Theatrical works like this have to live and die by melody. It is always the most exposed layer and the most vital in portraying characterization, since the characters are actually delivering this layer themselves. In recent times, musical theater has fabricated this layer so much to the point where the whole experience is too obviously about the ego, the production, or cheap emotion rather than about the true power of music. Dear Evan Hansen, however, takes a much-needed different direction. The melodies essentially attach themselves to the musical structure that’s already there so as to not go too over-the-top or full of itself. Within this structure, they are simplistic and fun while having a great amount of variance for what the music calls for. The first six songs in the musical really set the tone well with their energy and togetherness. The work’s most sellable song, “For Forever”, had a very successful melodic hook, and songs such as “Sincerely, Me” and “If I Could Tell Her” were delightful in their overall melodic motion and presence. Some songs lost a bit of melodic strength when trying to really sell the circumstance or character, such as in “You Will Be Found” and “Good For You”. Although the melodic shapes never quite found that same level of intrigue after the start, they were still strong within themselves and good examples of a strictly musical aspect being able to affect the telling of a story. I do think that the amount of spoken dialogue within the music unnecessarily broke up the pacing and made me feel a bit robbed of a potentially strong musical moment. Again, though, in whatever form it was in, the melody was never too flashy or undeveloped. In sticking mostly with familiar melodic conventions and organically finding shapes and energy, this is a very approachable and listenable work. This didn’t try to re-invent a genre in any way; instead of a circus show, it mostly came across as a 1990’s-2000’s Alanis Morissette concept album, and I thoroughly enjoyed that.
The element that keeps the music sounding together and fresh is the harmony, which consistently led the songs into important moments along with keeping a steady dose of inventiveness. The harmony does not sound like a typical musical theatre piece in its simplicity and familiarity, which is totally fine with me. No need for a piano player to break their fingers here. While very simplistic I, IV, and V chords were consistently the anchors throughout, the actual rhythms and patterns were mostly unique and delivered good excitement, just like best pop musicians did 20 years ago. In using those few chords very well, it also opened up the possibility for easy modulations or minor tonalities to mix in and sound much more important than they might normally be. The songs “Requiem” and “So Big/So Small” were especially creative in doing this. The only song that had an obvious and dull four chord (vi IV I V) progression was “Waving Through A Window”, but even that had enough drive and purpose to at least be welcomed. Truth be told, this was some of the most creative and well-done harmonies I’ve heard for a musical theatre piece, being a work that rival some of the coolest modern pop works as well. Don’t try and tell me that this is too simplistic and mainstream and not enough like true theatrical music. That’s actually a good thing.
Finally, a modern musical that isn’t hung up on using an excessive amount of sound and hoopla to get a message across. I know that there are other theatrical works out now that have smaller instrumentation like this, but I’d be surprised if they were as effective at bringing out as much authentic emotion that Dear Evan Hansen does. The acoustic guitar was a beautiful choice for the centerpiece of the sound. It’s recognizable, understandable, and versatile for the many different situations that needed to be portrayed. The strings weren’t added to be the trademark soundtrack orchestra, but simply to heighten the effects of the more heavy emotions. Their use may have gotten to be a little too run down by the end, but they were certainly strong at important points when needed. The sound stayed consistent and never lost focus. Like the other elements, although to a lesser extent, the timbre sounded like something picked up from everyday life and brought into the theatre, instead of the theatre being the one creating it. From the cool quirkiness of “Anybody Have a Map?” to the gut-wrenching beauty of “So Big/So Small”, the timbre was always worthwhile and did well to keep the music interesting while serving an ulterior purpose. That purpose, the actual presentation of a staged story, did happen to provide the only big weaknesses in the sound. The story was indeed the first priority, which is fine, but the sound did give up a little too much to make it happen. I didn’t particularly think the music thrived when two voices of completely different ranges kept interrupting each other and existing together. The B-52’s could do it, but I’m sure it took them a lot to make it work. It’s a storytelling aspect that was almost unavoidable in this instance, which was too bad. I also didn’t quite enjoy the fact that the lyrics blatantly gave out the plot and the inner thoughts of the characters. Even if its theatre, it’s nice to have some subtlety, and as a listener I’d much rather want to figure out relationships and activity within the work on my own. That way, I’d be able to learn more about it and continue to find things with multiple listens instead of knowing practically everything about it with one listen. Again, it’s a convention of theatre that’s rather out of control. Overall, the sound was very respectable, and I fully appreciated its down-to-earth qualities.
This seems to be the next big thing in the theatre world without a doubt, and you probably don’t need me to tell you just how much that crowd can cling onto one work. I see this as rather groundbreaking for the theatre world, in that a successful work of musical theatre can actually heavily involve an outside musical genre in its sound rather than sounding specifically for a theatrical work. Several other musicals, most notably Hamilton, have done this as well, but this to me is far better written than any other cross-genre theatrical work I’ve heard. A question that I didn’t discuss musically but will bring up in terms of influence is, was this the right pairing of music and story? Both are separately very well done and respectable, but I would argue that they don’t go together as well as each side may warrant. Since the music was compelling, though, I don’t see it as a big problem at all. Others might, though, and that may contribute to this musical not being a huge favorite down the road. For now, though, it’s a remarkable work with one of the most lucrative platforms in music (Broadway) to get established. It’ll get lots of good attention. I just hope I never have to see an amateur high school production of it. I’m sure that’s very wishful thinking.
Final Score: 140/180