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‘Dear Evan Hansen’ cast discusses mental health in the social media generation

When I think about high school, I often think about the anxiety that came with it: the feeling of mindlessly roaming around a crowded hallway at seven in the morning, the discomfort of eating in front of classmates and the dependence on schoolwork to distract myself from loneliness. It’s hard to realize that you’re not the only person experiencing this without feeling as if you’re burdening others with your thoughts. For high school senior Evan Hansen, this anxiety consumes his teenage years.

“Dear Evan Hansen,”  a Tony-award-winning musical, follows the story of the painfully insecure and awkward Evan (Ben Platt), who writes reaffirming letters to himself as a therapy assignment. Equally lonely, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) steals one of these letters from the printer, then signs Evan’s cast, claiming “Now we can both pretend we have friends.” 

A few days later, Evan learns that Connor committed suicide, and the Murphys believe that he and Evan were best friends due to the letter in Connor’s pocket. In an attempt to help them work through their grief, the anxious senior devises an elaborate lie that results in greater conversations about mental health, but fewer discussions with honesty.

On Sept. 24, the musical is moving from the stage to movie theaters nationwide. In a virtual roundtable with cast members Ben Platt, Amandla Stenberg, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dover and Danny Pino, as well as writer Steven Levenson and director Stephen Chbosky, The Chronicle explored the process behind this heartwarming film.

Adolescent depression and anxiety are not new issues, but social media’s role in intensifying their symptoms is characteristic of our generation. With this play moving to screens, the film displays the overwhelming nature of digital media more effectively than could be done on stage, such as through a Google-searching montage and Instagram posts. Though the perils of the internet are often denigrated as a trivial teenage obsession with technology, the cast and crew were respectful of the damage they can inflict. 

“If you were to do a documentary about the young person today, the phone would be in his or her hand,” Chbosky said. “It’s as natural as breathing now. As a director, I tried to take a very non-judgemental look at it. We know there are many ills to [social media]: we know that when you post on Instagram, it’s not your real life, yet when we look at other’s posts we think it is their real life.”

This blurry disconnection between the virtual and real — social media slowly defining identity, rather than expressing it — is one of Evan’s main dilemmas. Though he and classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) use the breadth of the internet to spread an inspiring message (through Evan’s song “You Will Be Found”), the internet is also used to harass Connor’s family, the people Evan was trying to protect from the beginning. 

“When we started writing the show in 2011, social media seemed to be positive and negative,” Levenson said. “I think the last 10 years have shown that there are more things about it that are not great than that are great. What we want to show in the film, if nothing else, is that it’s not the whole world. It can feel like everything is on there, and in the end, Evan does have to disconnect a little bit and find himself somewhere else.”

Although many students suffer from mental health issues, not everyone feels or expresses them in the same way. Alana, for example, is the well-rounded student body president — she is confident and collected on the surface, but she still deals with anxiety. And for Stenberg, encouraging mental health help within the Black community was a crucial part of this role.

“Steven Levenson and I had a lot of conversations going into production to make sure that Alana was not this token-sidekick Black girl character,” Stenberg said. “We wanted to make sure you had a really comprehensible view of her internal life too. We really delved into her mental health journey and the ways in which she is contending with that.”

In a song not included in the original Broadway musical, Alana sings about she is “the girl who stays in motion so she won’t fall.” Though pouring your energy into work may be a coping mechanism, it suppresses emotional issues rather than addressing them. Such a method of dealing with problems appears productive, but at what cost?

“I think that young people should feel unique in as many ways as possible, but I hope the one way [the movie] makes them feel entirely not unique is that everyone is lonely at some time, isolated at some time and struggling with their own mental and emotional health,” Platt said. “There’s nothing shameful about that, nothing that makes you unloveable, and it’s not a burden to communicate that to friends and family.” 

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