8 February 2018
Dear Evan Hansen’s Original Broadway Cast Album Emits a Unified Voice of Hope and Understanding
Even without seeing the Tony award-winning Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen, it is not difficult to be captivated by the unbridled story in the music and lyrics of the original Broadway cast album. Though it didn’t spark quite as much buzz as the Broadway takeover Hamilton, the bigger winner the year before in 2016, Dear Evan Hansen has swept the nation with its message of self love and acceptance and was the show to see in 2017. Unlike its predecessor, which features rap and hip hop influences, the music of Dear Evan Hansen evokes a much quieter pop, rock, and singer/songwriter vibe. This style choice may be an attempt by the creators to make the show accessible to a more widespread audience as the central themes of mental health, specifically anxiety, depression, and suicide, are issues relevant to virtually every demographic. Songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are no strangers to success when it comes to writing hits. The two are known for writing lyrics for the critically acclaimed songs of La La Land and the songs in the recent film The Greatest Showman, including “This is Me,” which is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The songs of Dear Evan Hansen are perhaps Pasek and Paul’s most vulnerable yet, capturing the listener’s attention with lyrics that put forth the honesty and imperfection of human emotion and melodies that properly capture this spectrum of feeling.
The album naturally begins with the first song in the show, “Anybody Have a Map?” A duet sung by Rachel Bay Jones and Jennifer Laura Thompson, the song provides exposition on the characters of the show without spoon-feeding it to listeners by opening with the perspectives of the mothers of the main characters, Evan Hansen and Connor Murphy. Unlike the more conspicuous introductions to the musical world, such as “Willkommen” of Cabaret, or “Good Morning, Baltimore” of Hairspray, “Anybody Have a Map?” uses a subtler approach. The song is set at the breakfast table on the first day of school, but the context is soon broadened to the indefinite relationship between mothers and their teenage sons. The most defining elements of this song are perhaps the reliance on only acoustic guitar, piano, and drums as accompaniment to this humble contemplation, and the off kilter beat skips which give it a fast paced and contemporary lyrical line. The interweaving voices of the two singers create a web of sound that catches the ear and pulls the listener along on the journey of the melody as well as the tale being told. These interweaving voices reappear throughout the album, as in “Sincerely, Me,” a bright, humorous trio led by piano and drums with lots of spoken one-liners and additional harmonies thrown in to create uniquely singular moments. Once again, each voice brings both a new perspective and harmonic part to the song, coming together to share a common goal as an effective method of musical cohesion.
Similarly, several ensemble songs feature solo moments but come together with rich harmonies and fierce messages of hope as in “Disappear” and “You Will Be Found.” In the case of “Disappear,” the song begins as a duet between Evan and Connor, buoyant with bouncing guitar strumming, but gradually becomes reliant on a more complex piano theme. Equivalently, the song begins in an uplifting major key and remains that way until the resolution when suddenly, all voices drop out, or disappear, to leave space for the piano motif alone to break the silence with the gradual addition of vocal harmonies on a lonelier minor key. A powerful statement that first grabs your attention with plot, “Disappear” leaves the listener contemplating a very serious and overarching message about the worth of every life.
With more personally concentrated subject matter, “Waving Through a Window” is perhaps the most emblematic song of the album as it portrays Evan’s struggle to fit in and his longing to be more connected to those around him. Each line of this song hits the listener with a dose of truth, from the very first: “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.” I hesitate to say that the lyrics portray a universal truth, because one of the greatest underlying themes of the album is to celebrate difference and embrace new contexts, but many of us have felt Evan’s difficulty — especially in high school — with being understood by others, and the exhaustion that comes with opening oneself up and trying. This lyric invites the listener to recall a time when they experienced a fear to be themselves or disclose their true personalities to the world around them. As a symbol for the titular character and the musical itself, “Waving Through a Window” provides a youthful longing as a backdrop for the entire album and show.
Ben Platt’s soaring belt and comforting vibrato in “Waving Through a Window” give a character with previously no expression a voice that makes the audience listen. The melodic profile of the song is one that remains fresh and engaging with swells and restrained portions in addition to Platt’s riffs, ornaments, and switches from chest to head voice. This song too is reliant on a drum beat, piano, and bass, which helps keep it away from the preachy vibe of a more traditional musical theatre tune with a loftier orchestra sound. The song also features the classic verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge of a typical pop song, which makes it extremely catchy. The pre-chorus hook, “Step out, step out of the sun / if you keep getting burned,” is revisited in Evan’s most vulnerable song late in the show, “Words Fail,” with its final lines: “All I ever do is run / So how do I step in / Step into the sun?” After this lyric in “Words Fail,” the three opening piano chords in “Waving Through a Window” are woven into the music to create an even deeper connection and demonstrate the journey the title character has undergone in the time between the two songs. Several musical phrases and lyrics are quoted in multiple songs throughout the album which achieves a grounding unity in Pasek and Paul’s score. The topic of mental health is explored with both upbeat and solumn songs, remaining authentic to the true spectrum of human emotion. No matter how bleak the plot becomes, the music finds a way of giving the listener hope, a theme more vital to the story and score than anything else.