Words Fail: How “Dear Evan Hansen” shares a harmful message


Dear Evan Hansen (2018). Dear Evan Hansen promotional poster [Graphic]. Retrieved from http://www.playbill.com/gallery/see-all-the-playbills-of-2016/?slide=0

Emily Yoon, Staff Writer

  The Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” boasts an iconic soundtrack and a cast full of talented musical theatre performers, not to mention the Tony award for best musical in 2017. Having quickly gained traction in the musical world with hits such as “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found,” it is one of the most popular musicals today. 

   However, under snappy cover art and heart-wrenching instrumentals lies a rather disturbing storyline. 

Evan Hansen, the musical’s protagonist, suffers from anxiety. This, along with a desire to win over his classmate Zoe Murphy, prompts him to fake a friendship with Zoe’s dead brother, Connor. Soon, Evan’s lies spin out of control and cause the grieving family even more hurt as they begin to question the reasons for Connor’s suicide. 

   Eventually, Evan’s obsession with Zoe extends to the rest of the Murphy family, as he fosters a relationship with the Murphy parents; which is, again, based on the presumption that Evan knew Connor. His lies continue to spin out of control until the Murphy family finds out the truth; causing hurt for everyone involved, including Evan himself. 

   Though Evan eventually comes to regret his actions, this doesn’t happen before he causes everyone he knows to feel betrayed. This characterizes Evan as a villain as he causes havoc and betrays people left and right. 

   However, it is not Evan’s lies that are cause for controversy. The overarching motive for Evan’s actions being anxiety is the main problem.

   While it is true that anyone‒including someone with anxiety‒could in theory craft the intricate network of lies that Evan did, the fact that the musical blames these decisions on his anxiety places mental health in a negative light. It is wildly toxic to think that anxiety causes people to prey upon a newly grieving family to garner sympathy and romantic affection. 

   Portraying Evan, an obsessive, manipulative character who spirals into a monster, as a person with anxiety sends a pernicious message: People with anxiety and other mental disorders are manipulative monsters. And of course, this causes even more harm to the mental health community, fostering feelings of hostility towards a vulnerable group of people who need love and support more than anything. There is a villain in the room, but it is the creators of the musical itself. 

   Unfortunately, “Dear Evan Hansen” is not the first piece of media to encourage negative sentiments towards people that struggle with mental health conditions. The cult classic film “Psycho” deals with a psychotic serial killer. Countless video games are set in mental asylums, viewing people with mental health issues as horrific, scary, almost inhuman beings. Even pop sensation Melanie Martinez piggybacks off this trend with her song “Mad Hatter”, in which she sings about revelling in the lifestyle of an insane murderess: “So what if I’m crazy? All the best people are.” 

   All these examples make one thing clear: Pop culture has, and continues to, dehumanize victims of mental health. 

  But “Dear Evan Hansen” is just one musical, right? It can’t possibly be causing that much damage, right? 

   Wrong. The message that Evan Hansen’s anxiety makes him a pathological liar is harmful enough, but coupled with the message that they are trying to help people struggling with mental illness, communicates inconsistent ideas. 

   The sentiment that “you will be found” reassures struggling teens that they will be received and helped by their communities, but the rest of the musical’s portrayal of mental illness as dangerous creates a problem that the rest of the musical claims to be able to solve. 

   This condescending harm-combined-with-help causes more damage than it fixes. When “Dear Evan Hansen” portrays people with mental illness as dangerous and in the same breath proclaiming that these same people “will be found” is patronizing and dehumanizing. And it’s a shame that people, not knowing the full story or realizing its damage, praise the musical for its portrayal of mental illnesses. 

     This isn’t to say that “Dear Evan Hansen” is without its gems. As someone who’s been known to belt out “Waving Through a Window” on more occasions than one and who harbors a celebrity crush on the current Evan on Broadway (Andrew Barth Feldman), I more than appreciate the catchy melodies and endless talent of the cast.

   However, the inaccurate and misinformed portrayal of anxiety is something that should not be endorsed on any stage, small or large, and especially not on Broadway. Live theatre is something that has the power to be hugely impactful, but with all power comes responsibility. It is so important that musicals dehumanizing victims of mental illness do not become the norm. 

   When “Dear Evan Hansen” closes, “I will sing no requiem.” I will rejoice, in the hopes that an honest, accurate portrayal of mental illness can take its place.