All We See is Sky: The Unstoppable Power of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

Yes, this is a post about musicals. No, you should not click away. Cliche as it sounds, Dear Evan Hansen is not your regular piece of musical theatre. It’s a triumph of art that can (and should) be enjoyed by all, whether you like the medium or not. Here’s why.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this show doesn’t exactly fit most people’s preconceptions as to what a musical is. For one, it’s completely new. Even I, as a moderate-to-avid musical theatre watcher, would have struggled a few years ago to think of many shows that came from nowhere. Broadway reflected Hollywood in this way – everything seemed to be an adaptation, revival or completely unwarranted musicalisation of our childhood faves (seriously, who asked for Shrek the Musical???).

Then along came Dear Evan Hansen. A new concept, devised by Pasek and Paul almost 8 years ago during their studies at the University of Michigan, Dear Evan Hansen is still the most current feeling piece of art I’ve consumed in a long time. The set feels reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, very dark with digital screens and harsh spotlights. At times it feels boundless and empty, at others completely overwhelming with flashing images of social media feeds. That’s where it’s effect lies, I suppose. The story is very centred around this idea of social media and hyperconnectivity, of which both the set and the music portray to incredible effect.

 

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The music. Usually, if I try to sell someone on a musical, the score isn’t the first thing I go to. Weird, I know, but I’m assuming here that the person I’m talking to needs convincing out of some pretty anti-musical feelings. Some people don’t like the old razzle-dazzle and that’s fine. I totally get it. But the music of Dear Evan Hansen is so fresh and modern that it could be played on the radio and you’d be none the wiser to its origins. There’s also a chance that you’ve already heard Pasek and Paul’s work in the past. Heard of La La Land? Yep, that’s Pasek and Paul, Oscar-winning composers. La La Land has done for movie musicals what Dear Evan Hansen is doing for the stage – bringing a wider audience in, and leaving them spell-bound. Waving Through a Window, the best-known song from the show, has been covered by all kinds of popular artists, including dodie and Owl City (remember them?!).

The score is gorgeous, the instrumentation feels modern and the voices, good lord. Rachel Bay Jones, Tony-winner, switches from poppy opening song, to raspy rock, to soft lullaby all within the same show. Ben Platt, who also won a Tony for his performance of Evan Hansen, has the most incredibly vulnerable yet powerful voice in any genre as far as I’m concerned. That vibrato though.

Okay so, the music is good, the singing is good. So what? Isn’t that like, the bare minimum for a musical? Yeah, good point. BUT. What really makes this show as special as it is is the story itself. Steven Levesnson’s book for Dear Evan Hansen is just as accomplished, nuanced and beautiful as the music. In my opinion, this is where many musicals fall down in people’s eyes. The music can be brilliantly orchestrated and performed, but if the story isn’t there to back them up, it can fall flat. But this story is incredible. Without spoiling too much, Evan Hansen is a socially anxious teenager who falls into a lie where he claims to have been close to a classmate who committed suicide. However, because of this lie, Evan helps the grieving family to heal, as well as doing good for the community and fixing himself a little on the way. The intricacies of Evan’s character are flawless, Ben Platt’s performance bringing out Levenson’s writing in the most beautiful ways. Platt has been hailed hugely for this, his commitment to Evan’s physicality and anxiousness requiring him to go to physical therapy so as not to develop a hunchback. But you never leave Evan’s side. You understand him the whole way through, which I think is a big compliment to the writing as well as the performing. All the characters are fleshed out, all are relatable and all are devastating in their own ways. They’re all wonderfully acted too.

More than just being a great piece of art, Dear Evan Hansen is important. As I said, this is new. Whilst a risky thing in the current Broadway climate, the show has experienced unadulterated success and has possibly changed the face of Broadway for the forseeable future. Thanks to the likes of Stranger Things, nostalgia has been dominating our media for a while now. And while I love it, and completely get why people want to distract themselves from the current moment, it’s important to think about it sometimes. Dear Evan Hansen brings forth some really prominent issues. Social media, anxiety, suicide. Feeling lost and alone when everyone around you is posting their whole lives online. Trying to connect with the people closest to you and failing. Trying to connect at all. The way in which these things are dealt with in the show is raw, I won’t lie to you. I cried a lot when I first saw it. Ben Platt’s performance is so visceral, there are tears and snot and spitting and it’s so painful to watch in parts. Rachel Bay Jones and Jennifer Laura Thompson’s performances as the mothers in the play are just genuinely heartbreaking. All of the performances are, really. It hits you, hard, and not just the parents or the kids, but both. That’s what I think is so incredible about Dear Evan Hansen. You can watch it, no matter what age you are, no matter your situation, and find something in it that will resonate with you.

I saw this show back in April and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I listened to the soundtrack constantly for a few weeks when I was really struggling with my mental health and there’s no price to put on the way it helped me. And that’s not an uncommon story. Dear Evan Hansen has brought out such a love in people, such a mass of stories and experiences being shared and talked about. It’s started a dialogue, between parents and their kids, between friends, and in society as a whole. This show says, ‘Hey, look. This shit is important, we can’t ignore it. Let’s talk. You will be found.’ That kind of message shouldn’t be limited because you don’t like the idea of musicals. Give it a go, and I promise, you won’t be disappointed. All we see is sky for forever.

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A Super Quick Love Letter to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Okay but, really. Why have more people not seen this show? Read this then immediately go and watch it. The first two seasons are on Netflix and if you don’t have Netflix 1) you’re a liar and 2) borrow your friend’s/flatmates/use your ex’s because we both know you still know the password.

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The first thing I want to say about this show is give it a chance. Look past the chic-flick title and premise and just, like, give it a chance dude. I know that ‘Quirky but smart woman quits her high-paying law job to move across the country to be with her two-months-at-a-summer-camp-when-they-were-sixteen ex-boyfriend’ sounds like the sort of 2 and a half star film you’d put on when you’ve got no plans on a Friday night but it is so much more than that! Here’s just a FEW reasons why this show is fantastic because I could literally write an essay per episode on why it’s important and no one wants to see that.

It’s pretty woke.

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From the title and content, you might think the opposite, but for a show in which almost the entire first season runs off of a love triangle between Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), her ex, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) and Josh’s sarky bartender best friend Greg (Santino Fontana), it manages to remain feminist. Mainly down to Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s fantastic writing, Rebecca is obsessed with romantic love with men in many ways, but this is never shown to devalue her as a woman, or a person. Female friendships, especially between Rebecca and best friend/partner-in-crime Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), are just as important to the show as the romantic relationships. By the end of the second season, I’d argue that they are more so. All the women in this show are painted as complicated, compassionate and intelligent, but most of all, they feel real. It’s kind of concerning how much I related to a lot of these women in a lot of ways.

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In addition to gender discussions, the show has several LGBT+ characters, including an openly bi character. And by openly I don’t mean the ‘likes both genders but doesn’t like labels’ kind of open that tends to get written in TV nowadays, but having a song called ‘Gettin’ Bi’ and playing sax in front of a giant bi flag open. It also shows Darryl (Pete Gardner) and White Josh (David Hull) to be in a secure, committed relationship to contrast with the outright terribleness of some of the straight ones in the show. It’s a genuinely refreshing thing to see, which is sad in the grand scheme of things, but a real success in the show.

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Finally, it has a fantastically diverse cast. In the seven leads there are three POC characters, including the main love interest of Josh Chan, and countless more amongst the recurring cast. Alongside the aforementioned LGBT+ representation, Rebecca’s Jewish heritage and Josh’s Christian beliefs are explored deeply as factors of their characters, rather than just throwaway features. Family set-ups range from the American ideal to families going through divorce and infidelity to single mothers with absent fathers to broken ones undergoing repair. It shows women who desperately want to get married, who feel stuck in married life and who are just doing their own thing. Rebecca has a lot of sex but is never shamed or looked down upon because of it. Rebecca is a powerhouse career gal, Valencia feels lost but eventually finds her calling, Heather is an 8-year-long community college student and Paula chooses to follow her career dreams alongside being a mother. The same goes for the men in the show. Greg got into Emory business school but was forced to stay in West Covina for his sick father, Josh tried to make it in New York but couldn’t hack it and returned to his family and girlfriend of 15 years that he can’t quite commit to, Darryl fights for sole custody of his daughter and Hector still lives with his mom. All of the characters in this show are written in such a way that you understand exactly why they do everything they do and why they are the way they are. Each character is afforded this complexity and the result is something so engaging and fresh that you can’t help but care for each and every one of them.

It’s funny.

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This sounds like a low bar for a comedy show but you’d be surprised. Since I first saw Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I’ve become super critical of American comedy shows for being funny through being offensive or cheap in their humour. My example would be The Big Bang Theory which, despite being super successful, I find hard to see past the fact that it’s basically just based around making fun of an autistic man. Shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Community broke that trend for me and since then I’ve been super wary of comedy shows on TV. There’s also probably the problem of me being a British person with a very British sense of humour but whatever. Even that part of me gets satisfied by Greg’s Office-style reactions (it was English first, dammit). The reason I think Crazy Ex-Girlfriend nails humour is because oftentimes the joke is not at the expense of the flawed person, but rather made by the flawed person to the ignorant one. It ridicules not being broken but not being compassionate. The funny moments also function as a kind of in-joke between the viewer and the characters, specifically I think for Rebecca and Greg. This is often achieved in the musical numbers. In ‘I Could If I Wanted To’, we laugh at Greg because he is trying to kid himself that he could get grades if he cared, but he doesn’t care so it’s, you know, whatever.

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In ‘You Stupid Bitch’, Rebecca is inviting criticism of herself in such a melodramatic way it’s hard not to find funny. However, these songs do a really clever thing. Due to the fantastic writing and acting, we connect so wholly with these characters that when we see into their heads during these songs, it’s hard not to relate in some way. Greg and Rebecca are super sympathetic characters, so when they sing these songs, we laugh at them so we can recognise the flaws in ourselves to laugh at. A combination of sad and funny on the surface, the humour this show brings also functions as a kind of catharsis for the viewer.

It’s brave.

This show really doesn’t shy away from stuff. It’s pretty ballsy for a prime-time cable show, dealing with all the things I mentioned before. The best and most brilliant way it does that is through Rebecca. She is the main character, we’re with her most of the time, we see the world through her musical lens. But she’s crazy. That’s just the thing. At the start of the pilot we see her heavily medicated, something we don’t see fully why until the end of the second season. We know she has a whole range of issues which she sometimes admits to, sometimes doesn’t.

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She isn’t consistent. She isn’t reliable. She makes HORRIBLE choices over and over. She lies and she cheats and she wallows and self-medicates. She is morally corrupt a lot of the time. But we never hate her. We never dislike her because the shows sets her up in such a way that we get it, we get exactly why she does everything she does and we even feel for her because of it. The same goes for all of the characters. When it comes to mental health, it is on the nose. Rebecca needs therapy, which she goes to but doesn’t pay attention to a lot of the time. She has breakdowns, anxiety attacks and dissociative episodes. We see why Greg ends up where he does at the start of the second season as it has been fed in throughout the first. Even Josh Chan, smiley, sunny Josh Chan, doesn’t want to be alone with his thoughts and has his own form of self-medication in running into the arms of the closest pretty girl.

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All of the characters in this show are so, SO flawed and that’s why they’re fantastic. Honestly, every single character is so well constructed and explored in three dimensions. I’m gonna stop this section here because I’ve gotten ranty but it just makes me laugh how easily they do it. Other shows, most shows, have their 2-D characters that have no other function than to further the plot, or fill a diversity quota, or be a villain for villain’s sake. But that’s lazy! And Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows how easy it is to just… like… write well. It also shows that you don’t have to shy away from the ugly things to create a character you can root for. In all honesty, I think it makes you root for them more if you see why they suck as people sometimes. It also callsĀ itself, its characters and the viewer out on an underlying prejudices and makes it super clear that some of that shit is not okay.

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Finally…

It’s a musical.

‘Nuff said.

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The first 2 seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are available on Netflix. Season 3 airs in October 2017.