Dear Evan Hansen,
June 11, 2017 was a good day, and here’s why: because on that day your musical won the Tony Award for Best Original Score. But…Original Score?! Really? Frankly, words fail, because reality seems to be all but lost on the Tony nominating and voting committees, Broadway critics, musical theater aficionados and Alex Lacamoire. One can only hope that it will be found. But more on losing and finding in a bit.
My grandmother, a lifelong Broadway fanatic, mailed me your soundtrack, followed by a slew of texts and emails: “Everybody needs to hear this. I can’t stop listening to this soundtrack. Take 56 minutes. This will make your day.” I acquiesced and could only assume that the following group of people wrote about your story:
A small army of deeply cynical songwriters, eager to gross easy millions of dollars by spoon-feeding to the public overworked, superficially empowering lyrics and melodies guaranteed to melt in your ears the moment their saccharine sound bursts through your headphones. So I was shocked when Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, your soundtrack’s creators, accepted the Tony sans cynicism. Which made me sort of like them. But not their music.
No offense to you personally, Evan. In fact, I’m thrilled that you’re a voice for those who struggle with anxiety, depression and loneliness. Since you’re probably into truth-telling after the whole Connor-and-I-were-best-buds debacle, I’ve got a confession: I’ve never actually seen your musical. However, it’s evidently lauded for its groundbreaking portrayal of social media on the stage, and apparently Ben Platt was the most poignant, emotionally potent and altogether epic Broadway phenomenon since Lin-Manuel Miranda chopped off that perky, 18th century ponytail (though even the casting was safe; Platt, who originated your role, essentially played the same character in the “Pitch Perfect” flicks and “The Book of Mormon”). That’s good for you. Good for you, you, you. But I’m not here to critique staging, set design and acting. We need to get candid about the soundtrack.
Everyone’s gung-ho about “Waving Through a Window,” which bursts with more cliches and contrived energy than any other Broadway outcast-loner-angst-woe-is-me soliloquy I’ve heard. As the bridge builds into a blaring crescendo, Evan, it appears you’re bellowing “When you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around / Do you ever really crash or even make a sound? / Did I even make a sound? / Did I even make a sound?” What you really mean is “When you’re concocting a cathartic song with comfortable, easy lyrics and there’s everyone around / Do they thrust their fists high in the air and scream along really loud? / Are you engaged and invigorated now? / How about now?”
The cheapest, safest and most vanilla Broadway company empowerment anthem I’ve ever heard is “You Will be Found.” Your schoolmates might as well be screaming, “This is the most inspirational and exhilarating end-of-act-I showstopper ever, right? Surrender your better judgement, your discriminating taste and allow our empty, mind-numbing words to move you!”
Furthermore, while I do endorse lost and founds for objects, I’m not buying into this vague concept of human lost and founds. Evan, you seem pretty confident that “You will be found.” My question is, by whom? The passive voice is a cop-out. Plus, what if “they” don’t find you? I wonder what Amelia Earhart, Henry Hudson, or the victims of “forced disappearances” in Sri Lanka, Colombia, and North Korea would have to say about this song. We’ll never know for sure, given that they were not found.
In a more general sense, I am fairly certain that I have previously heard every one of the following lyrics from a big purple dinosaur, a little red monster, or Fred Rogers: “All you do is just believe you can be who you want to be.” “You still matter.” “You are not alone.” “No one deserves to be forgotten.” “Today at least you’re you, and that’s enough.” As for the latter lyric, I actually feel sorry for Ben Platt[itude] who must somehow transform this cornball into the final, moving proclamation. Since Pasek and Paul are evidently unconcerned about trouble with the PBS Kids copyright lawyers, I think I’ll likewise forgo consideration of copyright laws, and will print the words on posters in big block letters, stick a picture of a digitally enhanced sunset in front of them, and sell it at Walmart for $2.99, plus tax.
And then there’s the incessant metaphor-making with sun and sky, light and dark. I’m not suggesting that Pasek and Paul should’ve pulled a Sater and Shiek and authored lyrics dense with ethereal nature metaphors based on the likes of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Baudelaire and Keats. Still, I thought that a Tony would require more than tired phrases about forests, trees, and falling from trees in forests.
“But Dear Leah,” you might say, “My lyrics offer clean, straightforward family fun teeming with positive messages!” Indeed, I applaud your show’s capacity to empower people who are misunderstood, excluded and bullied. However, Evan, along with the lyrics’ utter lack of sophistication comes an unabashed appeal to the “mainstream.” Pasek and Paul evidently felt they had to keep the predominately white, affluent playgoers comfortable.
Your fans claim you’re reaching all of us, Evan. However, in truth, yours is yet another Broadway show made by white people, for white people. I’m more invested in Alana’s story than yours. I wish you were “the friend” in a musical about the challenges Alana faces as a student of color in what is apparently an otherwise all-white student population. Maybe Pasek and Paul could replace some of the losing and finding, disappearing and reappearing with lyrics about intersectional feminism. However, that would take real moxie and ingenu- ity, and then your creators would risk effortlessly hooking millions of listeners the moment they press “download.”
I’m also concerned about your show’s use of a public health crisis—suicide—to spur the plot in motion. I might think differently about the play itself. but as for the soundtrack, your show marginalizes and glorifies a national tragedy.
There is one song that makes me chuckle—“To Break in a Glove” offers some delicious, if unwitting, irony. It’s the one where your pseudo-Dad teaches you about “patience” and “perseverance.” Yet falling in love with “Dear Evan Hansen” requires neither. The moment those timeworn words and melodies hit your ears, you’re senselessly inspired. You want to sing along. You’re hooked. There’s no deeper meaning, no reason to re-listen to the soundtrack beyond ephemeral pleasure, no room for lyrical interpretation. The song sermonizes about the “hard way” and the “right way” to break in a glove. The hard and right way to listen to a soundtrack involves room for struggle, for occasional boredom on the first runthrough, for multiple, thoughtful listens before you appreciate the lyrics, and begin to make them your own.
Evan, your show shamelessly takes advantage of America’s weakness for simplicity and safety, and for people telling them exactly what they want and expect to hear, no matter how syrupy, banal and unoriginal that message might be.
PS-I didn’t drag myself to the theater to watch “The Greatest Showman”—Pasek and Paul’s most recent hit-making enterprise—but I did muddle through the painfully formulaic and artificially empowering soundtrack, all of which fail to mention that P.T. Barnum horrendously abused and exploited people with disabilities, including an enslaved woman, and animals. Classic.