Thoughts on Dear Evan Hansen (2021)

Having just seen the film, Dear Evan Hansen (2021), I feel inspired to talk about it. Just as a disclaimer, I always say you shouldn’t set your standards too high because things rarely live up the original, but I did just that – perhaps that’s why I’m conflicted.

Firstly, let me just explain that I LOVE the musical. I love it so much that I flew to London for a weekend just to see it. This musical means a lot to me, like I’m sure it does for many others.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, for those who don’t know, according to IMDB, Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of “a high school senior [Evan Hansen] with Social Anxiety disorder and his journey of self-discovery and acceptance following the suicide of a fellow classmate [Connor Murphy].”

The film is based on the stage show of the same name, which opened on Broadway in 2016, after its world premiere in mid-2015. It was later nominated for nine awards at the 71st Tony Awards, winning six, including Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for Ben Platt, Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Rachel Bay Jones, Best Musical, and Best Score. The West End production opened in London at the Noël Coward Theatre in October 2019, where I saw it in January 2020 with Sam Tutty in the main role.

In the stage show, we open with Anybody Have A Map? as sung by the mothers of both Evan Hansen and Connor Murphy. Through this song we get a glimpse into the complexities of both families. In the film, we open with Waving Through A Window which really sets a different tone. Obviously, I can only speak for myself, but for me, I believe Dear Evan Hansen is more about how, though, by having different upbringings, both sons can feel isolated and alone. Evan, with a mostly absent mother who’s always working, and Connor with, well, a mother with time on her hands. However, both, as in the song suggests, feel disconnected and are unsure how to get through to their distant sons.

The film also doesn’t include To Break In A Glove, Disappear and Good For You, which are all songs that show more of that family dynamic which, again, I think is needed. It also makes the family aspects that the film does include feel quite rushed. For example, the relationship between Evan and Zoe starts and ends very quickly. Also why even add the glove scene at all if it’s not going to add anything to the story? In To Break In A Glove, Evan gets to bond with Connor’s father, Larry (changed to step-father in the screen adaption). In the film, they barely have a relationship at all, and Larry’s story gets told in a couple of brief scenes. You see little of his grief and anger as it’s not fleshed out enough to hold that impactful weight it needs.

Also, without those songs, it puts more focus on the mental health side of things and while yes, that aspect is a major part of the story, you need that balance of showing Evan’s family life and that seemingly perfect comparison that the Murphy’s can offer too. I think it was a HUGE mistake to leave it all out as well as a MAJOR miscalculation of what makes Dear Evan Hansen so special.

Omitting Evan’s visions of Connor telling him to keep his memory alive too means after Sincerely Me (which I’m glad they didn’t screw up!), he’s completely removed from the film. Evan’s family friend, Jared is also reduced to allow the expansion of Alana’s character. Which, while fine, the dialogue between what drugs she and Evan are on felt forced and as unnecessary as Evan going on for five minutes about how sweaty his hands gets when he tries to talk to girls. In fact, a lot of the dialogue felt forced and unrealistic to me – sort of like “tell-don’t-show” exposition. The stage show, in my opinion, gets its messages across more subtly yet effectively without all the ham-fisted dialogue.

However, Alana does get her own song with The Anonymous Ones, which, just like the addition of Jasmine’s Speechless in the live action adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin (2019), it was a stand out.

The ending has also been altered for the film to give some closure to Connor’s story and allowing his family a chance to heal from seeing that their son had more depth than we’ve shown in the stage show. Personally, I hated this. While it gives us a lovely song in A Little Closer, sung beautifully by both Connor and Evan, I’d keep have the original songs over these additional scenes. It also changes Connor’s character from the original stage show. He’s allowed to still be an arsehole, that doesn’t take away from the fact that his death still brought on a movement that helped many others.   

The movie, as a whole, feels very uneven and the movie feels long. When it’s good, it’s good and when it’s off, it really drags. Even the emotional duet between Evan and Zoe, like Rewrite The Stars between Phillip and Anne in The Greatest Showman (2017), Only Us is the big musical love scene and it should feel grand. But it’s small, contained and ultimately underwhelming, I guess one could argue more realistic but if you’re going to go for it in a musical, really go for it! Make me get caught up in the romance. When the camera cuts to other locations, it’s engaging but having the two just sing to each other isn’t … and because they end on that same location, we also have no concept if any time has gone by at all. It’s like the beginning of a relationship that continues into six months and then returns back to the beginning. It would be like if all the characters in Les Mis’ One Day More began their match and then the scene returned to them pre-march … it makes no sense from a story perspective

I understand that it’s a film and film works differently. It’s a different medium. The stage show in comparison is very minimal in its set design, so I get why this needs to be changed, but changes should enhance not takeaway. I see it working better as a drama the way it is now than a musical – and this is coming from someone who loves musicals and the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack. The songs should continue to move the story along and not stop dead for a musical number. For example, in So Big / So Small was the perfect opportunity to visually story tell, but instead, the camera holds on Julianne Moore as she sings. It doesn’t add anything.

However, I don’t want to focus on only the negative because there was a lot I liked as well. I cried within the first thirty minutes, and by the end, three lots of tears had fallen – and this is coming from me who rarely cries in movies (again, this musical means a lot to me). You’re meant to feel.

There’s been a lot of debate whether Ben Platt is now too old for the role of Evan Hansen, considering he played his Tony Award winning role on Broadway at around 21 years of age. I thought regardless of him being now 27, he is a fine actor, great singer and perfect for the role. All the supporting actors did well to bring life to their characters too, albeit mostly underwritten – you can argue that Amy Adams and Julianne Moore are in the film to attract a crowd, but they are good too.

Overall, the film Dear Evan Hansen was okay, but it could and should have been a lot better.  I think I will enjoy it more on my second or third viewing. I suspect perhaps those who have nothing to compare it to will enjoy it more than those who love the stage production. But above all else, it’s a story of mental health, grief and isolation (which is something a lot of us are struggling with right now) so, if you’ve ever felt alone, you’ll get something out of this more than your average film.

The biggest question I have is how do Evan and Zoe have relatively the same size bedrooms if one is meant to the poor and the other rich? Having grown up among the upper middle class, I’ve never known anyone to have a bedroom that large!  

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