I went to Manhattan to see the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” It’s the hit of the season, nominated for nine Tony awards and garnering six, including Best Musical, as well as the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical award for Ben Platt who (brilliantly) plays Evan Hansen. The show is awesome.
Broadway shows can do what classic theatre is intended to do: take you out of the ordinary world and magically carry you into a world that is beyond anything you’ve imagined. By way of fantasy or set design, costumes or standout performances, the Broadway experience can be “other-worldly.”
To be sure, “Dear Evan Hansen” gives audiences an experience they’ll never forget. And yet, we never leave “this” world. In a most remarkable way, “Dear Evan Hansen” soars, entertains, challenges, confuses, breaks your heart, consoles, and leaves you questioning so very many things… all the while, keeping you right here, in the everyday world we all know.
Centering on the life of an anxiety ridden high school senior, the show is an outstanding tour de force that mirrors our current obsession with social media and the correlative effect that “digital” communication has on human relationships. The story line addresses several challenging facts of life: suicide, family brokenness, teenage image and the desire “to belong,” and very pointedly: the stories we tell and hear on social media and their impact for good and bad.
The songs in the show are the kind that replay themselves over and over again in your head (to me, that’s a sign of a great musical). The lyrics are crafted with story-telling excellence. Not only “poetic” (in the best sense of the word), the lyrics are “frontier.” They have the capacity to break open the heart of the matter in ways that are both powerful and, at times, parabolic.
“Waving Through a Window” is a perfect image for a teen who always sees himself “on the outside, looking in.” “For Forever,” will take the hearer back to your younger self and a time when you and your ‘best forever friend’ enjoyed the boundless joy of a simple summer day (“All we see is sky, for forever!”). “You Will Be Found” is an anthem of hope, a promise to all, especially young people, that, despite the “darkness” that is “now crashing in,” the Light of day will return and, ultimately, all will be well.
The song “Words Fail,” presents a true dilemma to a linguist like myself. My lifelong motto has been “Language Creates Reality.” And I stand by that creed. However, what’s true is true. There is a point where “words fail.” Our lives are formed by a Creation story that teaches, “God spoke” and “it was.” The human journey is a story incarnated. “Homo sapiens” speak and our desire is to “be heard.” And yet, words have limits. Despite our best “frontier” articulations, there is a deeper world of mystery that lies beyond words. We are given hints of that realm in Silence.
Personally, what remains with me most profoundly from my experience of “Dear Evan Hansen” is the notion (attributed in the show to young people) that we “disappear” after death. My point is not to disagree with anyone’s belief. But to me, it’s a huge statement about who we are to think that “this is it” and that after our time here, there is nothing more. In the show, after the character Connor commits suicide, the only plausible way for him to not “disappear” (“No one deserves to be forgotten”) is to create an online “project,” including a memorial and a fund-raiser.
Yet, I’m prone to think of story tellers from long ago who crafted lines such as, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). And, “Rejoice, for your very name is written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
The title of the show, “Dear Evan Hansen,” refers to a series of letters of hope that the title character is assigned to write to himself by his therapist. Since I do believe that “language creates reality,” this “assignment” actually becomes a metaphor for the notion that each of us creates the story line of life…our own life, and, the life of the world around us. And while words, ultimately, are incomplete; while what we are capable of communicating is “less than” what is… still, I believe we have a choice. As we also hear in scripture, “Each day I set before you a choice: a blessing, or, a curse. Therefore: Choose life.” (Deut. 30:15).
“Hitch your wagon to a star” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. I think that’s a good reminder. Who knows, ‘hitch your wagon to a star’…. And you might just find your very name written on that star.