During Dear Evan Hansen at the Lake Theatre Friday night, I thought, first and foremost, about fiction, but also about lies, truth, vision, and reality.
This musical about teen suicide, and so much more, won a Tony and a Grammy, but critics have not been kind to the film version. On the Rotten Tomatoes website, only 33% of critics liked it. But 93% of audience members approved. With that kind of disparity, I side with audiences. Critics sometimes miss on a movie. They missed on this one.
Evan Hansen is a social isolate who feels friendless and invisible at his high school and at home, where his single mom works hard and long as a nurse and isn’t around much. Evan wears a cast on his arm, which he broke falling out of a tree.
One of Evan’s classmates, another social isolate named Connor, died by suicide and his parents mistakenly believe Evan was Connor’s only friend, who might be able to give them some insight into the son they didn’t know and couldn’t reach. They invite him to dinner and, seeing the intensity of their grief, he just can’t bring himself to tell them the truth. Instead, Evan makes up a fictional friendship. Many of us tell lies to avoid uncomfortable truths but this one gets out of hand, amplified and intensified by social media.
What I noticed, though, as he told his lies, was that he was also telling “the truth.” Truth in the guise of lies. The truth about himself: his longing for a friend; his feelings for Connor’s sister, whom he has loved from a distance; his desire to be part of a “normal” family, which more or less adopts him. Evan doesn’t know Connor, but like Connor, he knows the pain of social isolation, so his fabrications ring true. He is fed details by the family, which he weaves into his evolving narrative. He isn’t telling lies so much as creating a fiction that contains some truth. If it never moved beyond Connor’s family, all might have gone well.
But word does get out, of course, and leads to a memorial assembly at school where Evan is the main speaker and gives full voice to his vision of the world as it should be, singing:
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
You will be found
You will be found.
It’s a tears-streaming-down-your-face inspiring moment. His speech, of course, goes viral since every student in the assembly is filming it — at first out of sheer meanness when it appears Evan is making a fool of himself, but as he recovers and finds his voice, it becomes a moment, and turns into a movement. It is a sensation on social media.
The only problem, of course, is that it’s not “true.” Not everyone who is broken on the ground is found. Evan wasn’t (when he broke his arm). His compassionate vision doesn’t show us what is but what is possible. Vision is a fiction of possibility.
Yuval Harari, in his fascinating book Sapiens, points out that most of our human institutions are “agreed-upon fictions.” Money, for instance (beware Bitcoin), and government, which only exists by “the consent of the governed,” as Jefferson famously said.
Fiction that harms is a lie. Fiction that helps is vision. When vision becomes reality, it feels like truth, but it’s only true as long as it is agreed upon, and it won’t be agreed upon unless it is genuine.
Evan’s fiction both helps and harms. In the process he comes into his own, discovers there is more to him than he knew, discovers his voice. But lies are a house of cards and the webs we weave eventually snare us.
We are living in times when lies and misinformation threaten public health and our democracy’s very existence. And a movie musical about a Big Lie, even a lie that is nobly intended, is likely to bother people.
The most harmful lies have hidden agendas. The recent California recall was a thinly disguised attempt to grab power by a party that can’t gain power any other way — a minority attempting to impose its will illegitimately. Trump’s Big Lie is the same. His presidency was a four-year clinic on deceit.
Our current national crisis is that fully one-third of the country does not consent to be governed, in fact embraces lies and scorns truth. The Republicans’ Big Lie hides an agenda of authoritarianism and must be defeated.
Mask and vaccine mandates impose the will of the majority on an unwilling minority but only to benefit everyone. During a pandemic, it is a necessary imposition. But if the majority imposes its will on a minority (white supremacy) and causes great harm, a new fiction must be created. Until it is agreed upon, though, it will not become a reality.
The truthfulness of any vision is measured by its benefits. If it benefits only a few at the expense of the many, it is a lie. If it benefits the many at the expense of the few, it is a flawed vision. If it benefits everyone, the vision is true — but it’s not real until it is agreed upon.
Most Americans want a more perfect vision, a more perfect union. We can never reach perfection, but truth’s pull is powerful.
In the film, lies frame the doorway to truth, and Evan eventually sings a new song:
How long these days and darkness
At the bottom of a well?
That old familiar well
Seemed heavy with these secrets
With nobody to tell, nobody to tell …
All the reaching all thе wanting
Just to tumble every timе
But today, today
What felt so far away
Feels a little closer.
“You will be found” is not always true. Not yet. But that’s the truth we yearn for. And if we can all agree upon our unrealized vision of compassion, then every day, perhaps, it will feel a little closer.
In the meantime, a more realistic version has appeared on lawn signs scattered throughout our village. White letters on a black background with a simple message:
Help Each Other.