Novels are routinely turned into Broadway musicals, several currently running – Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Once on This Island – but turning a Broadway musical into a novel is…novel.
Dear Evan Hansen, an original musical that opened on Broadway two years ago today, now has been novelized, in the aptly off-putting phrase. Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel (Poppy/Little Brown, 358 pages), is credited to four authors: Val Emmich, plus the creative team behind the musical – librettist Steven Levenson, and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
The story is essentially the same, but the music is missing.
Evan Hansen is an anxious and friendless high school student whose life is transformed when a classmate he hardly knew, Connor Murphy, commits suicide, and Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia Murphy assume that Evan and Connor were good friends. They assume this because Evan’s therapist had told Evan to write letters to himself in order to build his self-confidence, and Connor catches Evan printing out one of the letters at a school printer. The letter, which despite its purpose is completely downbeat, includes a desperate line about a classmate for whom he pines, but to whom he has never spoken: “All my hope is pinned on Zoe.” Zoe happens to be Connor’s sister, and Connor angrily confiscates the letter. His parents find it in his pocket after he’s killed himself, and think it a suicide letter addressed to Evan.
Evan, not wanting to hurt their feelings, doesn’t correct their mistaken impression that he and Connor were friends, and eventually lies outright, telling them he and Connor were best friends. Evan’s lie gets bigger and bigger, and so do the consequences. Other outcasts from the school get involved in The Connor Project to keep alive his memory. (Yes, Jared Kleinman, his sort of friend, remains a vivid presence.) Evan starts dating Zoe. News of Connor’s suicide and Evan’s friendship with him soon goes “viral,” thanks to social media and the Internet. “I get emails and messages from people every day from all around the world,” Evan writes, “telling me how their lives have been affected by this thing we’ve built…”
All of this is in the musical, but the novel offers more detail. There is a chapter narrating a session with his therapist Dr. Sherman, for example. It also inserts some of the conventions of a YA novel, with Evan or Connor bringing up works of literature that most high school students are assigned to read, such as The Great Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird, though the novel does little more than name-drop the titles.
There is also some minor invention.
Evan tells us that his actual first name is Mark; Evan is his middle name. “There are a million and ten things from the subatomic to the cosmic that can rattle my nerves on a daily basis, and one of those things is my initials. M.E.H. Like the word: meh Meh is basically a shoulder shrug, and that pretty much sums up the reaction I get from society at large….I’d rather think of myself as eh….Like, How about that Evan Hansen, eh?”
The book is told mostly from Evan’s point of view, but there are periodic first-person passages from the dead Connor – including, most notably, the eventual revelation that Connor was gay. We learn something else about Connor (I won’t spoil it) that leads to a couple of small but incredibly moving scenes.
Yet, while elaborating on Connor is intriguing, it’s jolting to have him share in the narration. In the musical, the dead Connor does speak (actually mostly sings) with Evan, but it seems clear that Evan was conjuring him up in his imagination.
These changes, though, work better than the apparent effort to keep the story “you-are-there” drama: It’s told in the present tense, Evan recounting things as they happen. This sometimes makes for some awkward transitions.
The main way that a two and a half hour musical is turned into a 350 page YA novel is by letting us into Evan’s thoughts.
When the (alive) Connor signs Evan’s cast, he says: “Now we can both pretend that we have friends.” Evan muses: ‘’I’m not exactly sure how to take this comment. How does Connor know I don’t have friends” – and contemplates it for a full paragraph, before he says aloud to Connor “Good Point.” In the musical, we don’t get that paragraph.
Sometimes Evan’s thoughts enhance the humor and the drama. In the pivotal first dinner with the Murphy family, when Zoe skeptically asks Evan where he and Connor hung out together, Evan thinks: “She’s about to call me a liar and a phony – I know it. I’ll be thrown out of this house, and then I won’t just be invisible, I’ll be a pariah, too. I’ll be home-schooled and my only connection to the outside would will be social media and e-mail…” – which is how he thinks of telling them that he and Connor communicated mostly by e-mails.
But Evan’s expanded ruminations generally don’t add much, too often going on too long. Although he is supposed to be a good writer – which is why his mother pushes him to enter writing contests for college scholarships – Evan’s voice is marred by some strained sentences. (“This damn cast should be on my feet; it’s become my Achilles’ heel”; “Zoe’s smile balloons to the size of a parade float….My mother returns the smile, hers a balloon with holes, and says nothing.”) Is this really supposed to be the same voice that sings “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found” on stage?
It’s hard to resist the feeling that “Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel” exists mostly to extend the brand (and tap into the lucrative YA fiction marketplace) — there’s already a making-of-the-musical book, Dear Evan Hansen: Through The Window — rather than enhance our understanding of the characters or of the current-day issues that the story presents. There are many such issues woven into the story – teen suicide of course but also adolescent insecurity, the dangers of social media, income inequality, the struggle of parenting, family dynamics, sibling resentment, the delayed effects of grief, even the self-interest of altruism. (Even good people see a tragedy through the prism of their own needs.) These somehow feel downplayed in the novel compared to the musical. And of course, anybody who has attended the musical will feel the absence of the songs. Yes, the passage in the novel when Larry shows Evan how to break in a glove is still touching, but nowhere near as much so as it is in the song “To Break in a Glove.”
“Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel” may work fine for those young adult readers who know nothing about the musical. For those of us who know and love the musical, it does offer at least one tangible benefit: We can appreciate the beauty of the music and the economy of the storytelling on stage all the more by observing the effect of their absence on the page.