‘Dear Evan Hansen’ comes to the Schuster

Long-awaited musical deals with teen anxiety, bullying and social media.

“Hamilton,” of course, is the sung-and-rapped-through musical that folks in the Miami Valley had long been awaiting. But a couple of other shows have made this year’s Broadway in Dayton line-up extremely exciting as well.

One of those is “Dear Evan Hansen,” the 21st century musical that was immediately named a modern masterwork when it opened on Broadway in 2016.

It’s not your typical Broadway musical fare; for this one you may want to bring along a wad of tissues. The main character is Evan Hansen, a 17-year-old high school student dealing with anxiety and issues of self-esteem. When his therapist suggests he write letters to himself to help build confidence, one of those letters inadvertently triggers a series of events that change Evan’s life dramatically.

Evan tells a lie, hoping to help a grieving family struggling with the loss of Connor Murphy, a drug-addicted fellow student. But, although at first it allows him to enjoy the kind of life he’s wished for, the lie multiplies, eventually catching up with him.

“Dear Evan Hansen” was the winner of six 2017 Tony Awards including Best Musical and the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. A film adaptation of the play was released in 2021.The Washington Post called it “one of the most remarkable shows in musical theater history;” The New York Times labeled it a “a gut-punching, breathtaking knockout of a musical.”

Members of the cast share thoughts

“The heart of the show is about human connection and that draws people to it,” says Steph La Rochelle who portrays 17-year-old Zoe Murphy, Connor’s sister and Evan’s love interest.. “Everybody can see themselves in one of the characters. And the music is incredible, so beautiful.”

Music and lyrics are by Ben Pasek and Justin Paul; book by Steven Levenson. “They are able to tackle heavy issues that many of us are dealing with but in ways that are accessible and empathetic,” says John Hemphill, who plays Zoe’s father, Larry. “It’s heartwarming and surprisingly funny. It deals with the complications of social media, the challenges of cyberbullying because people can do and say things in the safety of their own homes.”

The production, the actors say, resonates with audiences in a variety of ways. “The show can be very emotional and also very funny,” La Roche says. ‘’This musical hits people right in the heart and sparks a visceral reaction. Some moments we feel the energy of the audience and there are some tear-jerking moments.”

Before COVID, when audiences were able to greet the cast at the stage door, the actors often spoke to many struggling with mental health issues.

“The show also has a big following on social media so we still get a chance to talk with audiences,” says Hemphill. “Because I play one of the parents in the show, a lot of the people who approached me were parents, thankful we were telling their story. I would have a parent come up and say ' I have a 15-year-old son, I felt your challenges.’ And I think the story of Evan Hansen is even more timely now because of the virus and the isolation and feelings of being apart.”

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Hemphill, who also teaches, says the role has helped him better understand young people. “I think it’s a challenging time to be a parent and I feel bad for Larry, my character,” he explains. " He has done everything he possibly can to help his family and has to deal with the grief of losing a son and trying to come to terms with how much he has played a part in being responsible.”

Hemphill says he’s from the old guard and wasn’t born into social media so is able to connect with a father who is out of his depth. “Larry is a hard nut to crack and is kinda the bad guy as far as being an empathetic and understanding individual,” he says.

Both actors emphasize the show ends with a strong feeling of hope. One of the main songs is “You are Not Alone.” Another is “You Will Be Found.”

The effects of bullying

Ellen Feldman, a social worker for many years with New York’s Child Abuse Prevention Services, has spent much of her career going into schools and presenting workshops for parents and young people on topics such as cyberbullying. She calls the musical “very affecting” and recommends it for youngsters ages 13 and up, depending upon their maturity.

“Adolescence is one of the most complicated stages of development,” Feldman says. " It’s a lot for kids to navigate and social media makes it much, much worse. The lie in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ speaks to the effects of social media. Because of what was posted, Evan becomes a hero and initially becomes a part of things and a leader. Until he stops to think about the morality of what he is doing, he is enjoying it because he wants to be part of something.”

Feldman hopes those who see the musical are reminded to stop before they act or judge someone and to look at who that person is. “We all have backstories,” she notes. “Before you say that mean thing or exclude somebody, just stop and think that everybody has humanity that needs to be respected. Kindness goes a long way. It doesn’t take much– if you see someone eating by themselves, ask them if they want to join you. Invest one lunch period in being kind to someone who is going to be alone.”

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Feldman says it’s about being an upstander. “There’s only a small percent of kids who engage in bullying behavior and only a small percent of kids who are the targets of bullying,” she explains. “Most kids are in the middle and that group has the ability and power to turn things around and negate bullying. Bullies get their power from the kids who laugh or don’t say anything at all. If you choose not to laugh or you walk away, the bully loses power.”

She says we need to start young to change the culture of a school into a place for caring and kindness. " That means the adults in the school as well because adults model behavior,” she says. " If a teacher is disrespectful to a student or another teacher, they’re modeling. “If we all stop and realize every human being we see has humanity that needs to be respected, a lot of behaviors would disappear.”

HOW TO GO:

What: “Dear Evan Hansen,” presented by Premiere Health Broadway in Dayton

When: Tuesday, March 8 through Sunday March 13. Weekday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 6:30 p.m. There are matinees on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. The show runs two and a half hours.

Where: Benjamin & Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, 1 West Second Street, Dayton.

Tickets: $49-169. Tickets can be purchased online at daytonlive.org/dear-evan-hansen-22 or by contacting the Ticket Office at 937-228-3630 or tickets@daytonlive.org.

Safety: Masks are required for patrons 6 and over

Related programming: The Background on Broadway program will take place on the fourth floor of the Schuster Center an hour before the showtime. Anyone with a ticket to the show, is invited to attend the educational session.

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