discussion with professional psychologists after the series finale, we see how the warning signs are always there, if we are perceptive enough to see them and brave enough to acknowledge them.

However problematic this series may seem to some, Thirteen Reasons Why  reveals a painful and undeniable truth. Many parents know next to nothing about what goes on in their teenagers’ lives.

Kurt Vonnegut may have said it best: “Here we are trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.”