CONTENT WARNING: This article mentions suicide.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” a hit Broadway musical that starred Ben Platt as a socially anxious, struggling teenager who begins a journey of self-discovery and acceptance following the suicide of a classmate, is coming to the screens later this month after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival yesterday night.
The film, which stars Platt as the only returning actor from the original Broadway production, comes out on Sept. 24.
Platt originated the character of Evan Hansen since its run off-Broadway and on Broadway in 2016. Evan writes himself diary letters addressed to himself — hence “Dear Evan Hansen” — at his therapist’s recommendation. When a letter is snatched off the printer in the school library by school recluse Connor Murphy — played by Colton Ryan — who also signs Evan’s blank cast mockingly.
With his constant anxiety, Evan reveals to his quasi-friend that his letter — which also briefly mentions Connor’s sister, Evan’s crush, Zoe Murphy, played by Kaitlyn Dever — was taken by Connor. A few days later, Evan gets to school and is met by Connor’s family, asking to see who they believe is their son’s only friend after he died by suicide.
The family believes that the letter was meant to be Connor’s last note to Evan, which is strengthened when they see Connor’s name on Evan’s cast. Evan then lies that the note is for him, not written by him, which of course spirals out of control as he comforts the family with made-up stories of him and Connor.
As the film progresses through a clear first and second act, Platt leans on Connor’s grieving parents Cynthia and Larry — played by Amy Adams and Danny Pino — respectively, who accept him as a surrogate son, while his mother, played by Julianne Moore, who graduated from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts in ‘83, is busy.
With new songs, sets and scenes, the movie explores and expands more on the themes of suicide, depression and self-acceptance.
The Daily Free Press attended a NBCUniversal College Roundtable and interviewed members of the cast, director Stephen Chbosky and screenwriter Steven Levenson.
Platt said the format of the film allowed his character to be understood by the audience more than on stage. Evan, who goes on his own journey accepting himself and his mental illness, is clad with Connor’s signature on his arm cast the whole movie.
“[The film] actually kind of lent itself to even more authenticity and intimacy given how close and in the personal space and business of the characters we get to be on film,” Platt said. “Fully seeing these people inhabit the earth and really stand on two feet on the ground, I think that inherently made them feel so much realer and so much more naturalistic.”
Dever, who played Evan’s crush and Connor’s sister Zoe, said “Dear Evan Hansen,” which was filmed last year, was one of the first movies to be greenlit to be shot in the United States during the pandemic.
“Shooting this kind of movie in the middle of a pandemic was so profound and so special in so many different ways,” she said. “What was so special about it is that we had all just come from quarantining and feeling isolated and confused and lost and still having a lot of fears of the unknown.”
Dever, along with Pino and Adams, played the family that grieved the death of Connor with Evan. Adams said Cynthia Murphy’s character along with the rest of the family represented many different stages of grief.
“Whenever I’m approaching a character of that magnitude and I really want to make sure that I’m open and receptive, it really is just about tapping into deep empathy. And if you’re lucky enough, you get to do it with wonderful actors,” Adams said. “It really just becomes and in the scenes with [Platt] as well it transcended performance and really became an experience for me.”
Amandla Stenberg plays the role of Alana Beck, a character who organized “The Connor Project,” a group that raises money to name an orchard in his memory. While Alana was an original character in the play, Chbosky and Levenson added a solo song for Alana, which is about people with mental illnesses who are struggling in silence.
Adams said the new song “The Anonymous Ones,” which Stenberg wrote with the original songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, was another way to address mental health in the film.
“I hope that [the film] gives [viewers] a place to come together and start the conversations about mental health issues and create an understanding that you are not alone in experiencing this,” Adams said. “The film does a really great job, especially with the addition of [Stenberg]’s new song, kind of showing how different people process their own mental health issues.”
Stenberg said that as a Black actor, addressing mental health issues and medication — which “are not super normalized in the Black community” or within her family — is an important part of the role.
“Steven Levinson and I … had a lot of conversations going into production around ensuring that Alana was not this token sidekick, Black girl character who is just capable and there to support Evan,” Stenberg said. “We wanted to make sure that you had a really comprehensive view of her internal life too.”
Director Chbosky said that he was “obsessed” with the imagery of the stage’s spotlights and how that could translate into the film. In the film, the song “Sincerely, Me,” which is a scene where Evan composes fake emails between him and Connor, now cuts between both Platt and Ryan singing. Other aspects explored were more moments that relied on social media, including a social media “tiles” collage in the film.
During the song “Requiem,” Connor’s family was singing on the stage in three separate spotlights. In the film, Chbosky puts the spotlight on the characters’ lives — Cynthia is being stared at in the grocery store and Connor’s room, Larry at work and Zoe at school and in her car.
“They’re getting stared at everywhere they go,” Chbosky said. “It’s so exciting to me as a director to translate what three pools of light can mean on stage in terms of like a lyricism or as Steven is putting it an abstraction and to put it in the real world. That was very exciting to do.”
Levenson said the film leaves with some hope — even though Evan does “some terrible things,” he’s still worthy of redemption.
“Just because somebody does something terrible, even if it’s reprehensible, they can still be okay, they can still move on and be okay,” Levenson said about Evan’s character. “That was almost an ethical imperative, I feel like, for us, as storytellers, was we had to find a way to leave this story with some hope.”