“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical about teenagers in the age of social media dealing with anxiety, confusion, loneliness, hurt, and suicide. A brilliant, cathartic narrative for our times, it cries out for us to recognize human fragility and empathize with it.
That message spread far beyond Broadway on Sunday night when “Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony Awards, including for best musical, best actor, and best score. The musical’s cast album, with songs like “You Will Be Found,” “Requiem,” and “Waving Through a Window,” debuted in the Billboard Top 10 earlier this year.
Best-actor winner Ben Platt, who is 23, reached out to vulnerable teenagers in his acceptance remarks during the nationally televised ceremony at Radio City Music Hall:
“To all young people watching at home, don’t waste any time trying to be like anybody but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”
In the plot, anxiety-ridden teen Evan Hansen writes pep-talk letters to himself on the advice of his therapist. One of the letters ends up in the pocket of a social outcast named Connor, who then dies by suicide. The Connor connection takes Evan into a swirl of lies as he fabricates stories about a friendship with Connor and pursues the crush he has on Connor’s sister. Evan achieves temporary social media-fueled fame as a campaigner to aid other youth experiencing Connor’s mental health struggles. Evan’s charade collapses, but the ordeal brings him to a reconciliation with his single-parent mom and to healthier self-awareness.
“Dear Evan Hansen” has been praised for its sensitive handling of mental disorders and suicide. The production has openly associated itself with mental health and suicide prevention organizations like the Child Mind Institute, the Crisis Text Line, The Jed Foundation, and The Trevor Project.
The show’s songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won the Tony Award for best original score, spoke to Variety about the care they took in writing about teen suicide. As Paul put it:
“We wanted to make sure the subject was treated thoughtfully and sensitively. There was vetting of the script and of the story with mental health professionals, to make sure what we were telling felt truthful and honest, and like we weren’t trying to sugarcoat things, but that also wasn’t trying to provoke anything. There’s a small change in the show that we made between Second Stage and Broadway, the addition of two little lines toward the very, very end of the show, that we added after some feedback that we’d gotten from families of teenagers or people who had taken their own lives.”
TIME’s Susanna Schrobsdorff captures the incredible impact “Dear Evan Hansen” is having on teenagers—and their parents:
Ask one of the many teenagers in the audience if the play seems authentic and they can barely get the words out. They say things like, “I’m in shock, it’s so good.” And often, right behind them, is a parent who’s also feeling undone. I lost it in the first act when the two stellar actors who play mothers of teens sing about feeling totally unqualified for the job of being a parent. “Does anybody have a map?” they cry. “Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?”