Saturday, 9 November 2019

Dear Evan Hansen: Passion over Poetry

In the first half of the musical Wicked, two teenage witches prepare for a college ball. In a classic trope of the genre, the classically beautiful Galinda is giving the (literally) green-faced Elphaba a high-school makeover. This is done through the lyrics of ‘Popular,’ a delightfully scathing comedy number that truly shows off Stephen Schwartz’s prowess as a songwriter.

Known elsewhere for his contributions to Disney films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted, Schwartz was undoubtedly the perfect choice to score Wicked. His knack for a sparkling, key-fluid yet very singable melody is matched only by his refusal to miss any opportunity for rhyme. ‘Popular’ is a classic example of this style:

Don’t be offended by my frank analysis,
Think of it as personality dialysis.
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sister and advisor -
There’s nobody wiser,
Not when it comes to ‘popular’.


This trick of manipulating words to construct a perfect rhyme has long been a trick up the sleeves of writers like Schwartz. Whether it's the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, the wit of Stephen Sondheim or even the mind-boggling bars of Lin Manuel Miranda, it has proven a popular technique for as long as the musical theatre form has existed. But everything changes in the end.

Dear Evan Hansen recently opened on the West End, having made its Broadway Debut in 2017. It deals with themes of grief, social awkwardness, mental health and the struggles of parenthood. And it explores each of these themes from both the adults' and the adolescents' perspective - something few high school dramatisations have achieved.

One of my favourite moments comes towards the end - no plot spoilers, I promise. It's an intimate solo song called 'So big/So small', in which Heidi (mother of the titular Evan) recalls the moment she became a single parent. The rhymes in this song are simple, as are the words and the sentiment. A mother re-committing herself to being there for her son.

The bridge of the song features almost no rhyme at all, and is sung through tears of anguish by Rachel Bay Jones on the original soundtrack - it's no surprise she won a Tony for this role. For me the pinnacle of this piece comes before the final chorus:

Your mom isn't going anywhere, your mom is staying right here.
Your mom isn't going anywhere, your mom is staying right here no matter what.

Pasek and Paul (composers for Dear Evan Hansen, as well as hit film The Greatest Showman) had so many options for conveying this statement, but they went for this. No metaphor, no flowery language, simple. And that's not all. They don't use the second line to rhyme cleverly with the first or impress us with a witty insight. Simply repeating the first line with an additional phrase makes Heidi's emotions here so much more powerful.

You might be feeling that this is an unfair comparison. I've picked a comedy moment from Wicked - of course that has more wit in it than a serious, emotional moment in Dear Evan Hansen. Well here's a chorus from 'No Good Deed' - the emotional climax of Wicked, where Elphaba scorns her attempts to do good and pleads for the life of her lover.

No good deed goes unpunished:
All helpful urges must be circumvented.
No good deed goes unpunished:
Sure I meant well, but look at what well meant did.

In musicals like Wicked, the wit and ability of the lyricist is on full display. It's a key part of the entertainment, and it lands almost every time. Tim Minchin's score for Matilda is a perfect example of this. He knows when to turn on the wordplay, and his intelligence matches the prodigy of Matilda herself. Then when things get serious, he tones it down a bit, to allow the honesty to come through.

But pushing the clever rhymes in the most sincere and sombre moments - like the above example from Wicked - can create a disconnect between the words being used and the emotions the scene is trying to convey. In Dear Evan Hansen, eloquence abandons the characters in moments of heightened emotion, a decision which only makes them more relatable.

All this makes me wonder if the era of the "clever wordplay musical" is coming to an end. Perhaps WickedMatilda and Hamilton are the last bastions of an age where complex language is used to convey complex emotions. We live in complex times, so maybe what we crave from our operatic entertainment, from our musical catharsis, is the simple passion that's often so hard to express in real life.

Dear Evan Hansen is a gem of a musical - an original plot that drags the classic high school image created by Mean Girls and Clueless into the 21st Century. Loveable, funny, flawed characters whose lack of word-based wit helps us to see them as real, normal people. Here's hoping for many more musicals like it in the future.

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