We need to talk about Evan Hansen

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A headshot of Ben Platt captured long enough ago that he almost looks young enough to play a teenager (but still not quite). Wikimedia

We might forgive Ben Platt for playing a 30-year-old teenager, but you know what we don’t forgive? Racism.

TW: Suicide

Dear Evan Hansen, the highly acclaimed musical that premiered on Broadway in 2016 won six Tony Awards, has been adapted into a film version that will be coming to screens next week. On September 9, the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and ushered in mixed reviews. The film release and changes made to the script have caused people to think about the Broadway show in a new light.

The story follows a young teenager with a broken arm, Evan, who’s diagnosed with social anxiety. The plot is largely focused on the letters he writes to himself based on his therapist’s advice. Sounds all well and good, right? Here’s where it starts to go downhill.

One letter is believed to be the suicide note of Connor Murphy because Connor stole the note from Evan. This causes Evan to weave an elaborate web of lies that he eventually gets stuck in. Evan makes fake emails with the help of his friend Jared, showing that he was best friends with Connor (which is a lie, they never knew each other) and that Connor was abusive to his family.

He goes on to make an organization called “The Connor Project” with a classmate named Alana where he continues to lie. Then, he dates Connor’s sister Zoe, and lies to his single mother, Heidi, about his friendship with Connor. The original letter gets posted and the Murphy’s get blamed for Connor’s death before Evan confesses about his lies. In the end, Evan is forgiven and accepts himself.

Several things were changed for the movie, including new songs and the removal of major ones. The most notable being the song “Good For You,” sung by Alana, Jared, and Heidi about their anger over Evan’s lies. The new film adaptation took out the major song that exposed the character’s anger over Evan’s actions. In the musical, Connor’s parents storm out when they find out what he’s done, but there’s no huge outburst of anger and he gets forgiven in the end. No one except the Murphy’s and Evan’s mom find out that Connor’s suicide note was written by Evan and that they weren’t actually friends. Evan graduates and he doesn’t have to face the consequences of his peers knowing.

The first thing people noticed when the trailer dropped on May 18 of this year was how old the main star Ben Platt looked. Platt originated the role on Broadway when he was 23, but in the film at age 27, it’s difficult to believe he’s a high schooler.

Allison Willmore, a film critic for Vulture and New York Magazine, wrote on Twitter “If there were any chance of making this character look like something other than a monster, it rested on emphasizing his raw youth, which makes the casting of an OBVIOUSLY GROWN MAN JUST HUNCHING HIS SHOULDERS an act of sabotage that’s near avant-garde.”[1]

What made this worse still is that there was another actor who could’ve easily done the role well and is still a teenager. Andrew Barth Feldman, who is currently 19, played Evan Hansen on Broadway in 2019 at just 16 years old. Feldman’s performance was acclaimed by musical theatre lovers everywhere. So why did they cast Ben Platt?

Many believe Ben Platt’s casting to be nepotism. His father, Marc Platt, is a producer for the film. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter about the history of Dear Evan Hansen, Marc Platt said, “There was, thankfully, a lot of interest from a number of studios to make the movie, and all of those studios were interested if it could be done timely, with Ben portraying the role.”[2] Based on this quote, it seems that the movie wouldn’t have been made without Platt. He all but confirmed this in an interview with the Zach Sang Show when he said, “Were I not to do the movie it probably wouldn’t have been made.”

Unfortunately, this is the least of Dear Evan Hansen‘s problems: a conversation needs to be had about the production and racism.

Kristolyn Lloyd, who played Alana Beck, was the only person of colour in the main cast of the original Broadway production. In the original readings, however, Alana was played by a White actress. As one might assume from this, there is no regard for Alana’s racial identity in the script, anywhere. Alana is highly involved in “The Connor Project” – more involved than Jared and Evan. When Evan ignores all of his work, Alana is the one that has to do it. Alana has six titled roles for “The Connor Project” that she mentions in the show.

Despite this, Alana still doesn’t know that Evan’s been lying about Connor. In what little we know about Alana’s character from the musical, she’s very academic and hard working. We learn right away that she does a lot of volunteer work and internships, presumably to boost her resume. When you take a step back and look at the situation, it’s clear that two White men are conning one Black girl. They are using her for her skills, her intelligence, and her drive, while simultaneously threatening her academic career and future. Alana could’ve lost everything if the public found out Connor’s suicide note wasn’t real.

Platt even said in the interview with Hollywood Reporter that Alana is a plot device in the movie. “It was really important to the writers to understand why Evan and Alana connect, apart from her just being a really useful plot device later in the show.” We know that Alana gets a deeper and more well-rounded character, as well as her own song ‘The Anonymous Ones,’ but Platt confirmed she is still just a plot device to help “The Connor Project.”

When it came time for the movie, the creative team had a meeting. Not much is known about what this meeting was about, but what we do know is that all the BIPOC who were involved in the show were invited. Lloyd was at the meeting and posted the following on her Instagram story: “I wish I could say they hired 20 black people but in actuality there were only 10 of us in that meeting. 10. Out of 80-90 people. 10. Including: Stage management, production team, creatives, producers, cast, musicians, Marketing/Publicity. 10 were black. All were actors. Help.” Not one person involved in the show behind the scenes is a person of colour.

Beyond that, whatever was discussed in that meeting was subsequently ignored. This was confirmed by English actor Alex Thomas-Smith who understudied for Evan and Jared on the West End when they tweeted, “I tell you this, it do take nerve to listen to 20 black people share their experiences of racism and trauma in your show, to then go and whitewash your movie lol but what do i know,” (4) in September of 2020.

If this article, and the movie’s 46% on Rotten Tomatoes, aren’t enough to sway you from watching, Dear Evan Hansen premieres on September 24.

  1. https://twitter.com/alisonwillmore/status/1436147944953106433
  1. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/dear-evan-hansen-oral-history-1235005684/
  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lleh8lntjY (Zach Sang Show)
  1. https://twitter.com/AlexThomasSmith/status/1301222403339681793

[1] https://twitter.com/alisonwillmore/status/1436147944953106433

[2] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/dear-evan-hansen-oral-history-1235005684/

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