An adolescent male stands downstage, a spotlight illuminating his isolation. The teen nervously fumbles through his index cards. He is desperately searching for the lost place in his speech, as well as an anchor for his fear. He falls to the floor to gather his scattered cards, wracked in utter emotional pain.
The young man’s name is Evan Hansen, the eponymous protagonist of the musical Dear Evan Hansen.
This show, with a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman), follows Evan as he struggles to navigate his social world. Things start to spiral out of control when he tells a lie told in order to not feel so alone.
This intimate family drama is a bona fide hit, having won 6 Tony Awards (including Best New Musical) and running on Broadway since 2017. It has accomplished these milestones without a “big name” star in the cast or a recognizable, pre-existing brand.
There is nothing edgy about it, like the phenomenon-inspiring Rent, nor are there any genre-shifting elements, like Hamilton: An American Musical. It is simply great theater.
What accounts for this success is the deft presentation of a common mental health problem: anxiety.
Every year, 40 million American adults (18.1% of the population) grapple with an anxiety disorder. Dear Evan Hansen has managed to musicalize this experience through its main character and thus representing a forgotten corner of the youth culture that is not hip but anxious and afraid.
He sings about how his anxiety isolates him from connecting socially, pining in the song “Waving Through a Window”:
I’ve learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me
This lyrical description of social anxiety puts the audience inside of the experience of being frozen by fear, many of whom can relate because of their own anxiety.
The musical also dramatizes treatment as an element of Evan’s life. This action occurs outside of the scenes of the show, his mother referencing appointments with his psychiatrist.
Near the end of the show, Evan shares that he has stopped taking his psychotropic medication on his own and goes on to have a hopeful ending. While they never specify the category of medication he is taking, Evan is most likely on an antidepressant or a benzodiazepine, either of which it is ill-advised to stop taking without medical supervision because of physical withdrawal symptoms.
Musical theater is a ripe art form for exploring mental health.
While musicals are not meant to be public service announcements, there is concern about sending the message, “If you stop taking your psychotropic medication on your own, you will be okay”.
While this conclusion about the efficacy of medication in treatment may be taken by some, the overall message received by most appears to be the need to talk more about mental health, and that is an unqualified win for all.
Musical theater is a ripe art form for exploring mental health since it utilizes a multitude of tools, including dialogue, music, lyrics, and choreography, to examine the inner lives of its characters. Dear Evan Hansen is a noble and notable entry into that category of “mental health musicals”, one of the best of that or any musical genre.
If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, check out the Anxiety & Depression Association of America for resources and to find a treatment provider in your area.