On Broadway, “Dear Evan Hansen” was a smash hit. On the big screen, it’s poised to be a flop.
The latest Hollywood musical adaptation debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday ahead of its Sept. 24 release. While the stage musical was lauded, earning six Tony Awards in 2017, preliminary reactions and reviews of the Universal movie are far less kind.
“Stephen Chbosky’s cinematic adaptation of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ … is a total misfire,” wrote Robert Daniels in his review for RogerEbert.com. “It’s an emotionally manipulative, overlong dirge composed of cloying songs, lackluster vocal performances, and even worse writing.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” is about a high school student named Evan Hansen, played by Ben Platt, who suffers from mental health issues. His therapist has instructed him to write letters to himself to express his feelings. When Evan’s classmate Connor Murphy steals one of these letters, Evan’s life gets turned upside down. Connor takes his own life and the only thing found on his person is Evan’s letter. Connor’s parents assume that Connor had written the letter for Evan and wrongly believe Evan was Connor’s only friend.
What starts off as an innocent misunderstanding spirals into an enormous lie. Evan claims he was friends with Connor and fakes a secret friendship with the deceased boy, ingratiating himself with Connor’s parents. Evan begins to fit in at school and helps raise awareness about mental health issues through “The Connor Project,” a fundraising initiative for suicide prevention.
His deception eventually unravels.
“Onstage, it’s a tearjerker: a wrenching grief story for the grownups, and a generally frank examination of psychological issues that aren’t really addressed in mainstream media to its plethora of young fans,” wrote David Gordon in his review for Theater Mania. “It strains credulity … We know it’s not real, but we go with it anyway, and it provides a nice little catharsis amid the moral gray area as we buy the cast album on the way out.”
On film, it’s “a different story,” Gordon wrote.
“Evan’s actions, which we sort of shrug off after seeing it on Broadway because they’re presented with hints of ambiguity, are truly grotesque in celluloid,” he said. “He’s a Machiavellian villain in a story where he’s written to be the hero.”
Broadway is no stranger to dark material. Shows including “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon,” “Assassins,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Next to Normal” have all explored difficult topics such as death, suicide and mental health.
However, “Dear Evan Hansen” has always been controversial in the eyes of musical fans. There’s no doubt that the stage production was greatly successful, garnering nearly $250 million in ticket sales since 2016, according to data from Broadway World.
Still, many have taken issue with how it uses mental illness as a plot device and Evan’s anxiety and depression as excuses for manipulative behavior.
Platt, who reprises his role as Evan Hansen, which he originated on Broadway, was praised for his singing performance. However, many critics balked at his casting. At 27 years old, Platt is unable to capture the youthful innocence that would endear audiences to Evan in spite of his questionable actions.
“If there were any chance of making this character look like something other than a monster, it rested on emphasizing his raw youth,” wrote Alison Willmore, critic for Vulture and New York Magazine, on Twitter. “Which makes the casting of an obviously grown man just hunching his shoulders an act of sabotage that’s near avant-garde.”
The filmed version of “Dear Evan Hansen” cuts four songs but still manages to clock in at around two hours and 17 minutes, almost longer than the stage version.
It’s “overwrought and emotionless at the same time,” wrote Karl Delossantos in his review for Smash Cut. It’s “insensitive towards trauma and mental illness, and out of touch with reality.”
“Undoubtedly one of the worst movie-musicals ever made,” he wrote.
Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal is the distributor of “Dear Evan Hansen.”