DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Music, lyrics, Benji Pasek, Justin Paul; book, Steven Levenson; scenery, David Kirins; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lights, Japhy Weidman; sound, Nevin Steinberg; projections, Peter Nigrini; choreography, Danny Mefford; direction, Michael Greif
Cast: Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mike Faist, Michael Park, Will Roland, Kristolyn Lloyd. Currently playing at the Music Box Theatre
The musical was first produced in Washington, D.C. and then off-Broadway before officially opening on Broadway in December 2016. It received highly positive notices from the critics. Especially high praise was given to Ben Platt, playing the title character. He still seems to be the favorite for a Tony for Leading Male in a Musical. Evan Hansen also differs from where a majority of musicals begin-- it is not based on, adapted from, inspired by…. It is a totally original story.
The scenery is a series of sliding panels and hanging scrims changing constantly with projections that remind you of tablets and phones with postings on Facebook or some other social media. Social Media (collective) becomes a character in itself. Our first view of insecure, shy, lonely Evan Hansen is seeing him lying on his bed with his tablet. He is composing his daily pep letter to himself that his therapist has recommended that he write. While in the school computer room where Evan is printing out the letter, it is snatched from him by the school bully Connor Murphy who stuffs it into his pocket. That night with no explanation Connor commits suicide. In his pocket his parents find the letter. It is immediately assumed that Evan must have befriended Connor, and this was a letter of gratitude. Evan cannot reveal the truth to the parents who are desperate to find some good in their son. Evan is also attracted to Connor’s sister Zoe, and his growing relationship with her parents only brings him closer to her. Evan’s nerd friends pick up on the story and send it out to the world. One friend establishes a fund in Connor’s name, and Evan is persuaded to give a speech to honor Connor and raise funds. Evan becomes a hero. He is seduced by the fame and attention even as he knows that Mephisto is taking his soul. The story swirls bigger and bigger and out of control. Even as it all comes crashing down, the ending makes clear that while consequences must be paid, all will make it through, be healed and be stronger.
Evan Hansen is entertaining, often funny, engaging, fast moving and never boring. As you are leaving the theatre, you begin to realize insights into the seemingly uncontrollable problems of a world more and more dominated by “social media.”
TIME (March 20, 2017) published an Essay: The Pursuit of Happy-ish by Susanna Schrobsdorff. The headline read: “Dear Evan Hansen, thanks for finding us. We’ve been waiting for a musical like you.” The opening paragraph reads: Dear Evan Hansen is a heart-scorching musical, about a teen boy so bound up by anxiety and loneliness that he makes mistakes he can’t fix and gets stuck in the quicksand of social-media adulation. But eventually, he finds a way to leave self-loathing behind. It’s also about parents reaching for their kids as they disappear into their phones and laptops. And it’s about the struggle to connect in an era when it seems as if we’re all awash in emotional hyperbole online and off.” She concludes the essay with what theatre is all about: “…[T]he intensity of Evan Hansen is in an old-school interactive experience in which you show up in person and sit very close to whomever you came with. If you’re there with your child, you can sense the way he or she is reacting to what’s happening on stage. Your kid will know when you hold your breath, or let a sob slip out. It’s a visceral exchange, one that feels primal and rare.”
If only every child in American could have a similar experience, and one so meaningful as that of attending Dear Evan Hansen.
BARBARA COOKLast week Adam LeGrant, son of Barbara Cook, singer nonpareil, announced his mother was retiring. After all she is 89, and not in good health. Everyone knew it was coming sometime shortly, but it was with greatest regret that we now heard that the news was real. To hear her in person was an extraordinary experience. We never saw her during her Broadway ingénue days (Cunegonde, Candide; Marian the Librarian, The Music Man; Amalia, She Loves Me, plus others).
By the late1960s she crashed and burned suffering from depression, alcoholism, and obesity. She had become unemployable and was known as being a drunk. Wally Harper, composer, music arranger, pianist/accompanist, met her in the early70s and convinced her that she had another career as a solo performer. A Carnegie Hall concert came in 1975, and her new career was launched. Wally Harper remained her artistic partner until his death in 2004. As extraordinary and acclaimed as that concert was, the everyday grind is another story. During those early years she made a number of appearances at Reno Sweeney on 13th Street, a bar with a small showroom, maybe seating 50 people. It was a shock to see this large woman appear and to realize that this was Barbara Cook. Weight was to be a problem that she has never overcome and one source of her immobility. She has said that she has not had a drink since 1977.
Lou and I have taken every chance to hear her from her days at Reno Sweeney to our last time when she was at Feinstein’s at the Regency, Christmas 2011. By some miracle all that abuse she gave her body did little to affect the voice. It darken some and a few top notes were gone, but the lyric purity and silvery sound were still there. Her interpretative powers have only increased. Every word, every note, every phrase has been filled with meaning, intent and emotion. She takes you on a journey with the arc of every song. You may think you know a song, but she will give you an insight that had not occurred to you earlier.
Once at Reno Sweeney in her patter with the audience, she mentioned “Glitter and Be Gay” (Candide). The audience burst into applause. She said, “Oh, no. Never again.” She kept in her repertory, “Ice Cream” (She Loves Me). She considers it to be the “perfect” Broadway musical song. (That would be the “strong book” musical. The song tells you about the character Amalia and explores and moves the storyline along. The audience has learned something about the character, and the storyline has been developed.) Although she originated none of the musicals of Sondheim, she became known as one of the greatest interpreters of his complex and technically demanding songs.
By 2011 at Feinstein’s she had become more guarded about some of those top notes, but every song was still a jewel. To be in the same room with her was a rapturous experience. The audience was in rapt attention and breathed with her. At the end of the performance the room darkened, then the lights came back up. She was still standing on stage. She announced that usually this was the time when the performer would go off stage and then come scurry back to give an encore. She said: “Let’s just pretend all that has happened. Now I’ll do the encores.” As I remember, she did two. As far as the audience was concerned, she could have done twenty. At the conclusion she was helped down the three steps to floor level and through the audience to the “backstage.” Her frailties only made the experience more precious. The audience stood, applauded, cheered, and whatever other approbation might be appropriate.
For all that constitutes facts on Cook, see www.barbaracook.com/bio. For all that is personal (open and frank) with marvelous insights into performing and singing, see her autobiography Then & Now: a Memoir, published in 2016.
Her discography is long--how fortunate we are. Three DVDs that show her performing are: The New York Philharmonic Concert of Sondheim’s Follies; Sondheim on Sondheim, a revue that brought her back to the Broadway stage for the first time in 23 years; Barbara Cook, Mostly Sondheim, a videorecording of the concert she gave at the Kennedy Center (2002). It includes as a bonus a master class that she gave during that time.
You Tube includes many examples