On Sept. 24, Evan Hansen graced the silver screen for the first time; the 2016 multi-Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” was turned into a movie, with Ben Platt starring in the titular role that he originated five years ago. While the original stage version saw widespread success and became a viral sensation, the movie adaptation was not met with the same praise. The tongue-in-cheek charm that made audiences fall in love with the original music was lost in translation, leaving audiences with over two hours of uncertainty surrounding whether or not it was okay to laugh.
The Broadway musical, written by Steven Levenson with a score by contemporary composing duo Pasek and Paul, revolves around Evan Hansen, a socially awkward and neurodivergent teen who gets caught up in a web of lies when the family of a recently deceased student, Connor Murphy, mistakenly believes that the two were best friends. The lie eventually snowballs into a massive online movement for mental health awareness with Evan as the figurehead. What made the original stage version so successful was its charm and the dark comedy of it all. The plot, by itself, is heavy and harrowing. The masterful and delicate way the actors played off the script brought heart and humor to a story so dire, not to mention the songs brought brief moments of joy, hope and support. Every last detail worked in conjunction to create a painfully heartfelt story.
Herein lies where the movie version unfortunately missed its mark. A story centered around an awkward teen and social media surely should work well as a movie in this day and age, right? Not quite. While the movie generally stayed true to the original story, there were a few major changes which altered the tone and, consequently, altered the palatability of the story.
This first major change relates to the film’s score, with four songs deleted and three new songs added. In a musical, songs aren’t just tunes; they are pieces that move the story along. The deletion of original songs must be intentional and replaced with songs that serve the same or an improved purpose. While the musical did not suffer from the loss of two of the songs, the other two songs that were dropped left gaps that the new additions could not fill. The first song removed from the movie, “Anybody Have a Map,” was an opening number expressing how flustered both Heidi (Evan’s mother) and Cynthia (Connor’s mother) feel trying to raise their troubled teens as best they can. The second removed song, “Good for You,” is a rock anthem sung by Evan’s mother and Evan’s two closest friends as they lament their frustrations with Evan when he forgets what is important as he gets caught up in his lie. These songs added depth to the characters of the moms, who played incredibly important roles in the stage version. The demotion of these two songs to 30-second easter eggs in the background leaves Heidi and Cynthia to be one-dimensional matriarchal archetypes. As for the new songs, they were good, but not great — they left something to be desired. While these new tunes added depth to the previous side characters of Alana and Connor, the tunes did not serve the same impact.
If there is one thing the movie did justice, it was the Murphy family. In the stage version, this family represented your typical white, upper middle-class suburban family struggling to make sense of their lives when Connor passes. In the movie, writers made the choice to replace Connor’s dad with Larry Mora, the stepfather. This altered dynamic between the patriarch and the rest of the family did well to explore the complexities of a troubled family hiding behind the facade of perfection.
In summary, the changes made for the movie tried to do too much. While some alterations worked nicely in favor of certain characters, others characters — characters whose presence add to the heart of the show — were cast aside as a byproduct.
How can there be a “Dear Evan Hansen” review without mentioning the performance of the titular role? Ben Platt, 28, returned to the screen to reprise the role he originated and brought to life from 2014 to 2016. In that timeframe, he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Evan Hansen and other prestigious awards, including a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and Drama Desk Award for Best Lyrics. Platt contributed to the entire creative process, from the first table read to the workshop to opening night on Broadway; Evan Hansen is, in part, Ben Platt.
In defense of Platt, while his appearance begged the audience to suspend disbelief a little too much as the 28 year old played a character 10 years his junior, his painfully authentic performance made up for any qualm to be had with his return to the role. And, despite the accusations of nepotism against the film’s producer and Platt’s father, Marc Platt, it was clear that no one could bring the same impact to the role like Ben Platt.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” by nature of the story and its massive success on Broadway, should have easily been a hit in theaters. Unfortunately, it fell flat on the big screen. The actors’ depictions of the Murphy family were the main highlights of this version, but what is really key to the original story is the theatricality of it all. For a story with such a heavy premise, it is only comfortable to experience from the distance of the mezzanine. On Broadway, audiences had the opportunity to take a breath during intermission, struggle and squint to see the actors from the nose-bleed seats of the Music Box Theatre in New York City, and be relieved to meet a smiling Platt at the stage door after the performance. All of that was lost in the movie; audiences were forced to sit through 2 hours and 17 minutes of a depressing plot that only made their pity and disgust with the titular character grow with every action he took. What were once moments of dark humor on stage turned into moments of plain darkness. What should have been an eventually uplifting story about an anxious boy who learns how to deal with his demons, turned into a story about a borderline psychotic teen you can’t help but feel uncomfortably sad for as his life falls apart and never seems to resolve itself. Audiences were also gifted and cursed with the Ben Platt crying face, the most sinful mistake of them all.
Fans of the original stage version should give the movie version of “Dear Evan Hansen” a chance, at least to see Platt reprise his role for the last time and see Hollywood’s take on the story that was Broadway’s little secret for a while. Those who have no prior knowledge of the musical should also give it a chance, if only to experience one of the more unique original stories and powerful scores to come out of contemporary musical theater as of late.