Dear Evan Hansen hit its world premiere red carpet in Toronto not unlike the Titanic hit the Atlantic ocean. Gowns and suits, full of hope, and no knowledge of the complete and utter disaster waiting for them.
While it might seem extreme to compare the sinking of an ocean liner with a relatively small-budget movie musical, judging from the early reviews, the comparison really isn’t too far off.
You don’t need to look further than the headlines: “Dear Evan Hansen is a misfire on just about every level,” wrote the AV Club; “Cloying teenage musical a massive misfire,” said the Detroit News; “ghoulish Ben Platt sinks high school musical,” from The Guardian. And Canadian reviewer Sarah Hagi might have encapsulated the general critic opinion best in her article “Dear Evan Hansen is a true crime story.”
“After the events of the past year and a half, audiences at the cinema might need a bit of a reprieve,” Hagi wrote. “But what happens when a film tries to be uplifting, yet leaves you so nauseated and confused that it feels like a stain on your mind?”
But where, exactly, did it all go wrong? How did a beloved Broadway musical — winner of six Tony Awards, including best musical — provoke one of the most widespread and united hate-ons since Cats? How did a movie marketed as a feel good, come-together story get branded “manipulative” so many times it’s nearly become a tagline? And, most importantly, is all the hate warranted?
WATCH | CBC’s Eli Glasner and Jackson Weaver debate Dear Evan Hansen:
When it comes to manipulation, the worst culprit might be Dear Evan Hansen‘s framing. While the story is about a character many critics have described as a lying sociopath, it has been sold as a wholesome tale of redemption.
“I feel like — more so than than any film at this moment — it’s all about feeling part of the collective part of the community and feeling seen and and maybe one human race,” Ben Platt, who played Evan Hansen in both the Broadway show and the Hollywood musical, told CBC News at the TIFF red carpet.
And when director Stephen Chbosky — who also penned the successful but divisive Rent movie musical, as well as the 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake — was asked about Dear Evan Hansen‘s message, he pitched it in a similar way.
WATCH | Ben Platt and Stephen Chbosky on Dear Evan Hansen‘s message:
“The thing is, it’s like the song says: you are not alone,” Chbosky explained, referencing one of the production’s biggest songs. “It’s that simple.”
That song, You Will Be Found, has taken a prominent place in the musical’s overarching promotion — showing up in the movie trailer, Ben Platt’s performance on America’s Got Talent and even a crossover performance with Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda.
But to many film and theatre critics, pitching Dear Evan Hansen as anything close to a story of acceptance and redemption is, in a word, deranged.
And the fact its plot has gotten a pass for so long is due to the unique expectations of a musical on stage, versus what audiences see — and approve of — onscreen.
Richard Lawson, chief critic for Vanity Fair, explained that the actual plot of the musical was largely unknown to wide audiences before the movie premiere. While many moviegoers assumed it was a coming of age story about a gay teenager, the real plot is anything but that — and when they were confronted with the actual story, they felt both manipulated, and disgusted.
Even in the most basic, spoiler-free explanation, Lawson said, that plot comes as a shock. Dear Evan Hansen follows the titular character, played by Platt, as he lies about having known a classmate who died by suicide.
“A lot of people didn’t know that [Dear Evan Hansen] was about this kind of sinister lie,” Lawson said.
“This film was not necessarily cognizant of the fact that … most of their intended audience was going to be coming to this new, and were probably going to be a little bit less accepting of certain things that are less glaring on stage.”
Platt’s character then sings You Will Be Found as a speech to his school, after fabricating to them (and the rest of the world, as it’s soon shared widely on social media) his account of that classmate’s final days.
“It’s kind of used as this motif throughout the rest of the show. It’s all premised on a lie,” said Lawson of the song. “And yet we’re still supposed to find it inspirational, even though we know it’s, you know, its source is this incredible betrayal.”
Wider audience means wider criticism
Whether a bad character equals a bad story is a challenging question. Lawson — who in his review said he was not a fan of the movie, nor the original musical — pointed to The Talented Mr. Ripley as having a similar character. In that movie, Matt Damon plays the unrepentant serial killer Tom Ripley, and received five Academy Award nominations.
And the Dear Evan Hansen musical itself went roughly five years with an even darker plot and far less criticism. Carly Maga, who was the Toronto Star’s theatre critic during Dear Evan Hansen‘s 2019 run in the city, called the production a “tear-jerker” and “surefire smash” at the time.
In an interview with CBC News, Maga said the criticism hitting the movie version now was much harder to find before it found its way to Hollywood.
“It was there, it just wasn’t as prominent,” she explained — a sentiment Lawson echoed. “That’s difficult to have that power translate into a film … you don’t have Ben Platt’s spit landing on your face like it was infamously happening in the show.
“It’s just a fundamentally different experience.”
As to the question of whether Dear Evan Hansen was really that bad, it’s a bit more difficult to answer. While the film certainly has its faults, it also suffers from the general misunderstanding — and dislike — modern musicals are subjected to.
While Cats was rife with its own faults, both Maga and Lawson noted it was first derided for a seeming lack of story, even though the stage musical existed as one of the most popular productions for three decades before it was adapted.
And while the Apple TV+ musical Schmigadoon! was able to find an audience, it was only able to do so by making fun of the concept of musicals in general.
Dear Evan Hansen‘s faults, Lawson explained, were amplified when it was adapted to the screen, because film audiences judge success by a different metric. Realism and believability are more important in cinema than in musical theatre, which puts musicals at a disadvantage — at least Broadway adaptations.
So the reception to Dear Evan Hansen could bode poorly for future adaptations like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick Tick… Boom, Lawson explained.
“When you start from scratch, you can better fit something to the parameters of the screen, and and maybe the stage show should be, you know, unless someone has a really, really … perfect idea of how to do it, maybe should be left on stage.”
But, as Dear Evan Hansen’s negative reaction has so far been limited to critical reception, there is a chance it will prove a cult favourite — or even genuine success.
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