The Tony Award Winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, written by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson and directed by Michael Greif, has struck and connected with audiences for the last two-and-a-half-years since it opened on Broadway. Dear Evan Hansen, is about high school senior Evan Hansen (Robert Markus) who struggles with anxiety and longs to fit in and connect with his peers. While Evan writes a letter to himself for therapy, “Dear Evan Hansen today is going to be a good day and here’s why…,” school outcast Connor Murphy (Sean Patrick Dolan) finds the letter on the school printer and thinks it’s about him and gets angry. Three days later, Evan learns from Connor’s parents that Connor killed himself. The only thing they found with Connor was Evan’s letter and they believe it was his suicide note. Evan doesn’t have the heart (or the nerve) to tell them Connor didn’t write it and the lie that he and Connor were best friends quickly spirals out of control.
After Evan fabricates a story about going to an orchard with Connor where he broke his arm and Connor helped him, Evan enlists the help of his family friend Jared (Alessandro Costantini) to help him fabricate and backdate emails between him and Connor to prove that they were actually friends, even though they weren’t. Jared is the character that always articulates exactly what the audience is thinking, which is why the song “Sincerely, Me” where they’re writing the emails, is a great moment of comic relief for the audience after a heavy first twenty-minutes.
When the school slowly starts to forget about Connor, Alana (Shakura Dickson), who has many extracurricular activities on her transcript, tells Evan he can’t let that happen and the two of them start The Connor Project, an online social media-based group dedicated to keeping Connor’s memory alive. Connor comes back as a figment of Evan’s imagination and tells Evan, “no one deserves to be forgotten; no one deserves to fade away,” and so The Connor Project kicks off with a school memorial assembly, where, despite his anxiety and difficulty with public speaking, Evan makes a moving speech about how lonely Connor, and by extension himself, felt in the Act I finale “You Will Be Found.” This was a high point in Markus’ performance. He did an incredible job with showing Evan’s fear and anxiety—the shaking, the crying, the babbling—in the silence and darkness of the stage with only a spotlight on him.
This show is also about family. Evan lives with his mom, Heidi (Jessica Sherman), who is always busy and seems to never have time for Evan. His parents divorced when he was seven. Connor came from a wealthier family who also had their struggles. What they think is Connor’s suicide note to Evan is the only thing holding the Murphys together and they start to take care of Evan as if he is Connor, even offering him Connor’s college money. Hurt and humiliated, Heidi refuses the money and her and Evan fight but reconcile at the end in a beautiful scene, and a very moving performance from Sherman, with the two of them on the couch.
In a way that is both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, this musical deals with themes such as social media, loneliness, and mental illness in a unique and innovative way. Throughout the show, social media feeds fill the screens and it uses pop-esque music to get at emotions that are hard to talk about. This show resonates with millennials because it’s real. We know what Evan and Connor feel like. In a world dominated by screens and social media, are these tools bringing us closer together or instilling us with more loneliness? According to Dear Evan Hansen, the answer is both.
Dear Evan Hansen is currently playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto until June 30th.