Ten minutes before curtain time at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, there’s the usual rush to snap and post stageside selfies. What’s surprising is that many of the cellphone paparazzi at Dear Evan Hansen are teenagers, happily posing with their parents before the performance begins. Since winning six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Dear Evan Hansen has become a must-see theatrical event for families, fueled by enthusiastic word of mouth.
“I had heard from a lot of my friends that the show is a very emotional experience,” says Barbara Blinken, chatting with Broadway Direct before and after a recent performance of Dear Evan Hansen. Blinken and her 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte, traveled to Broadway from Englewood, New Jersey, agreeing that they didn’t want to know details about the musical’s story line in advance. After watching the socially awkward title character (movingly played by Taylor Trensch) become enmeshed in another family’s tragedy because of a misunderstood letter and a well-intentioned lie, mother and daughter left the theatre beaming. “Every teenager and parent should see it,” declared Barbara, while Charlotte, already texting a friend, added, “It was amazing — and now I’m going to enter the lottery [for discount tickets] every day.”
Fueled by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s glorious Tony Award-winning score and Steven Levenson’s gripping Tony-winning book, Dear Evan Hansen is the rare musical that appeals equally to adults and teens. “It grabs you on so many levels,” says Mohamed El-Erian, a California-based economist and former investment manager who has seen the show twice with his 14-year-old daughter, Samia. “The big issue in the first act is how an awful lie seems to bring a community together, so it’s fascinating just in terms of that contradiction,” he says. “And there are lots of subtexts that speak to things people go through in real life, which is why it is such a great musical to see with your kids.”
In addition to being touched by the major themes addressed in the show — grief, loneliness, and the power of social media — Mohamed was moved by the juxtaposition of the parents, “a wealthy family and a struggling family, a married family and a single parent, all trying to do the right thing.” On the opposite side, 17-year-old Evan Hansen considers himself an outsider among his peers, a plight Samia El-Erian finds especially relatable. “This musical shows us that no matter how alone you feel, someone is going through the same thing, and there are people willing to help.” Touchingly, she adds, “Seeing the show with my dad was incredible. I am fortunate enough to have a dad who supports me through and through. He will always be there for me, no matter what.”
Karen Cicero, a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, journalist who writes about parenting, praises Dear Evan Hansen for its ability to “open the door to conversations that can be hard to have with your child.” She surprised her theater-loving 15-year-old daughter, Katie Conlon, with tickets to the show as a Christmas gift, and both found the experience overwhelming. “I was most touched by Evan’s mom,” says Karen, “because I felt like she really wanted the best for her son. When kids become teenagers, it becomes a lot harder to keep that strong relationship going that you had when they were younger. She didn’t realize how sad Evan actually was, and she kept trying and trying to make things happier.”
Part of the genius of Dear Evan Hansen is Levenson’s gift for creating sympathetic characters of all ages. “I related to every single person in the show for different reasons,” says Katie. “I’m not a mother; I’m not a boy; I don’t fit any of the archetypes. But you understand why everyone [on stage] makes the choices they do.” Returning to their hotel after the performance, Karen and Katie spent the next few hours talking about the story and the music. “It’s just a good way to connect,” Katie says of sharing the experience with her mom.
Teens who might be reluctant to talk about their real-life insecurities feel safe when the object of the conversation is Evan Hansen. “My daughter is anxious, and she identifies with the characters in the show,” says Carolyn Belfer, a New York City mother who has seen Dear Evan Hansen “multiple times” with her 15-year-old daughter, college-age sons, and her own mom. “Every parent and every kid, at some point, has wanted to fit in and worried about being an outsider.” The musical, she adds, “is about regular kids at a regular school dealing with really big issues, which are handled beautifully.”
The astonishing score by Pasek and Paul gives a vibrant voice to Evan in the signature ballads “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found” and to the show’s two mothers in the wry “Anybody Have a Map?” and the heartbreaking “So Big/So Small.” The Evan Hansen cast album is a favorite of Katie Conlon’s, “but no matter how many times you listen to it, you can’t really prepare yourself for the emotional impact [of seeing the show live],” she says.
Balancing its serious side, Dear Evan Hansen offers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, including the song “Sincerely, Me,” sung by Evan and two classmates. (To say more would be a spoiler.) “I loved that the show conveyed the idea that both humor and despair can be present at any stage of life,” says Anna Rooney, a 22-year-old graduate student in psychology who attended a performance with her mother. “It was deeply moving to see nuanced relationships between parents and children displayed so artistically. And it was a beautiful experience seeing it with my mom. Although she may not have been fully aware at the time of my own adolescent struggles, she was always there for me.”
Impressed by the layers of meaning in Dear Evan Hansen, Mohamed El-Erian began recommending it to other parents. “I’ve sent people who have never taken their kids to the theatre,” he says, “and they always thank me — and say that their kids now want to go back to the theatre with them!” In his own family, “Broadway Binge” trips have become a cherished semiannual event. “Truly, I think that Dear Evan Hansen has something for everybody,” says Samia El-Erian, “and I strongly encourage families to take their teenagers to see it.”