Last night, a remarkable new musical opened on Broadway. Dear Evan Hansen’s peppy but soulful score, breakout performance by Ben Platt in the title role, and intimidating set of 21st-century electronica are sure to enthrall audiences. But in the age of Donald Trump, perceptive theatergoers may be alarmed by the show’s take-home message about wall-to-wall, runaway social media – and they should be.
I saw earlier iterations of the show three times, in both Washington and off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre, and each time my gaze was riveted by the oh-so-2016 high school student at the center of the musical, Evan Hansen. Platt’s delicate portrayal of a teen trying to simultaneously withdraw into and break out of his own skin is so breathtaking I consider it a once-in-a-generation performance.
Evan had been “on the outside always looking in,” as he sings it, yet a series of crossed signals designates him as a cause célèbre among vulnerable teens. The Internet inflates that misunderstanding into a lie, which he compounds to keep the shaky edifice from crumbling – something he can’t countenance, since fame has finally made him an insider.
Virality – the pathology-based metaphor for ideas, personalities, and creative works that overwhelm social media – is scarily apt. “Infectious” Internet phenomena spread with no central gatekeeper, sometimes with malignant results.
Broadway’s Evan Hansen is well-meaning but ends up hurting people (including himself) when he enters the Internet whirlwind. Unfortunately, the Web is filled with Evan Hansens – people who find their foibles and flaws magnified by runaway social media.
One Evan Hansen, Tyrone Jones, gained an online following for videos in which he crudely propositioned women in front of their dates. Last year, this obnoxious social experiment stopped being funny when the husband of one of the women pulled out a gun and shot Jones three times in the chest.
In a way, the next president of the United States is also an Evan Hansen. Yes, his conduct toward women has been execrable, his overall behavior boorish – but the tycoon’s impact was limited. His presidential campaign began as a lark, a vanity exercise, the ultimate in reality TV. He never expected to be president. But he stumbled onto an electoral landscape in which social media had changed the rules of American politics. The worst parts of the demagogue-elect’s jumble of ideas were being zapped onto the cell phones and laptops of ordinary Americans without the usual journalistic referees correcting his falsehoods and contextualizing his messages.
And boy, has it gotten out of hand. We’ll soon have a president who can send the markets tumbling or spark foreign wars with one Tweet. At the same time, the vilest citizens who, blessedly, were only “waving through a window” onto American life have diffused their hate organically with little protest from the small-handed Evan Hansen headed for the Oval Office.
Now, the exquisite Evan Hansen on stage every night at the Music Box Theater is a good person caught up in forces beyond his control. But if the social media effect can usher a guileless bumbler like Evan into riskier territory, imagine what it can do to someone less wholesome.
I hope every reader of this column gets to feel the impact of Evan Hansen – but on stage, not on the evening news.
David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at [email protected].