‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is actually a revolutionary show about moms, if you’re paying attention
The show portrays its mother figures as imperfect human beings, a refreshing departure from the norm.
Spoilers for Dear Evan Hansen will appear below.
You’ll have to excuse my bringing up math so early in our time together — especially because, as a creative type, it’s my main enemy and perhaps functionally in direct opposition to the topic we’re here to discuss. Nevertheless, in my years of research, it’s become clear that being a Theatre Kid is 25 percent buying merch, 25 percent waiting outside (stage) doors, 25 percent belting out lyrics when we hear any word or phrase that even vaguely reminds us of a song, and 25 percent having Really Big Opinions. To do some fast math, I admit I am guilty of 100 percent of the above, as I sit here writing this in a vintage Cats T-shirt humming “It Only Takes A Taste.”
Furthermore, anyone who has ever met me or seen my living space or happened to stumble upon any of my social media pages knows there’s one giant, overpowering, glaring interest of mine that’s immediately clock-able: I believe Actresses are our greatest natural resource.
Since I was a child, I’ve been irrevocably fascinated by the work of women. Something about them triggers the empathy sensors in my brain into overdrive such that I can rarely even look at an Actress’s performance, on stage or screen, without, as the saying goes, crying/screaming/throwing up. Also, I am gay. For those reasons (extremely Shark Tank voice), I’m in whenever there’s a new indie movie or novel or musical or play that boasts a female protagonist and has the word “poignant” in its logline.
So four years ago, when I had the opportunity to see Dear Evan Hansen — a show I understood to be about a teenager and his teenager friends and his teenager love interest — I thought, “This seems like it’s simply not for me!” But of course, I saw it anyway for obviously reasons (Theatre Kid, gay), and by the middle of Act 2, I was ready to admit that I was wrong. Not quite about the plot, which is still very much about a teenager, but about its resonance as an overall piece of art. It took me almost all of its 2.25 hours, but I finally realized: If there’s one thing I know about teenagers and the stories about them we all love to tell, it’s that they have moms. And where there are moms, my friends, there are Actresses.
For those unfamiliar or who may just need a refresher, Dear Evan Hansen is about an anxious high schooler who has trouble connecting with people but soon finds himself at the center of a grieving family and the center of viral attention when he gets caught up in a life-changing lie. For me, Dear Evan Hansen is the story of a hardworking mother who tries her best to provide for and connect with her troubled son, and the story of a shattered, grieving mother who must come to terms with a life after the death of her son. Evan’s story is merely the center of the Venn Diagram of Heidi Hansen and Cynthia Murphy.
Let me clarify right off the bat that I have no qualms with the way the show does (or does not) market itself. What I mean by that is: it’s not that Dear Evan Hansen explicitly posits it is not a show about moms. After all, one of its two leading matriarchs, Rachel Bay Jones, won the Tony Award for her performance as Heidi Hansen, the mother of the titular character. It’s just that its appeal seems to be, largely, in its exploration of teendom and the mental health issues faced by a generation of young people who live their lives in front of thousands of tiny screen-people they may never know. Well, I’m here to use the 25 percent of my Theatre Kid brain reserved for exactly this kind of thing to tell you my Big Opinion: Dear Evan Hansen is not just a show that features moms, but is actually as much a show about mothering (and those who do it) as it is a show about a boy who loves trees.
Upon first viewing, I walked away from the show with this opinion half-baked. I found myself more drawn to and more interested in the stories and arcs of the mother characters than of anyone else, but I figured that was just because I spent the first three years of high school watching Desperate Housewives over and over. Subsequently, I listened to the cast album, as we do, and found myself continually shaken up by the emotional nuances of the mom’s songs, specifically Heidi’s “So Big, So Small.” That’s where my theory grew legs.
For starters, the show literally opens with the two mothers leading (and later joined by the ensemble in) a very clear “I Want” number called “Does Anybody Have A Map?” Though they don’t yet know each other, their vulnerabilities and confusions about parenthood operate in perfect harmony, and they seem to be functionally laying out the greatest question of the piece: “How is a mere human being supposed to be perfect at raising and teaching and understanding and even loving a child when the rules are always changing?” I’m not a mom myself, but I imagine it’s a viscerally resonant question to hear so blatantly and a much-needed topic to see explored on a stage. And they never really stop exploring it.
While many fans of the show laud the emotional messiness of its main character, the nuances and contradictions in Heidi’s and Cynthia’s characters feel most revolutionary to me. After they’ve set the stage, literally and emotionally, with the “What am I doing here?” question, we watch them try to navigate the minefield of loving and accepting anxious, depressed, often cryptic, sometimes downright cruel young men. It is, at its core, a story about the redemptive power of a mother’s love, but it is, in its smallest moments, about the revelation that is honesty in motherhood.
In other words, it’s easy enough to tell a story about how a mom loves their kid. It’s really hard to tell a story about how it’s sometimes hard for a mother to love her kid, and how some days, it’s hard for her to even like him. And that doesn’t make her a bad mom. In fact, it makes her a more whole human being.
The power of Dear Evan Hansen, to me, is its refusal to be afraid of saying the thing that seems illegal to say: Moms are people, too. They’re not perfect, and there’s no guarantee they’ll do the right thing or even the nice thing. It’s already really, really hard to be a woman in the world, so adding a layer parenting on top seems impossible.
The show, at once, paints a broad portrait of what it is to be a woman and adds just enough tiny specks of detail to make any parent struggling feel uniquely seen. The scenes where Cynthia struggles to come to terms with her late son’s shortcomings are heartbreaking but very, very real to anyone who has ever dealt in grief, and the song “Good For You” wherein Heidi laments her son’s narcissism and cruelty while trying to navigate what it means to still be there for him sends a shock to my stomach every time I think of it. More songs about moms in rage spirals, thanks!
The universality of these characters lies in their simultaneous stoicism and ability to be adaptive. In their pure, deep love and in their red-hot anger. In their fears and in their vulnerabilities. I’ve never met two women who were in this exact circumstance, but every woman I know is a shade of Cynthia and a hint of Heidi. Being either of these women seems unthinkable, but being both of them plus one hundred more things is what moms do every day. And we’re meant to focus on how the kid turn out rather than how the mom shaped them? I don’t think so! Put some respect on moms’ names!
It’s a risky move to make what is, for all intents and purposes, a family musical wherein the parents of the main characters are imperfect, unpolished, and sometimes unhinged. But it’s even riskier to keep telling stories that perpetuate stereotypes that hold women and mothers to impossible standards of goodness, kindness, and ultimately, submissiveness. It’s one of the few shows I can cite that’s about parenthood and gives the mothers as much agency (if not more) than the children they’re looking after.
It’s a musical for children to watch and realize they need to give their mothers grace. It’s a musical for mothers to watch and realize it’s okay to dabble in absolute fury when necessary. It’s a musical for gay Theatre Kids to watch and say, “Oh wow, I thought it was this one thing but actually, it’s this other thing! Or maybe, it’s BOTH!” It’s a musical that mirrors the phenomenon of our ever-changing understanding of our parents, who we likely decided were like this when we were young, but then as we grew older, came to realize were actually like that. It’s a musical you should think about whenever you look at your mother or your mother figure and think: “She did all this with no map.”
It is a show about moms. And that alone is worth celebrating.
Photo credit: Ben Levi Ross and Jessica Phillips in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)