How 'Dear Evan Hansen' And '13 Reasons Why' Handle Suicide
Dear Evan Hansen is basically the Hamilton of this year's Broadway season. And in some cases, it's actually more successful than Hamilton, if you can believe it.
When the original Broadway cast album dropped in February 2017, it debuted at number eight on the Billboard 200, which is the highest rank any Broadway cast album has gotten since Camelot debuted at number four in 1961. To compare, after it released in 2015, Hamilton debuted at number 12.
And now that the show's received a total of nine Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, it looks like Dear Evan Hansen is shaping up to have a great night on Sunday, June 11, at the Tony Awards. (You can see the full list of Tony nominees here.)
If you don't speak Broadway, let me translate what all of this means for you: Dear Evan Hansen is just about as popular on Broadway as 13 Reasons Why is on Netflix. And the two shows have more than just their popularity in common.
Both Dear Evan Hansen and 13 Reasons Why address the topic of teen suicide, but in completely different ways.
Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of Evan Hansen (played by Pitch Perfect actor Ben Platt), a teenager struggling with crippling anxiety who is desperate to connect with people.
In the beginning of the show, Evan's classmate Connor Murphy (played by Mike Faist) commits suicide. Evan barely knew Connor, but he creates an elaborate lie to make it look like he and Connor were best friends in the hopes that he'll make some real ones. It's admittedly morally ambiguous, but Evan's actions are meant to highlight the struggles of a person living with mental illness.
The songs in the show were created by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Oscar-winning songwriting duo behind La La Land. And they're sure to make you sob just about every time you listen.
"You Will Be Found" is the emotional climax of Act 1. In it, Evan gives a speech in honor of Connor — part of a social media campaign he calls "The Connor Project" — aimed at making sure people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide and/or mental illness know they're not alone.
It comes directly after the song "Disappear," during which Connor (who has a presence throughout the show following his suicide), Evan, and others sing lines like, "No one should flicker out or have any doubt that it matters that they are here."
One entire verse of "You Will Be Found" features the whole cast belting the phrase "You are not alone," a sentence I — a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety for years — really need to hear in my darkest moments. Notably, for me, I've needed to hear those words from someone else, because saying it to myself often doesn't do the job of convincing me I'm OK. And it's all the more powerful through song.
The chorus of the song goes,
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.
Dear Evan Hansen understands what so many people struggling with thoughts of suicide and mental illness need, and they sing it — boldly, loudly, and lovingly — right into their ears. It's a message to the characters in the story, but also to the audience and its listeners, urging them to look around to try and see how loved they are, how much they matter. (Of course, that's not to say that these tenets of humanity and love are by any means a "cure-all," because people struggling with mental illness can know all these things and still turn to suicide.)
And for some people, when you're feeling lost, alone, and yes, suicidal, that can be a life-saving gesture.
In comparison, 13 Reasons Why has been lauded and heavily criticized for its portrayal of the "reality" of teen suicide and its signs.
If you have yet to watch 13 Reasons Why (or are debating if you should), it's about a high schooler, Hannah Baker, who commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes, each tape detailing a reason why she took her own life. In one of the final episodes (spoiler alert), you actually watch Hannah kill herself and the aftermath that ensues.
For me, 13 Reasons Why was very triggering. When it released, the show originally didn't feature trigger warnings for viewers, but it later added warnings at the beginning of the last two episodes. They are reportedly adding more.
Overall, I applaud 13 Reasons Why for being brutally honest about the dark realities of rape and suicide, but its biggest flaw, in my opinion, is that it doesn't supplement the dark with any light — rare are moments when we see Hannah feel loved, wanted, less isolated, and less alone.
One of the biggest criticisms of the show is that Hannah's tapes makes her suicide seem "justified" because it forces everyone mentioned in the tapes to take a hard look at their actions and how they hurt Hannah, implying that through her suicide they've somehow "learned their lessons."
But it's vital to point out that suicide should never be seen as an accomplishment, and should never be portrayed as a way to "get back" at the ones who have hurt you. It's dangerous for a show to pretend it is (or to even present this as an option for those struggling with suicidal thoughts or tendencies).
When I watched, I felt as if each character mentioned on the tape was being punished for being partially responsible for Hannah's suicide, according to Hannah. It felt like the entire show was about Hannah trying to get her revenge, which paints a really dangerous image of suicide, as evidenced by the 23-year-old in Peru who made his own tapes before committing suicide earlier this week.
That's the main difference between the two shows: where 13 Reasons Why feels punishing, Dear Evan Hansen does its part to uplift.
13 Reasons Why brings you down into the dark reality of Hannah's pain — which is an incredibly compelling, authentic reality many struggling with suicidal thoughts can understand — but it does nothing to make you feel like things will get better, and that's where the problem falls.
It leaves some people feeling Hannah was "right" to kill herself, as if there is a right versus wrong to be found in this situation. No number of Beyond The Reasons episodes can make up for that dangerous discrepancy.
And that's what a lot of people who have seen the show believe.
Netflix responded to the controversy in a statement, saying,
While many of our members find the show to be a valuable driver for starting important conversation with their families, we have also heard concern from those who feel the series should carry additional advisories. Currently the episodes that carry graphic content are identified as such and the series overall carries a TV-MA rating. Moving forward, we will add an additional viewer warning card before the episode as an extra precaution for those about to start the series.
Evan Young, a 19-year-old student at Penn State who has seen Dear Evan Hansen on stage and 13 Reasons Why, spoke with Elite Daily about both of the shows.
I think Dear Evan Hansen paints a more accurate reality of [teen suicide]. The show portrays the grieving family in a very nuanced and realistic manner, and I think that adds so much to the effectiveness of it. The emotions are real and poignant. The audience sees a very real and authentic character who has his own issues to deal with, who almost had the same fate Connor had. However, [Evan] sort of channels this history into the prevention aspect of the show. The themes and messages in songs like 'Disappear' and 'You Will Be Found' are quite powerful ones, and Evan, while caught in a huge lie, uses his platform for good and actually tries to enact good change.
The "same fate" Young mentions is in reference to a major plot point in Dear Evan Hansen (spoiler alert). Evan has a broken arm in the beginning of the show. He tells people he broke it when he accidentally fell out of a tree, but we later learn that it was actually the result of a failed suicide attempt. Evan had climbed up a tree when he intentionally let go of the branch, hoping the fall would kill him.
Amanda Pasquini, a 22-year-old teacher from Philadelphia, says of 13 Reasons Why,
[13 Reasons Why] taught me, someone who doesn't struggle from mental illness, a lot about how young adults going through that kind of despair interact with those around them. At the end of the series, I felt completely shocked. It was a good shock, I think. Teen suicide is a very real thing and depression is a battle that some young people confront each day. I think it's important to be able to talk about that and I commended Netflix for not shying away from it. As far as the controversy, the more people I talked to about the show, the more I began to realize that the show is triggering. I felt a deep sense of anxiety following each episode, thus I can't imagine how teens battling depression and thoughts of self-harm would feel after watching the episodes. I do think it's important that the media not shy away from suicide and show it as the horrible, ugly beast that it is... But, the show could have offered less glamorized ways for teens to reach out for help. For example, it would have been more enlightening for Alex (the teen at the end of series who ends up attempting suicide) to find the help without resorting to violence like Hannah Baker. We, as an audience, were not left with anyone to follow as an example.
At the Tonys press junket on May 3, 2017, Platt — who is up for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his portrayal of Evan — said the emotional reality Dear Evan Hansen creates is what makes it so special to be a part of. He told reporters,
I think what's wonderful as an actor is getting to do pieces that are reflecting the contemporary world in a way that's honest, and I think in a musical that's a rare thing, because when you sing, sometimes that takes you out of the reality of the moment instead of increasing the emotional, sort of visceral, quality that it has. And I think what makes the show really special is that the songs really forward the story and forward the emotional stakes as opposed to sort of pausing them or taking you out of them. And that's why Steven and Justin work so well together because the language of the song and the scenes are so on that the characters never really leave the reality they've created.
That reality is one that says you may feel alone, and things may feel hopeless now, but it's going to get better. Better doesn't necessarily mean all of your struggles will disappear or be "cured," as you will go through hard times, and then you'll go through hard times again, but there will always be someone, something, or some organization ready and willing to help you if/when you ask for it. To quote the show, "You will be found."
After I finished the last episode of 13 Reasons Why, I felt very triggered and anxious. To feel better, I turned on the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack.
And that's telling.
If you or someone you know are struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.