Warning: This essay contains spoilers for the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen.
A self-serving fabulist exploits the suicide of a high-school classmate by peddling a fake connection to the dead boy. The con man revels in the resulting internet fame, which wins him popularity and even the sexual attention of the boy’s grieving sister.
What a creep, right? What’s remarkable is that this character is no villain: He’s one of the most beloved protagonists of the theater season, the titular hero of the likely Best Musical Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen. He’s been lauded in the press; the New York Times calls him “compassionate” and marvels that “it’s hard to think of a character in a musical who is so relatable”; and he’s drawing passionate young crowds who shed buckets of tears every night in sold-out houses where the electric atmosphere is Hamilton-level. How does this musical make audiences fall for a liar like Evan Hansen?
It’s particularly amazing that this gifted dissembler has received such goodwill at a time when there is such anxiety about fake news and Internet disinformation. Dear Evan Hansen is the first major Broadway musical to explore these subjects, so it’s peculiar that most of the empathy in its story is directed at the character responsible for the elaborate digital deception. The New Yorker’s Hilton Als is one of the few critics who has not only zeroed in on the darker undercurrent here but also criticized the creators for not emphasizing it more. Most of the reviews, which have been overwhelmingly positive, have portrayed Hansen’s lies with a minimum of moral judgment.
That Evan Hansen is not just a kind of hero but one whose story will stay with a generation of young theatergoers forever is testament to the power of skillfully crafted art to reframe, manipulate, and even obscure moral concerns. If Dear Evan Hansen was a prestige television series, chances are the moral ugliness of this character would have been explored to a greater extent, but this musical isn’t looking to tell a complex antihero story. It plants itself firmly in the tradition of the simple outsider narrative, the story of a lovable outcast whose self-actualization comes from a struggle with an intimidating establishment.
Right from the start, Steven Levenson’s Tony-nominated book establishes Evan as a classic nerd, with the usual signifiers designed to win audience sympathies. He longs for a girl who barely knows he exists, has no friends, and gets pushed around at school. Unlike some peers, he wants to go to college, but might not have the money for tuition. As Evan, Ben Platt delivers a rightly raved-about performance with the intensity of an anxiety attack, as responsible as anything for making you feel the pain of Evan Hansen. Stammering and sweating, his Evan Hansen can’t seem to communicate with anyone. Before the plot gears move, he has been firmly established as an outsider.
And if there’s one thing that this divided country agrees upon, it is that the outsider is far more likable than the popular crowd, the loner more authentic than the mainstream elite. In his paradigm-shifting musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda did not introduce Alexander Hamilton as the ultimate elitist, the founder of modern finance. He presented him as a plucky immigrant, “young, scrappy, and hungry.” But Hamilton complicates this theme, making the desire to remain amid the elite, to stay in the room where it happens, a powerful but dangerous temptation. Dear Evan Hansen is more sentimental, stacking the deck, trying to keep the audience on the side of its main character.
When Evan starts lying, it’s by accident, though for a kid with poor social skills, he becomes surprisingly gifted at charming people. The show works hard to convince the audience that his early lies are well-intentioned; he’s trying to comfort people in grief. Before long, he is intoxicated by the fame and attention of his campaign to keep the memory of the dead boy, Connor Murphy, alive. The plot of the musical is reminiscent of the high-school frenzy over a teenage suicide in Heathers, but while that movie is a searing satire about a sociopath, this musical invites us to see the deception in the best possible light.
When Evan becomes a surrogate son of the family who lost their own, he does provide them comfort. When he uses the internet to create not only a fake story but an entirely false personality for the late boy, complete with long letters about his family, his mannerisms suggest he is struggling with his conscience. If Connor were a richer character, the way his death is used by Evan would come off as more exploitative than it does. But he barely appears onstage while alive and in that brief period comes off as a troubled bully. The late Connor does return as a figment of Evan’s imagination, but he’s not haunting the kid who has capitalized on his death; this ghost is grateful, so energetically supportive of Evan’s lies that he dances a duet with him.
Hansen’s escalating fibs, and the skepticism from one classmate, generate tension and suspense. For most of the show, we wait for the truth to be exposed and punishment meted out. By the time he falls into bed with the late boy’s sister, he appears to be heading for a brutal comeuppance. But bizarrely, it never comes. This musical employs many different tactics to prevent us from seeing Evan Hansen as a jerk, but its most audacious is to not allow anyone onstage to see him that way.
When Evan Hansen confesses his sins to the family of the dead son, the parents are stunned, but they do not castigate him or even raise their voice. They don’t tell anyone. Neither the kids at school who now view Evan as a leader keeping his friend’s memory alive, nor those following this viral story online, ever learn that they’ve fallen for a hoax. The worst punishment Evan Hansen receives is the stoic shock of this family, who stare at him while he sobs uncontrollably.
Is it really believable that the grieving Murphy family would never express any anger? They have been repeatedly lied to by Evan Hansen, a stranger until the death of their child, during the most painful moment of their lives. Is it plausible the sister, who slept with Evan under false pretenses, would betray no bitterness when meeting him a year later in the musical’s final scene—that she would, instead, express gratitude for helping the family cope with their loss?
The choice to give Evan Hansen no comeuppance doesn’t make dramatic sense. But you don’t need to be too cynical to see its commercial and emotional logic. Not giving voice to anger at Evan Hansen avoids the more unpleasant ramifications of his exploitation of a tragedy for his own personal gain, which might complicate the audience’s reaction to him. Evan Hansen isn’t as interested in these themes as it is in keeping the focus on the insecurity of the outsider, the nerd, the teenager yearning for acceptance. (To be fair, it is also interested in Evan’s mother, who has one of the most moving songs in the show.) The audience, already in awe of Platt’s virtuosic performance, gets to see the character forgiven—and now they can love him with less complication just in time for the standing ovation at curtain call.
This musical is a deft heartbreaker. I saw it twice and sobbed both times. But once my tears finished falling, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities not only with our own era of fake internet news but with the stories of famous media fabricators like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Like those liars, Evan Hansen becomes popular and a bit famous by inventing news, then strains to cover his tracks—implicating others and expanding his deceptions with little to no regard to the violation of trust. In the era of social media, when everyone has the ability to go viral, the fact he isn’t a journalist and the others were matters less than it once did. The lies of Glass and Blair were of course exposed and they received harsh and just punishments for their sins. Evan Hansen’s lies are never made public, and the audience clearly feels deeply for him—far more, I would argue, than they do for actual people like Glass and Blair, who are as worthy of sympathy as any flawed human.
The American musical does have a long tradition of likable con artists, but The Music Man and The Book of Mormon did more to examine the ramifications of the deceptions, even suggesting that sometimes being lied to can be good for you. Dear Evan Hansen is less interested in this provocative point than in the anguish of adolescence. At the end, after receiving absolution from the sister of the dead boy, Evan Hansen says to himself: “Today is going to be a good day, and here’s why. Because today, no matter what else, today, at least, you’re you. No hiding. No lying. Just … you. And that’s … that’s enough.”
The musical ends with Evan realizing that his lies helped him to be honest with himself. Make no mistake: This packs an emotional wallop. But in an era when trust in our institutions is so low, and the bedrock virtue of honesty can seem under threat, there’s something myopic about the biggest hit of the Broadway season celebrating a massive online fraud that helps a kid learn to be true to himself.