Dallas — Among the myriad articles looking back at the 2010s in culture, I haven’t yet seen a discussion about the renewed popularity of original cast recordings (OCR), especially among a younger demographic. There were certainly mammoth cast recordings in previous decades, from The Phantom of the Opera to Rent to Wicked. But in the 2010s, streaming and social media must have had an effect on the increased interest. For instance, the songs from a regional production of Be More Chill went viral and led to its Broadway production; and the OCR for a musical that only lasted a year on Broadway, If/Then, sold better than expected because its star, Idina Menzel, was the voice behind that massive kid-friendly hit “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen. And then there’s Hamilton, the cast recording of which is now the best-selling OCR of all time, having gone Platinum six times. It spawned a subsequent Mixed Tape featuring high-profile pop and hip-hop stars, went to the top of the hip-hop charts (a first for a cast album), and made Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Albums of the decade.
The cast recording of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Dear Evan Hansen, which won the 2017 Best Musical Tony and is currently at the Music Hall at Fair Park via Dallas Summer Musicals, has also done quite well, being one of several OCRs this decade to be certified Gold (The Book of Mormon was another). But unlike Hamilton, which appealed to a range of demographics in age and background, DEH‘s popularity is more concentrated in a teen/young adult demographic. It’s the same group that may have been introduced to musical theater via TV (Glee, Smash, live musical productions) or film (Pitch Perfect, Sing Street, La La Land). How else to explain the hype behind a musical that is filled with generically anthemic tunes like “You Will Be Found”? It might come off as twee if the story and its staging weren’t so acute and of-the-moment.
Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is a socially awkward teenager living with his mother, Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman). When another social outcast, Connor (Noah Kieserman), kills himself, Evan is tagged as one of his friends and is tasked with letting the world know more about Connor. With the help of his tech friend Jared (Alessandro Costantini), student activist Alana (Samantha Williams), and Connor’s sister Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle), Evan launches “The Connor Project” and becomes a community hero — and a surrogate son to Connor’s parents Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Claire Rankin). The problem is in the way Evan and Jared grow their cause, which is not entirely on the up-and-up and gives Evan the Big Flaw that such lead characters need.
Directed by Michael Greif, with choreography by Danny Mefford and featuring an outstanding cast, this production of Dear Evan Hansen successfully conveys themes of social anxiety, grief, and the anger and questioning that come with suicide — all vivid in Steven Levenson’s book. A major contributor to this magic is David Korins’ scenic design, featuring layers of floating screens of various sizes — like a digital, three-dimensional, monochromatic Mondrian — on which messages, photos and social media imagery buzz nonstop. As in real life, it’s the thing we can't escape.
Where Dear Evan Hansen loses its way is in Pasek and Paul’s lackluster score, performed on this tour by eight musicians led by music director/conductor/keyboardist Garret Healy. The show is filled with songs that, despite varying tempi and a few gems like the lovely “Requiem” and Evan Hansen’s 11th hour soliloquy “Words Fail,” give the proceedings a tonal monotony. They're hummable and slick, but like so much pop pablum, only manage surface-level emotion. It’s easy to see how Pasek and Paul's work here led to the equally dull music of the film The Greatest Showman and was responsible for a similar anthemic hit, “This Is Me.” (I’ll forever be irritated that they couldn’t write something resembling an opera aria for the scene in which a world-famous opera singer performs.) Dear Evan Hansen lacks the musical complexity of their previous and stronger musical Dogfight.
Dear Evan Hansen isn’t as musically interesting as at least two of the musicals it beat for the Tony, Come from Away and Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The success of DEH lies in its depiction of how social media affects the generation of kids who never knew school without smart phones or Instagram — a beauty that is not apparent until one sees the show rather than being acquainted solely through the cast album, no matter how viral.