The Worst of Evan Hansen

For the past few months, I’ve been enjoying the soundtrack of the musical, Dear Evan Hansen. I even had the chance to see it live with some friends when I visited New York. I thought it’d be fun to dig deeper into the show and interact with its ideas from a Christian perspective. In this post, I focus mostly on the songs, but there are also some spoilers from the story. Regardless of what you know about the show, I hope you can enjoy!

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Evan Hansen is caught in a dilemma: on the one hand, he’s terrified of being known; on the other, he longs to be found. In the opening lines of “Waving through a Window”, Evan lays out his cautious, self-protective approach toward life. “I’ve learned to slam on the brake before I even turn the key,” he sings, “before I make the mistake, before I lead with the worst of me.” Moments later, however, he laments how “he’s on the outside always looking in” and wonders “can anybody hear? Is anybody waving back at me?”

These two powerful desires—Evan’s fear of rejection and longing for acceptance—pull him in contradictory directions. He wants to be truly seen, understood, and loved, but this is impossible as long as he hides who he really is. By pursuing both desires, Evan unknowingly paralyzes himself in perpetual misery, unable to cry out for help or bear his isolation.

The Longing Behind the Lie

The plot is set in motion by a lie Evan tells that he was best friends with Connor Murphy, a social outcast who commits suicide early on in the story. Through this lie, Evan is able to get everything he ever wanted. He becomes popular at school. He wins the affection of Zoe, Connor’s sister and his longtime crush. He finds a home with the grieving Murphy family, something his own mom, a single parent working long hours, has difficulty providing.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of lying, though, is it allows Evan to voice his loneliness without having to risk rejection or reveal the worst of himself. After his death, Evan creates the “Connor Project”—a student group “dedicated to keeping Connor’s memory alive, to showing that everybody should matter.” As part of the project, Evan gives a speech to the entire school assembly, captured in the song “You Will Be Found.” In it, he identifies the loneliness we often feel and promises that someone will find us in our most hopeless moments.

In one sense, the speech is a step in the right direction for Evan. It forces him to overcome some of his crippling anxiety. However, it also allows him to avoid the most painful part of revealing weakness—namely, the embarrassment and shame of sharing your own weakness. Instead, he substitutes the worst parts of himself with the worst of Connor. Rather than saying, “I feel weak, lost, and alone. Please come find me,” Evan can say, “Connor felt weak, lost, and alone. We often feel that way too. We need to find each other.” Evan gets to ask for what he wants most while blending into the anonymous “we.”

Midway through “You Will Be Found” is an interlude in which Evan’s speech goes viral. Soon, Evan’s speech is the talk not only of the school but of millions on the Internet. To his surprise, Evan learns he is not alone in his loneliness. Many of the people he thought looked so put-together actually feel just like him. He just couldn’t see because they were caught in the same paralysis as him, held back from sharing by the same fear of rejection. Similarly to the way Connor’s death made it easier for Evan to voice his weakness, Evan’s speech makes it easier for others to come clean with theirs. His vulnerability gives them permission to also be vulnerable.

One of my friends noted the climax of “You Will Be Found” erupts in almost eschatological language—that is, with the kind of promises of complete restoration you’d expect in a sermon on Revelations, not a secular musical. “Out of the shadows the morning is breaking and all is new,” the choir exults, as the orchestra swells behind them, “it’s filling up the empty and suddenly I see that all is new.” “You are not alone. You will be found,” they repeat, over and over again.

These jubilant proclamations capture the rising sense of communal hope. People are experiencing the joy of being mutually known and loved. There is a renewed sense that anything is possible as we support one another together. We can find others who are hurt and, in turn, be found when we are hurting.

As “You will be Found” comes to a resounding close, and with it the first act, we are left feeling conflicted. We resonate with Evan’s speech. We sense he has uncovered a profound longing that lies within all of us. At the same time, we also recognize that the promises of Evan’s movement rest on the flimsiest of foundations—on a fabricated story by someone actively avoiding the truth. Evan has unearthed our deepest desire. Will he be able to deliver on the hope he’s created?

The Worst of Evan Hansen

In the second act, pressure mounts as Evan desperately tries to hold up his web of lies. Finally, when he can no longer bear it, Evan tells the truth to Zoe and the Murphy family in the song “Words Fail.” He was never  friends with Connor; he had made the whole thing up. In a moment, Evan loses the relationships he had worked tirelessly to build.

Midway through “Words Fail”, the Murphy’s leave and Evan is left alone. Now, the more difficult part of Evan’s journey begins. Evan has not only been deceiving others, he has also been willfully deceiving himself. Now, there is nowhere left to hide. As the song resumes and builds to a crescendo, Evan repeats the first lines of “Waving through a Window”: “I’ve learned to slam on the brake before I’ve even turned the key. Before I make the mistake. Before I lead with the worst of me. I never let them see the worst of me,”  he says. And then, just as the song reaches its pinnacle, he quietly blurts out the truth he’s tried desperately to avoid, the real reason behind his self-preserving mentality:

Cause what if everyone saw?
What if everyone knew?
Would they like what they saw?
Or would they hate it too?

Evan’s worst fear has come true: he has revealed the very worst of himself. He had dreaded this moment and done everything in his power to keep it from happening. And yet, when it does, he feels an enormous burden lifted off his shoulders. He no longer has to seek acceptance by hiding from the truth. He is free to ask the question he should have been asking all along: “All I ever do is run so how can I step into the sun?”

This line, which Evan utters at rock bottom, marks a turn in his character in the right direction.  Throughout the musical, the sun and light are symbols for living truthfully and with courage. Evan’s previous mindset was all about “step[ping] out of the sun if you keep getting burned.” With nothing left to lose, he decides to try going outside again.

His first order of business is to talk to his mom. He shares a secret he has been hiding for the entire story. He had begun the story with a broken arm, which he quickly explained came from falling out of a tree. There are hints that there is more to the story than Evan is letting on. Now, Evan tells the truth. The real reason he broke his arm was he tried to commit suicide. Despite this new revelation and everything Evan had done to ignore and wound her, Evan’s mom embraces him. “Your mom’s not going anywhere,” she assures him, “no matter what I’ll be here.” Evan spills the worst of himself and finds he is known and loved.

All We See is Sky

In the first act, Evan sings a song called “For Forever.” He plans to tell the Murphy’s there had been a misunderstanding and he hadn’t really known Connor. Instead, he fabricates an elaborate story of an afternoon they spent together. The song culminates with the two climbing a tree for a better view and Evan plummeting to the ground. As Connor rushes to his aid, Evan repeats the chorus, quietly at first, then triumphantly:

All we see is sky for forever
We watch the world pass by for forever
Feels like we could go on for forever this way
Two friends on a perfect day.

Afterwards, Evan wonders why he was unable to stop lying. As the audience, we wonder why so much detail and an entire song is given to a made-up event. The revelation of his attempted suicide, however, helps explain the significance of this song for Evan. Evan was unable to deal with the dissonance that at his moment of greatest need, nobody was there. That reality was so deeply painful for Evan that when the opportunity came to rewrite that moment, he felt compelled, consciously and unconsciously, to do so.

Evan’s lie began first and foremost as an attempt to deceive himself. He reimagines the moment he most longed for a friend as the moment he is found by his best friend. He refashions stepping out of the sun into climbing to the heights so it could shine on his face.

The final song of the musical is a reprise of the chorus from “For Forever.” In this version, the choir is more reserved. Their singing is tinged with sadness but also hope. If “For Forever” is Evan sitting blindly in the dark, singing victoriously about the beauty of the sun; then the finale is Evan emerging from the darkness, pale, weak, and emaciated, but truly in the light. And, for that reason alone, there is reason for optimism.

Indeed, we see glimpses that Evan is taking small steps forward. He ends the play as he started it: with a letter to himself. This time, however, Evan is at peace. He has faced the worst of himself and in doing so, has allowed himself to be found by the person who matters most. In his short conversation with Zoe, Evan also shares he has found a list of Connor’s favorite books and is reading them to try get to know the real Connor. Now that Evan has been found, he is learning to truly find others.

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Known to the Bottom, Loved to the Sky

Dear Evan Hansen’s biggest strength, in my opinion, is its ability to capture the anxiety and exhaustion of facing the worst of ourselves. We know exactly how it feels to be in Evan’s shoes, caught in a tug-of-war between our desire to share honestly and our fear of what others might think. In the moments before confession, we tense up, our palms begin sweating, and a thousand excuses race through our minds. We have to physically exert ourselves just to force the words out. At times, like Evan, we have to muster all our strength just to tell the truth to ourselves.

And yet, even as the musical conveys the difficulty of our inner battles, we are reminded that we have a much greater hope than Evan Hansen. Jesus, the most important person in the universe, knows us to the bottom and loves us to the sky. Despite seeing our darkest thoughts and deeds, he left his heavenly throne to come find us. He sought us all the way to the cross.

The Gospel gives us the strength to share the worst of ourselves. It’s still scary. When we look out, everyone else seems happy and put-together. We fear we will be burdensome or other will think less of us. And yet, we can find courage in the truth that we are loved and accepted by the one who matters most and knows us best. No human rejection can crush us because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

Friends, here’s a challenge for us: let’s not let Evan Hansen outrace us into the light. Rather, as children of the light, let’s strive to be more transparent in our Christian friendships. Maybe that means opening up about a hidden struggle to close friends or a trusted mentor. Maybe it’s empathizing with a downcast believer and sharing about God ‘s faithfulness in our weakness and sin. As God empowers us to be vulnerable, we help others to be vulnerable too. And together, we can grow into the kind of community which Evan could only imagine—a community of sinners saved by grace, freed from fear and the need to prove ourselves, loving one another as we have been loved.

 

 

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One thought on “The Worst of Evan Hansen

  1. Wow, interesting the journey inward reveals so much of our broken souls and our longings. Could not be struck with the similarity and seeming contrast to a murder yesterday on 52nd ave. about 3.5 miles from my house in the Meadowview area. Thank you Chris for pointing out a path where healing and wholeness can begin from the brokeness within, and the long path that needs to be followed before the healing begins.

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