We Have Notes On 'Dear Evan Hansen' : Pop Culture Happy Hour The stage musical Dear Evan Hansen debuted on Broadway five years ago. It won six Tony Awards, including one for its star, Ben Platt. It's now a movie, and Platt, who's now 27, is back to play Evan, a deeply troubled high school student who tangles himself in a lie. There's still singing, there's still dancing, and there are still a lot of questions to struggle with in this story. Plus, we remember the work of filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles.

We Have Notes On 'Dear Evan Hansen'

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

The stage musical "Dear Evan Hansen" debuted on Broadway five years ago. It won six Tony Awards, including one for its star Ben Platt. It's now a movie. Platt, who is now 27, is back to play Evan, a deeply troubled high school student who tangles himself in a lie.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The cast also includes Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams and Amandla Stenberg. They're still singing. They're still dancing. And there's still a lot of questions to struggle with in this story. I'm Glen Weldon.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today, we're talking about "Dear Evan Hansen" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Glen is writer Cate Young. Welcome back, Cate.

CATE YOUNG: Hi. Thanks for having me back. I'm so excited.

HOLMES: It's always delightful to have you. So as we mentioned, this was originally a musical that won a bunch of Tony Awards. The book is by Steven Levenson, who wrote the screenplay here. And the songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote the songs in "La La Land." The movie is directed by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the novel and then wrote and directed the film adaptation of another story about teenagers, "The Perks Of Being A Wallflower."

Ben Platt plays Evan. He's a kid with some combination of severe social anxiety, severe depression, maybe some other issues as well. He feels hugely alone. Julianne Moore plays his mom, who's trying to help him and has no idea how. Through a complicated and - it must be said - highly unlikely set of misunderstandings, the family of a fellow student named Connor, who died by suicide, comes to believe that Evan was their son's best friend, which he wasn't. Evan lets this drag on and on, which turns out horribly for everyone. Amy Adams and Danny Pino play the parents. And Kaitlyn Dever plays Connor's sister Zoe, who happens to be Evan's longtime crush. There's a whole story about social media and the way grief is publicly processed. That's where you meet Amandla Stenberg's character, Alana, who wants to create a memorial for Connor, even though she didn't know him.

Cate, I'm going to go to you first. What is your relationship with this show?

YOUNG: So I actually have never seen the stage musical. I think I initially started listening to the original Broadway cast recording after seeing Ben Platt in "The Politician." I had known that he sang, obviously, from having seen him in "Pitch Perfect," and "The Politician" makes quite a meal of finding reasons for him to sing.

HOLMES: For sure.

YOUNG: And so knowing that, I was like, well, I have nothing to do. It's the beginning of the pandemic. So I spent maybe, like, a good two, three months just listening to it on repeat. So I'm fairly familiar with the contours of the songs, but this is the first time that I have been able to see any kind of visual approximation...

HOLMES: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...Of the story.

HOLMES: How'd it go?

YOUNG: It happened.

HOLMES: (Laughter).

YOUNG: I think for me personally, I am less aggressively against the film than most critics seem to be, if only because I am a deeply sentimental person, and I'm very attached to the songs. But I also think that the criticisms that I had heard about the show when it was still on Broadway are much more apparent seeing them visually just because not having quite as strong of a grasp on the story, considering that the musical is not sung-through, having those missing pieces filled in for me...

HOLMES: Right.

YOUNG: ...Really adds a little bit of an element of menace that I think the show's creators maybe weren't intending.

HOLMES: Yeah. I agree. And I think - I want to mention, there has been quite a bit of good writing about this show, about the immorality of the lie that Evan is telling. And a lot of people who feel really strongly about that have done that. If you read some of the reviews, you'll certainly find that position well-represented. And I want to give an airing to that even if you, like me, are not quite as horrified by it as some. Glen, how horrified are you?

WELDON: Well, my experience of this musical is watching Ben Platt performing "Waving Through A Window" at the 2017 Tony Awards on YouTube. Conservatively, I'd say 50 or 60 times I've seen it by now because it's my husband's and my experience of a Friday night, if we're staying in, to fall down a YouTube Tony Awards rabbit hole. And we're staying in every Friday and Saturday nights now. So that's kind of what we're doing.

It's a great performance, that Ben Platt performance is. Newsflash, hot take - he's got pipes. But that performance, as great as it was, didn't do what a Tony performance is supposed to do, which is to sell you on the musical, to get you to - into the cast album. I never followed up on it.

And I couldn't figure out why, except, perhaps, I managed to glean through context cues that this was going to be one super, hyper, mega bummer of a musical, which, yep, turns out that this is so hyper-emotional in a way that's very big and very weighty, that it kind of felt kind of led in, in a way that has to do with the pacing. We get this barnburner of an opening number, "Waving Through a Window," that I thought was really well-staged here and really placed us inside this kid's head and filled me with all kinds of dread about high school that I've never gotten over.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAR EVAN HANSEN")

BEN PLATT: (As Evan Hansen, singing) On the outside always looking in. Will I ever be more than I've always been 'cause I'm tap, tap, tapping on the glass. I'm waving through a window. I try to speak, but nobody can hear. So I wait around for an answer to appear while I'm watch...

WELDON: But then we are slogging - and I counted it - through half an hour of dialogue before we get to our next song. That is too long. And it just feels stretched out. I don't get to use the word lugubrious much in casual conversation, but I'm going to bust it out here. Now, Linda, I have a question for you, though.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: You saw this on Broadway.

HOLMES: I did.

WELDON: So the trappings of this story, if you look at it from a distance, are the stuff of farce - right? - mistaken identity, people...

HOLMES: Exactly.

WELDON: ...Leap to conclusions. They spiral out of control. So in those opening moments of the musical, were people laughing at a moment, like, when the mother of Connor hands Evan back the Dear Evan Hansen note that she thinks was a suicide note, but was actually not?

HOLMES: No.

WELDON: Were people laughing?

HOLMES: No. And I - here's the thing. I have spent a lot of time kind of interrogating my reaction to this show because I was really - very, very moved by it when I saw it on Broadway. Specifically, I was very, very moved by the Ben Platt performance. But as I mentioned, a lot of people are, like, utterly repulsed by this story for reasons that I understand. I think the lie that he's telling opens up questions of consent about the relationship with the sister. There are a bunch of things that are really, deeply troubling about it. And exactly what you're saying is what I ultimately concluded, is that there is something that is fatal to this story.

To me, the strongest part of it is enormously bleak and sad, right? It is, to me, a very, very sad story of a kid who is - his pain is so big that he cannot see anything else. And yet, the plot is this kind of "Three's Company" farce comedy, you know, like all the Shakespeare stuff where people mistake one person for another person. It's this kind of silliness, and so there's no way to get your arms around the fact that the text of the show is saying he doesn't really do this on purpose...

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: ...Initially. But that could never happen. So you can't, like, analyze it like a real person. I like these guys and the way they write. Some people do. Some people don't. The fact that I really liked the songs and the fact that I was so struck by that performance caused me to, I think, forgive a lot of plot stuff that, perhaps, I should not have. But in a live theater, that performance, which is so twitchy and physical, is different than it is on film. It's, I think, more effective when you're in the room with it than it is on film.

YOUNG: I think that what the story lacks is the willingness to get at the root of, like, the nastiness of this story. I definitely felt very moved by just the weight of Evan's pain. But I also felt like, because it wants you to empathize with him and because he is the protagonist, it refuses to kind of look at the other side of what's happening in the story. It refuses to acknowledge the pain that he's causing other people. And I think that that's where it falls down because you're left with the sense of disbelief that you are supposed to feel badly for a person who's essentially taking advantage of a grieving family's pain. It is mitigated somewhat by his own issues with anxiety and depression. It does not actually excuse his behavior. I mean, lots of people...

HOLMES: Right.

YOUNG: ...Deal with anxiety and depression.

HOLMES: Exactly.

YOUNG: And most of them do not do this. So...

HOLMES: Right, right.

YOUNG: ...The idea that we should excuse this simply because he had to deal with his own mental health issues feels unfinished, mostly because they simply choose not to address it.

HOLMES: I think that's beautifully said. I think you can recognize both. This is, to me, a very powerful performance of a kid who is dealing with these severe issues. And yet, these kinds of issues do not actually create this kind of situation.

WELDON: I mean, I think that I would have enjoyed this more, not if it was played broader, per se, but played faster and sharper, more black comedy, more like "Heathers," where the joke is...

YOUNG: Yeah.

WELDON: ...How it's a vicious satire of what happens when kids die and everybody pretends that they were great people that have - even if they weren't. But I think the fuel mixture here is off. Its ballad after ballad after ballad. That really screws with the pacing. And I - look, I admire the impulse here, which is to say, let's take this farcical thing and really play it out, see how it would - what emotional ramifications it would actually have. That is an interesting thought experiment. It would be great theater workshop. But as a piece of entertainment, it's executed so deliberately, so plottingly. Now, we can talk about performances I love, songs that I thought were great. But I just think this needed to move faster and either be a lot lighter on its feet or to go for the jugular - light and sharp, as opposed to what we get here, which I think is pretty heavy and dull.

HOLMES: I know Cate has some thoughts about changes between the show and the film, songs that were taken out, songs that were added. And I have those, too. And I'll tell you, the first thing that occurs to me is that one of the places where I felt that ballad, ballad, ballad feeling is this big song that they've added for Alana, the Amandla Stenberg character, which does not exist in the original show.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAR EVAN HANSEN")

AMANDLA STENBERG: (As Alana Beck, singing) What if everybody's secret is they have that secret side? And to know they're somehow not alone - well, that's all they're hoping for.

HOLMES: She is a much more unpleasant character in the show as I saw it.

YOUNG: Alana was an interesting character for me because I wasn't sure whether or not that character was originally Black or if they had simply recast her for Amandla Stenberg. But I really liked the new song that they created for her because to me, it felt very personal and recognizable as this idea that for Black women and for Black girls, that there is this obligation to always have it together and the stress of that and the weight of that and how difficult it is to always be together. I felt like that song and the reprise later in the film gave us a good insight into what the stakes were for her personally and emotionally.

HOLMES: Yeah. I agree with that. I think that's a very fair point. And as you can imagine, if she's drawn a little more cynically, as I said in the stage show, then that thing that she does at the end looks very different. Now, Cate, talk to me about songs.

YOUNG: One of the things that I found frustrating with the movie is that I felt that it took out most if not all of the songs that kind of center the perspective of the parents. The one in particular that bothered me was the exclusion of the song "Good For You," in which Heidi, Evan's mom, as well as Alana and Jared essentially reproach Evan for the way that he is taking advantage of Connor's memory. And I felt that without that, the movie doesn't give us enough of a reason to recognize why Evan is so cruel to his mother and, secondly, what exactly it is that he thinks he's rebelling against.

HOLMES: Right, right.

YOUNG: I think that without that element of resentment and sadness that is left over from this big family thing that has happened to the two of them, he just becomes a whiny teenager doing a terrible...

HOLMES: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...Thing.

HOLMES: Yeah. And it's interesting because you talked - Glen, when you talked about the big opening number, "Waving Through A Window," the funny thing is that's not the opening number.

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOLMES: In the show, that's not the opening number. The show opens with a song in which Evan's mother and Connor's mother are both singing about how hard they are trying to fix their issues with their kids and how lost they both feel. The way in which I kind of saw this story when I saw the show was that the only thing that really is permanent in Evan's life that can help him is to connect with his mother. All of the other stuff is lying. All of the other stuff is fake. But he can connect with his mother.

And so there's a symmetry to the song at the beginning and a song that his mother sings late in the show. And without that song at the beginning, it's exactly what Cate's talking about. You don't get the sense of how hard his mother is trying, so you don't get that underlying feeling of like, if only he would go and talk to his mom. I also - I got to say, you know, Rachel Bay Jones won a Tony Award, just like Ben...

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Platt did for this show on Broadway. And I wish that they had let her be in this film because as much as I enjoy Julianne Moore, Rachel Bay Jones is an angrier version...

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Of Evan's mother. Cate, you also brought a clip of that song that I'm talking about that the mother sings at the end that's called "So Big / So Small."

YOUNG: Having become so familiar with the cast recording, I was disappointed with Julianne Moore's performance of that song, simply because it is one of the really important, emotionally anchoring tracks in the musical. And I don't think that her voice is quite up to it.

HOLMES: Yeah. Let's listen to a little bit of that Julianne Moore first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAR EVAN HANSEN")

JULIANNE MOORE: (As Heidi Hansen, singing) And I knew I'd come up short a million different ways, and I did.

YOUNG: And it's unfair, of course, to compare her to the originator of this role. But I think that in this rendition of the song - in Julianne Moore's rendition of the song, her voice is so slight and tinny that we don't really get the full...

HOLMES: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...Effect of what the story is trying to tell us.

HOLMES: I want to hear a little Rachel Bay Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO BIG / SO SMALL")

RACHEL BAY JONES: (As Heidi Hansen, singing) And I knew I'd come up short a million different ways, and I did.

HOLMES: She's so good.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: And as I said, there is also an opening song for her that fills out that character more. You just get a sense of her pain as well. And I think the more you get other people's pain besides his, the more balanced it is.

WELDON: Well, there's a couple songs that get to exactly that. I think - just they work better for me. The number "Requiem," I think, is remarkable because you've got these three different characters - Connor's mother, father and sister - separated in space and separated in motivation.

HOLMES: Right.

WELDON: They are singing the same chorus...

HOLMES: Yes.

WELDON: ...But different verses. They're singing the same chorus for radically different reasons. That is classic Sondheim, and I'm here for it. I thought it really worked well to show us exactly where those three characters are emotionally, intellectually at that point. The other song I really loved was "Sincerely, Me." Now, that's a song that's a duet between Evan and a Connor that never existed, the Connor that Evan creates in these fake emails between him and Connor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAR EVAN HANSEN")

COLTON RYAN: (As character, singing) I got to tell you, life without you has been hard.

NIK DODANI: (As character) Hard?

RYAN: (As character) singing) Has been bad.

DODANI: (As character) Bad?

RYAN: (As character, singing) Has been rough.

DODANI: (As character) Kinky.

PLATT: (As character) OK. Stop.

RYAN: (As character) And I miss talking about life and other stuff.

DODANI: (As character) Very specific.

PLATT: (As character) Shut up.

WELDON: That song has a real impulse to entertain with a sardonic edge, but it's also - at the same time, it is characterizing Evan. It's showing us what he imagines true friendship looks like. And implicitly, without pushing it, it's pointing us to how far away that is from him. It's a really fun number with a very sad meaning, as opposed to other numbers, which I think are just sad on sad on sad.

HOLMES: That was one of the numbers that when I saw it on stage, that I really did think was a lot of fun. I remember having that reaction, that, like, it's weird how fun this is 'cause this is really, like, a very messed up thing that they are doing, because it's done kind of while they're writing emails, you know, that are intended to seem to be, you know, emails from - between Evan and Connor. So it's all part of this deception, which is really troubling. And yet, the song is really upbeat. But I understand what you're saying, Glen. And I think if you want more of that bite to this story, you can think of that song as having a lot of bite. I don't know whether it works. You know what I mean?

WELDON: Yeah. The discourse around how - you know, what a horrible, immoral thing Evan is doing is a discourse that I'm trying to get my head around. But, I mean, Evan does a terrible thing. Does that make it problematic, or does that make it a story, you know? Macbeth kills the king. Does that make him problematic, or does that make him a character in a story that, you know, resolves? That is something I'm struggling with here. I don't understand why there is this shock and outrage over a character doing a bad thing when character's doing bad things and then dealing with the repercussions of it. Now, you could say he doesn't deal enough with the repercussions of it.

HOLMES: I think that's the argument.

WELDON: That's...

HOLMES: I think that's...

WELDON: ...The argument?

YOUNG: Yeah.

WELDON: OK.

HOLMES: I think the argument is, as Cate said, not enough recognition of the pain this causes other people. And second, to me, in part, it's a reception problem in the sense that I'm more troubled by this show when I see it treated with words like soaring or...

WELDON: Yeah, yeah.

HOLMES: ...When they try to sell it as, like, uplifting or, like, everybody should see this. And...

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...I just thought when I saw it that it was unbelievably sad.

WELDON: Yeah.

YOUNG: One of the things that is difficult for me to reconcile is that having listened to just the music, I came away with the impression that this is, like, this really upsetting, sad song. It took me a couple listens before I kind of recognized there was an attempted suicide by Evan over the course of the story. But I think with the film, the big, soaring Broadway numbers are kind of competing against the moral stuff because the music is so big and it's so Broadway and it's so beautiful and moving that it feels like an aggressive attempt to steer you away from the complicated aspects of the story.

HOLMES: Yeah.

YOUNG: And I think that that dissonance is part of what people are coming up against.

HOLMES: And, you know, as we talk about all these difficulties with the moral part of this, that's also the place, to me, where the age of Ben Platt comes into play because one of the reasons why I think I did have some empathy for him when I saw this originally is that he looked like a kid. And this is later, and he looks like a man. And Kaitlyn Dever does not look like a child either. And so it does play out weird. And if you're going to have empathy for him, he's got be a high school (laughter) student.

WELDON: Yeah.

YOUNG: Yeah. I think part of the difficulty, too, is that the other teenage characters look like teenagers, whereas he looks like an adult. And then that, to me, heightens...

HOLMES: Yeah.

YOUNG: ...Especially with the Kaitlyn character, the feeling that he is taking advantage of them in some way.

HOLMES: Well, as we said, this is a tough one. I imagine you have thoughts about it. Tell us what you think at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us at @pchh. Up next, what's making us happy this week.

Now it's time for our favorite segment. It's time to talk about what's making us happy this week. Glen, I'm going to go to you first. What's making you happy this week?

WELDON: In the latest issue of The New Republic, writer Alexander Chee has an essay that begins as a review of a new book, a new novel by this guy William di Canzio called "Alec." And that focuses on one of the characters from E.M. Forster's posthumously published novel "Maurice." But that's just a jumping-off point. And Chee really goes in. He really interrogates the initial reception that the novel "Maurice" - which was Forster's only novel that really depicted not only homosexual relationships but a homosexual happy ending - the reception it got in literary circles of 1971, when it was finally published a year after he died. It's something I never thought about before in my damn life because the novel's been part of queer canon for as long as I can remember. But to E.M. Forster's biggest fans in literary circles who were straight, the novel and Forster's queer identity came as a surprise.

And what's fascinating to me, as someone who's thought a lot about the subject of fandom, is you get to see the seeds, even in hoity-toity literary circles, of the sense of ownership of an author that we would now call toxic fandom. I mean, he quotes Cynthia Ozick's review at the time. She was a big fan of Forster novels, but she hated "Maurice" in a very scathing review. And then she goes on to say, quote, "Forster's reading public did not ever really know him." And for some, like Ozick, this felt like a betrayal, as if he owed his reader any truth other than what was in his novels or any life other than the one he lived in writing them. There was not the slightest bit of anger at what the world had denied Forster and only contempt at what he himself might have denied himself as a result.

So that is a very insightful point. He's pointing out that the image that we have that's calcified around Forster as this sad, lonely, closeted gay man has nothing to do with a life he actually lived and everything to do with straight critics who did not understand the danger that Forster would've placed himself in had he published that novel while he lived. It's just a really smart and eye-opening essay. It's called "The Afterlives Of E.M. Forster" by Alexander Chee in The New Republic.

HOLMES: Thank you very much, Glen Weldon. Cate Young, what is making you happy this week?

YOUNG: Well, I guess we're going to have a pretty queer week this week because what's making me happy is my first time viewing "The L Word" on Hulu.

WELDON: Woo.

YOUNG: I came out a couple - maybe about a year and a half ago. And in that time, I've been kind of going back to stories that I know and love that contain queer characters. And "The L Word" was always just a cultural blind spot that I had because I was too young to watch it when it first came out. And now that it's available to me, I've kind of mainlined about five seasons in the space of two weeks.

And it's been really enjoyable to kind of revisit these characters that I'm only lightly familiar with from the reboot that's currently airing on Showtime and kind of recognize where they came from and observe all of these characters in their relationships to each other and to other queer people in the Bush era and what that means for their lives and the lives that they imagine possible for themselves.

It does not entirely hold up. But most things don't. But it's really interesting to kind of look at it as a time capsule of a specific kind of queer life at a specific time and how looking at what was possible then is different from what's possible now and how that affects the relationships between these characters and the lives that they dream of.

HOLMES: Thank you very much, Cate Young. "The L Word," available on - you watched it on Hulu?

YOUNG: Yes.

HOLMES: All right. Thank you very much. I am going to talk a little bit about a book that is not quite out yet - coming out October 12, so not too far away. It's called "The Night The Lights Went Out." And it's by Drew Magary. And you might know Drew Magary from Deadspin or a variety of other online outlets. This is sort of a memoir of what happened to him the night that, following a Deadspin event, actually, he had a traumatic brain injury. It's not exactly clear what happened. He collapsed. He wound up in the hospital. He almost died.

And the first part of the book - it's like an oral history of your own injury and medical disaster. He has, you know, interviews with all of his coworkers who were there, with his parents, with his brother and sister, with his wife. It is riveting. I am here to tell you it is a riveting piece of writing because then after that, he goes on to write about his experience of rehab and recovery, the issues that he still has. He's had sensory issues. He's had other issues.

I knew him as a very funny writer. This is a deeply felt and, often, very funny - but, again, just - I could not - particularly the oral history part, you just can't take your eyes off it. It's such a good book. And again, it's called "The Night The Lights Went Out" by Drew Magary. I recommend it most highly. It is quite a read. And that's what's making me happy this week.

Before we go, we want to take a minute to acknowledge the death this week of the influential director Melvin Van Peebles. He was 89. He was best known for an innovative run of movies that included "Watermelon Man" in 1970, his first Hollywood feature. It was a scathing satire in which a white bigot, played by Godfrey Cambridge, is turned into a Black man, also played by Godfrey Cambridge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WATERMELON MAN")

GODFREY CAMBRIDGE: (As Jeff Gerber) It's a nightmare. That's what it is, old buddy, a nightmare. Must've been something you eat. Must've been something you ate.

HOLMES: His 1971 follow up was the also influential "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," an independent feature that was even more provocative than "Watermelon Man." It's a shaggy, electric tale that is often credited as one of the first films to kick off the so-called blaxploitation era. Van Peebles wrote, directed and starred in it himself, playing a performer at a brothel who becomes a fugitive after he attacks a couple of crooked white LAPD officers.

Van Peebles influenced filmmakers including Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans, and his own son, filmmaker Mario Van Peebles, with whom he often collaborated. In addition to his filmmaking, Van Peebles was an actor, a novelist, a Tony-nominated playwright, a musician. He's a fascinating figure. And as it happens, the Criterion Collection is releasing a box set called "Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films" this week.

And that brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @lindaholmes. You can find Glen at @ghweldon. You can find Cate at @battymamzelle. You can find our editor Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy. And our producer Candice Lim is at @thecandicelim. You can find our producer Jared Gair at @jaredmgair and our producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif, K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band Hello, Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. So thanks to both of you for being here.

WELDON: Thank you.

YOUNG: Thank you.

HOLMES: Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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