Discovering Dear Evan Hansen – Part 1
Dear Evan Hansen is an original stage musical with music and lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, and screenplay by Steven Levenson.
However, I didn’t know all of this the first time I heard one of the songs in the musical. My journey in discovering Dear Evan Hansen is a long and interesting one. A story I will elaborate on in Part 2 of the series: “Discovering Dear Evan Hansen“.
In this article, I share what I’ve learned about the musical after listening to the musical’s soundtrack, countless interviews and after reading both the novel and screenplay.
What is it about?
Dear Evan Hansen is about a very lonely kid in high school, Evan Hansen (17). He has trouble connecting with people and feels isolated through his social anxiety and the hyper-connectivity of social media.
Evan’s life gets complicated when a series of misunderstandings and lies cause a family of a deceased classmate, Connor Murphy, to believe he was their son’s best friend.
Due to his need to comfort the Murphy family and to his desire for connection, Evan decides to play along and fabricate a friendship he never had.
Those who wrote the muscial
How it started
According to Pasek, Paul and Levenson their idea was to create a kind of toothy satire about social media, narcissism and people’s incapability to feel or connect with others.
Their plan was to covey these themes mainly through the hipper connectivity of social media. Through the way, people use it to prop up their own image or to insert themselves into other people’s tragedies. This is visible in the way the students in the musical started making online posts about the deceased, Connor Murphy, and how they pretended to have known him.
However, as the creators continued working on the show, they realised they didn’t want to create something that would ridicule and point a finger at people for doing something like this. Instead, they started wondering about the human aspect that lies deeper and beneath this universal impulse.
Why would people claim to have known someone they didn’t know just to insert themselves into someone else’s tragedy? How would they create a show where the viewers would have sympathy for someone who did this?
The message they wanted to convey
In the end, they realised the story they were telling was a story about two families – the Murphy’s and the Hansen family. A story about the parent’s inability to connect with their sons – seen in the opening song “Anybody have a Map?” – and the different paths each son ends up taking.
Connor Murphy’s inability to connect with his family acts as the catalyst of the story when he takes his own life. In contrast, at the end of the musical, Evan decides to have an honest conversation with his mother and form a real connection.
Evan could have easily gone the same way and commit suicide, but choosing to start an honest conversation saves him. Opening up to his mother about the abandonment he feels of his father leaving them, instead of hiding his own pain with the loss felt by others, acts as a moment of healing.
This is how I think the creators of Dear Evan Hansen managed to make the audience care about Evan. We do not see someone glorifying themselves in the pain of others, but we see a lonely soul with the yearning desire to connect with others.
Writing of the songs
Pasek and Paul worked with Levenson to tell this story through both dialogues, stage directions and songs. In an interview on Theater Talk, Levenson explains how he wrote the story and most of the first act as a play, which they later reworked into a musical.
Incorporating the dialogues in between the songs. In some cases even taking the dialogue or monologue’s kernel and turning it into a musical number. The result of this is the ease with which it is to follow the story as the characters talk or sing you through the events taking place.
The effortlessness in which the musical transitions between songs and the different acts is a significant characteristic of Dear Evan Hansen. In my experience – this was the first time I listened to a musical where the songs were very closely based and relevant to the actual events occurring in the story. Since then, I’ve sought out more musicals that follow this similar storytelling technique.
Their songs also embody the themes they wanted to convey through the musical, like the presence of social media in our everyday lives. An example of this can be found in the song; “You will be found”.
This song is a representation of Evan’s speech at Connor Murphy’s memorial service. Tweets and other typical social media comments or posts are made part of the song. Woven in between the instruments and the choir’s singing, you hear different voices reading various comments.
I love how Pasek and Paul worked repetitive verses into certain songs. Conveying Evan Hansen’s loneliness and his anxiety to connect with people, despite his deep desire to be seen.
Songs that are examples of this are:
- “Waving through a window”
- “Waiting for forever”
- “You will be found”
“Waving Through a Window”
Evan’s character is introduced to us in this song. We hear his desire for connection as he’s “tap-tap-tappin’ on the glass” and “waving through a window”, but he never truly manages to connect with others.
He’s always standing on the outside looking in. Self-sabotaging his opportunities to talk to people by constantly second-guessing his actions. Preventing any possibility for others to get to know him. We learn how his fear of rejection stops him from stepping into the sun where he will be seen.
The song goes deeper, emphasising Evan’s desire to be seen when he starts singing about an accident where he broke his arm. In the screenplay, this song is preceded by a scene where Evan tells his friend, Jared Kleinman, the story of how he broke his arm.
Evan: That's not what happend. Obviously. I was, um, well I was climbing a tree and I fell. Jared: You fell out of a tree? What are you, like, an acorn? Evan: Well, I was, I don't know if you know this, but I worked this summer as an apprentice park ranger at Ellison State Park. I'm sort of a tree expert now. Not to brag, but... (Jared says nothing.) Evan: Anyway. I tried to climb this forty-foot-tall oak tree. Jared: And then you fell...? Evan: Well, except it's a funny story, because there was this solid ten minutes after I fell, when I just lay there on the ground waiting for someone to come get me. Any second now, I kept saying to myself. Any second now, here they come. Jared: Did they? Evan: No. Nobody came. That's the, that's what's funny. [Act 1, Scene 1, Page 15 - 16]
He tells it as if it is a funny story – a joke – where he was waiting for someone to come and “find him”. When in fact, as it is later suggested in the screenplay, this scene forms part of his failed suicided attempt.
When Evan sings about falling out of the tree, he first mentions it as a universal question;
When you're fallin' in a forest And there's nobody around Do you ever really crash Or even make a sound? [Act 1, Scene 1, Page 20]
However, in the last repeat of this verse the song is made specific to Evan as he asks himself;
Did I even make a sound? It's like I never made a sound Will I ever make a sound? [Act 1, Scene 1, Page 21]
The kernel of this question is taken through the entire musical and forms part of one of the main themes within Dear Evan Hansen.
In the song, “For Forever”, Evan tells the Murphy family about the special day he and Connor shared at the apple orchard.
He creates this wonderful memory of this day, this friendship as he rewrites the story of how he broke his arm. He writes Connor into that tragic moment where he supposedly fell out of the tree.
And there he goes Racin' towards the talles tree From far across a yellow field I hear him callin', "Follow me" There we go Wonderin' how the world might look from up so high One foot after the other One branch, then to another I climb higher and higher I climb 'til the entire sun shines on my face And I suddenly feel the branch give way I'm on the ground My arm goes numb I look around And I see him come to get me He's come to get me And ev'rything's okay [Act 1, Scene 6, Page 43]
In this retelling and re-imagining of his accident, I believe Evan finds healing for the loneliness he felt at that moment.
“Disappear” and “You will be found”
The climax of Act One can be found with these two songs as they transition directly from one into the other. Taking us from a moment of despair into a moment of enlightenment.
“Disappear” starts as an imaginary conversation Evan has with Connor. Evan is horrified by how the memory of Connor seems to be fading away.
How could someone be forgotten as if they never existed?
Were Evan’s lie was originally intended to give the Murphy family something of Connor to hold on to. It now became his personal mission to make sure people never forgot Connor. If he couldn’t make this happen, then there would be no hope for himself or people who felt like Connor. Like them.
Connor: Guys like you and me We're just the loosers who keep waiting to be seen Right? I mean... No one seems to care Or stops to notice that we're there So we get lost in the in-between But, if you can somehow keep them thinking of me And make me more than an abandoned memory Well, that means we matter too It means someone will see that you are there [Act 1, Scene 12, Page 78 - 79]
Pasek and Paul then incorporates Evan’s word in the previous two songs into a dialogue sang by Connor;
When you're fallin' in a forest And there's nobody around All you want if for somebody to find you You're fallin' in a forest And when you hit the ground All you need is for somebody to find you [Act 1, Scene 12, Page 81]
Like with the song, “You will be found”, Pasek, Paul and Levenson also worked in some dialogue in between the singing verses. In these bits of dialogue, we learn about Evan’s plan to launch “The Connor Project. A student group dedicated to keeping Connor’s memory alive and to provide support to people who identify with Connor.
The project kicks off with an all-school memorial assembly where anyone could talk about Connor and share a memory of him. This is where the musical transitions from the song, “Disappear”, into “You will be found”. As Evan gives his speech in remembrance of Connor;
Have you ever felt like nobody was there? Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere? Have you ever felt like you could disappear? Like you could fall, and no one would hear [Act 1, Scene 12, Page 88]
Taking us from his story of falling in the forest, alone, to his realisation that you will be found. You will be seen.
Even when the dark comes crashin' through When you need a friend to carry you And when you are broken and on the ground You will be found [Act 1, Scene 12, Page 89]
“Words Fail” is where this all comes tumbling down and where Evan finally comes out with the truth.
He is tired of lying and of pretending. He isn’t enough to help the Murphy’s heal anymore – especially when they start blaming each other for Connor’s death.
Evan only kept on with the lie, because for a moment he believed he could hide all the parts of himself that he didn’t like.
This was just a sad invention It wasn't real, I know But we were happy I guess I couldn't let that go I guess I couldn't give that up I guess I wanted to believe 'Cause if I just believe Then I don't have to see what's really there [Act 2, Scene 9, Page 155]
However, he ends the song wondering how he could stop running away from the truth. How he could embrace it by stepping into the sun.
Luckily he finds this healing moment right after this song. He finds a real connection with his mother as she suddenly sees all of him and despite everything, she still loves him. He is finally enough.
Evan: I lied. About...so many things. Not just Connor. Last summer, I just...I felt so alone... (He can't go any futher than this.) Heidi: You can tell me. Evan (Shakes his head): You'll hate me. Heidi: Oh, Evan. Evan: You should. If you knew who I am, how...broken I am. Heidi: I already know you. And I love you. [Act 2, Scene 9, Page 157]
I think these repetitive verses and themes are why people are able to connect with these lyrics. It brings forth growth within the musical. Starting out as a particular character’s characteristics and feelings, which is later turned into a general human matter. This allows the songs to strike a familiar chord in our lives and highlight all the times we felt alone.
The Original Broadway Cast Recording
If you would like to listen to the musical’s entire soundtrack and find out which songs are your favourite, check out the YouTube link below.
My Journey in Discovering Dear Evan Hansen
As I said in the introduction, I didn’t know anything about the musical when I first started listening to its music. But ever since then I fell in love with it and over the course of four years I only became increasingly curious about the story behind these songs.
If you would like to read more about my journey, follow this link to Part 2 of this series in “Discovering Dear Evan Hansen.”
Other Sources used for this article:
- Levenson, Steven. Dear Evan Hansen, Theatre Communications Group, 2017, pp. 7 – 157.
- Build Series. Noah Galvin & Steven Levenson on the Musical, “Dear Evan Hansen“. Youtube, 13 December 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amm6o9Pbbmg.