Dear Evan Hansen premiered on Broadway in 2016 to critical acclaim. It won the Tony Award for Best New Musical, and Ben Platt won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as the titular character. Evan Hansen, a lonely, anxious teen, gets a chance at everything he’s wanted—popularity at school, the girl of his dreams, and a stable, two-parent home—all thanks to a lie.
Critics praised the musical for spurring conversations about mental health, suicide awareness, and the effects of technology on teenagers. I had the good fortune to see Dear Evan Hansen during its original Broadway run, and all the actors gave moving performances with emotional weight. A film adaptation seemed inevitable for a musical this acclaimed and popular, and, sure enough, last weekend, Universal released Dear Evan Hansen in cinemas. One would hope that in 2021—with teens’ social media use and mental health challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns—that the movie adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen might be similarly impactful. Unfortunately, it is not.
The basic plot of both the musical and movie is this: Through a series of plot contrivances, Evan is mistaken for the best friend of Connor Murphy, a classmate who committed suicide. Misunderstanding turns to deliberate fabrication. Evan leads a massive social media campaign to remember Connor, becomes a second son to the Murphy family, and wins the affection of his crush, Connor’s sister, Zoe.
Only Ben Platt and Colton Ryan—who understudied as Connor on Broadway—reprise their roles for the film. The rest of the cast is replaced by Hollywood actors with varying levels of singing talent. Platt’s vocal performance is as resonant as it was five years ago, but he looks too old now to play a high schooler. The de-aging CGI used to disguise that might work, except the director incessantly relies on close-ups of characters’ faces.
But beyond nitpicking, the core problem with Dear Evan Hansen is one that plagues most musical to movie adaptations: The exaggerated style of musical theater does not translate to the realistic medium of film.
Audiences attend live theater with greater suspension of disbelief than they have when seeing a movie. For example, audiences accept that an actor darting across stage, hissing and clawing in a fur suit, is an acceptable representation of a “jellicle cat.” In a movie though, such a representation strikes viewers as physically unreal and unsettling to watch. Fortunately, Dear Evan Hansen is not nearly as stylized as Cats, or most musicals for that matter. It tells a story about ordinary teens wearing ordinary clothes dealing with real-world issues. Unfortunately, while the film succeeds at physical realism, it struggles at emotional realism.
Gigantic swings of emotion during songs feel out-of-place compared to the grounded, realistic acting in the rest of the film. This disjointedness is especially apparent in songs like “For Forever,” where the lyrics are meant to represent actual dialogue from one character to another. While Platt passionately belts this number, his co-stars react as if he is just talking normally to them. The lack of realism in the musical numbers bleeds into the film’s script. The most cliché dialogue always comes just in time to tee up another song.
Tellingly, the one number that really knocks it out of the park is a fantasy. “Sincerely Me” is a song and dance duet between Evan and Connor’s “ghost” performed while Evan fabricates emails to indicate that he and Connor were friends. The scene is campy and great Broadway-style fun, and it works because it represents something not real.
It is especially disappointing whenever a musical number breaks up the flow of the story, because the cast’s acting is so strong. Amy Adams plays Connor’s grieving mother with a fragile poise that still conveys her desperation for solace. Julianne Moore plays Evan’s loving but overworked mom. One particular confrontation between her and Evan hits hard because the characters actually talk to each other rather than burst into song.
In many ways, Dear Evan Hansen the film improves upon the musical. The plot is streamlined, and certain characters come off as more likable than their musical counterparts. The movie handles the same sensitive issues, arguably with more nuance than the musical did. Unfortunately, in art, form often trumps content, and Dear Evan Hansen joins a long list of failed musical-to-movie adaptations.