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Broadway hit ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ strikes an emotional chord with its fans

June 6, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
“Dear Evan Hansen,” a surprise hit musical, is the story of an ordinary teen who all his life has felt invisible. But when a classmate commits suicide, Hansen is mistakenly seen as his one friend and becomes the center of attention. The Tony-nominated show draws awareness to the loneliness and pain of teen life and how isolation can be intensified in today’s social media world. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As the 2017 Tony Awards approach this Sunday, we look at one of this season’s biggest Broadway hits and the impact it’s having.

Jeffrey Brown is back with the story from New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Dear Evan Hansen” is a high school musical, but one in which the loneliness and pain of teen life is front and center, and the sense of isolation intensified in today’s social media world.

At the famed Sardi’s Restaurant recently, star Ben Platt said audiences are clearly finding a connection.

BEN PLATT, “Evan Hansen”: People that come to the show feel, right now, especially with sort of hyperconnectivity online and with people feeling sort of instantaneously judged all the time, I think people kind of recede into these sort of bubbles.

The chance to sort of connect and realize that nobody’s experience of loneliness is unique and that everybody at some time or another feels sort of on the outside looking in, or feels that they can’t really fully be present, or that they aren’t sort of one of the whole, but rather on their own, is a really powerful thing right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 23-year-old Platt grew up around movies and theater. His father, Marc, is a major producer of hits, including “Wicked.”

Before this production, Ben was known for roles in the “Pitch Perfect” films and in the musical “The Book of Mormon.”

He plays Evan Hansen as a young man so insecure, he can barely speak. It’s an acclaimed performance of teenage awkwardness and vibrant singing.

BEN PLATT: This role is certainly the biggest challenge I have had so far in my life. And it’s a huge blessing in that way, too, because I feel like I’m using all of the proverbial tools that I have in my belt, which is all you want as an actor, is to feel like you’re really being able to show everything you have got.

And, vocally and physically and emotionally and all of that, it requires a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: When a classmate commits suicide, Evan Hansen is mistakenly seen as his one friend. Evan is suddenly a subject of interest to his classmates and the other boy’s family.

He gains a girlfriend and even a kind of instant celebrity when a speech he gives about suicide goes viral. But it’s all a misunderstanding, destined to come crashing down around him.

Steven Levenson wrote the story.

STEVEN LEVENSON, Playwright, “Dear Evan Hansen”: It’s very much this singular story of this person in the world that we know very well, but struggling with these things that hopefully are things that we all know and experience.

But we never wanted it to feel like learning or didactic. We never wanted to teach the audience a lesson or to talk about technology. We just wanted to tell this story and hopefully illuminate something about the world in doing this.

MICHAEL GREIF, Director, “Dear Evan Hansen”: Yes, and like in all the — in all great theater writing, those themes get expressed through that story. And those things become a part of Evan’s story and a part of his world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Director Michael Greif previously staged two Pulitzer Prize-winning musicals, “Rent” and “Next to Normal,” that took on complex contemporary issues, such as drug addiction and bipolar disorder.

You clearly feel that musicals can tell difficult stories.

MICHAEL GREIF: Yes, certainly. I grew up seeing a lot of different kinds of musicals. And the musicals I was always particularly drawn to were — “Man of La Mancha,” I think was the first musical I ever saw. Talk about a musical with serious purpose and dark themes that are expressed, you know, musicals that really do say something real and authentic about “The Times” that they were made in.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Dear Evan Hansen” has certainly struck a chord with audiences, and many have shared their gratitude and their own stories via e-mails and social media.

NARRATOR: “I brought our 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son to the show. Their older sister, our 16-year-old daughter, died by suicide a little over a year ago. We are still devastated. But it helps us when people talk about mental illness with understanding and compassion, as you did in your show.”

NARRATOR: “The ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ soundtrack has saved my life.”

NARRATOR: “Last night, I found out my dear high school friend had taken his own life on Thursday afternoon. I am devastated by this loss, but grateful for having a show like ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ to turn to. I just wanted to thank you for getting me through this incredibly difficult time. #Youwillbefound.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Ben Platt hears such stories every night.

BEN PLATT: When I get to met — the opportunity to meet fans after the show or hear from them online or via letters, they feel really comfortable divulging really personal things and opening up about their own struggles.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really, to you?

BEN PLATT: Certainly, with anxiety and with self-harm and with inability to connect and all sorts of things. And that’s an incredibly beautiful thing, and I want nothing more than for the show to encourage that and to be able to receive things like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s no spoiler alert to say that the show does end on an upbeat note. This is about finding your way through pain.

STEVEN LEVENSON: Just as a writer, just philosophically, I want to leave the audience feeling some kind of hope and some kind of — I’m not interested in grim, and I’m not interested in torture, watching things that just make you feel awful, because we have enough of that in the world.

And Evan, I think, ultimately in the story, what was so exciting was finding that the story really wasn’t about a suicide, but more about a character saving his own life.

JEFFREY BROWN: As for the actor playing that character, as Broadway’s hottest young star, his life will never be the same.

So, is all this pretty heady stuff, all this?

BEN PLATT: It’s incredibly heady. It’s been my dream since I was a really little kid to just be in the Broadway community at all, and to do musical theater as a job.

And so now for that to be true and to be doing it in a show that’s making this big of a mark, and in a role that comes around not ever, is, like, very hard to fathom. But it’s wonderful beyond my wildest dreams.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ben Platt, Steven Levenson, and Michael Greif all received Tony nominations, among the nine garnered by “Dear Evan Hansen,” including one for best musical.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown on Broadway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s gratifying to know that show is having an effect around the country.


Learn more about the organizations involved with “Dear Evan Hansen”

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