We’ve come to think of it as the Hamilton Test: Can a new Broadway musical’s songs hook kids (in my case, my 10-year-old daughter, Daphne), even though they’ve never seen the show?
This was certainly true of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s massive smash, but that work is a sui generis phenomenon. What about when it comes to other musical theater soundtracks? It doesn’t often happen, but occasionally Daph will crank up show tunes from unseen musicals and dance around our apartment when it’s her turn to play Spotify DJ.
That’s what happened with Dear Evan Hansen. One day, the soundtrack was just suddenly on. And for weeks at a time, it remained on. The uplifting track “Waving Through a Window,” in particular, soared through our home in heavy rotation. And somehow, magically, Daphne already knew all the words: “On the outside, always looking in/ Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?/ ‘Cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass/ I’m waving through the window.” This musical about an anxiety-ridden teen in the aftermath of a classmate’s death passes the Hamilton Test with flying colors.
DEH’s musical catchiness shouldn’t come as a surprise. The songs were written by the powerhouse duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. You might’ve caught some of their other tunes in a little movie called La La Land. Pasek and Paul are the hitmakers du jour, and it was very much their talent that helped guide Evan Hansen from a debut way-way-off-Broadway (Washington, D.C., to be exact) to off-Broadway to the Music Box Theater in December. Now it’s poised to rack up double-digit Tony Award nominations, including for best musical.
So how does a show about a cast-wearing, shy misfit navigating the treacherous and murky waters of adolescence translate from Spotify car jams to the big stage? Nearly flawlessly. Ben Platt, the young actor playing Evan Hansen, is transfixing in an emotionally wide-ranging role. With a voice sent straight from the heavens, Platt alone creates a compelling case for seeing the buzzy musical. Innovative staging, meanwhile, integrates social media in a potent, poignant way.
As The New York Times review noted, this is the rare new Broadway production not based on source material. And while the story tracks a subject well trod at least since Juliet pined for Romeo—youthful heartbreak—the show’s peppy, poppy songs and hefty pathos lift it into uncommon territory as a modern, coming-of-age classic. Anyone who has ever been young and confused will want to sing along.