Dear Evan Hansen is a lesson in the importance of musical staging

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Dear Evan Hansen is disconnected. Everyone knows how messed up the movie was and there are many reasons for that, but an often overlooked cause of this mess is the movie’s failure to understand the importance of direction. This is particularly noticeable and off-putting in the staging of musical numbers in particular. Directing is a big deal for a musical on stage, but it still has the same importance in cinema, where the rules of directing are different. Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t understand how important direction is to a musical, and framing a musical number the same as a normal dialogue scene shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what music even is for.

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There are a lot of things that can happen on stage that can’t happen on screen and so adjustments have to be made. The suspension of disbelief for a live audience is much weaker than for a theater audience, so if the actor moves to center stage and soliloquizes for two minutes without moving too much, that’s okay in this realm because the background actors can always mimic enough movement to imply that more is happening. But in a movie, what you see is what you get, and watching someone just sit or stand for three minutes while they sing a ballad on their own is just not visually engaging.

With so many songs taking place in mostly fixed locations or while the characters are walking, it makes for boring and repetitive songs. Rather than moving the story forward, as the songs in the musicals are supposed to do, the songs in Dear Evan Hansen essentially freezes the characters in place to rephrase things they’ve already discussed in the song. By framing musical numbers the way normal conversations are framed with a flat/inverted structure, it creates a monotonous feeling in multiple musical numbers that only confuses the sense of purposelessness.



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Picture via Universal Pictures

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With the exception of “Sincerely, Me” (whose tone is already very different from the other songs), the staging of the musical numbers in Dear Evan Hansen lack of energy. In musicals, songs function as an externalization of the character’s emotions. What they feel becomes too overwhelming and it spills out into the world around them, infecting them with the same sense of emotion and urgency. This is why choreography and staging play such an important role, as they help to elevate the expression of these emotions and transform them into a larger than life performance. Exaggeration is a necessity of the medium. But from its opening number alone, the camera simply follows Evan, and the environment feels entirely separate and insensitive to Evan. If this staging was exclusive to “Waving Through a Window,” it might work. The sense of isolation created by the lack of recognition given to Evan as he sings the song while walking down the school hallway directly reflects the song’s theme. But this lack of directing energy is present throughout, the film simply refuses to commit to more dynamic directing and choreography seemingly for the sake of realism.


The problem, however, is that instead of a sense of realism, the lack of attention to direction creates a sense of dissonance. The film’s visual language isn’t conducive to how the characters are inclined to get into the song, and so it makes every instance of the music coming back all the more shocking. There is a nearly twenty-minute break between “Waving Through a Window” and the film’s second song, “For Forever”. This already makes the transition to the song quite startling, but what makes it even more dissonant is the staging.

The scene begins with Evan talking to the Murphy family as they ask for stories about Evan and their deceased son, Connor. The scene takes place around a dining table and follows a traditional shot/reverse shot structure that continues as Evan sings. It’s shocking compared to “Waving Through a Window”, because unlike Evan just singing to himself, the other people are actively involved and listening to what Evan is saying. The way the movie doesn’t visually distinguish between musical numbers and normal dialogue makes it seem like we’re supposed to think Evan just started singing in the Murphy family, without them reacting to it. The static shots that follow Evan singing while still completely seated and curled up make the whole scene feel uncomfortable because the visual language doesn’t match the energy of the music at all. In its entirety, the scene is unintentionally surreal and unsettling.



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Picture via Universal Pictures

That’s not to say the low-key songs can’t be staged well for the movie, just that Dear Evan Hansen seems resistant to a staging that embraces more theatrical forms of expression. Low-energy staging can also sometimes have the side effect of being not only uninviting but disconcerting. In the scene where Evan and Zoe reunite, they sing the song “Only Us”. The song itself is downright romantic, but the staging of the scene has Evan and Zoe slowly circling a kitchen island. The island itself is large and creates a barrier between the two characters that seems to contradict the closeness expressed in the song’s lyrics. There’s also an added creepy element of the action going around the counter, which gives less of a teasing flirtatious encounter feel, and more of the vibe that Zoe is being chased. , which does Evan’s character a disservice. The presentation is not only flat, but at times feels like it almost actively contradicts what the movie is trying to tell us.


Compare Dear Evan Hansen at In the heights It would seem an unfair comparison due to the show’s varying tones and general exuberance, but there are still directing lessons to be learned. Although there are many scenes of In the heights that evolve into elaborate dance sequences, songs like “Breathe” are understated and follow Nina’s character as she wanders the streets of her neighborhood. Dear Evan Hansen could take several cues from this scene that help elevate it into something worth watching.

There’s a sort of fantasy nature to even those more mundane musical numbers like “Breathe.” The visual of a little girl dancing across the street is toned down compared to the elaborate choreography of the other musical numbers, but it still elevates the mood. Instead of just watching Nina stroll through her old neighborhood, we’re visually compelled to travel with her through her own past. The staging adds an extra dimension to the song.


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Picture via Universal Pictures

Dear Evan HansenThe staging is so off-putting because the film seems uncomfortable with the entirely non-diegetic music. The singing itself isn’t meant to be taken at face value, but the framing seems adamant that the character’s portrayal is fully grounded in that reality outside of the songs. In the end, it just feels dissonant and eerie as the songs’ high energy is juxtaposed against the extremely low energy static shots and keeps the characters largely still in the staging.

The musical numbers in Dear Evan Hansen fall flat because they’re not staged any differently than normal conversations and therefore ultimately feel like they’re expressing no more emotion than a regular dialogue scene. The lack of energy in the staging and direction of the musical numbers has audiences wondering why it’s even a musical in the first place. And that’s the last thing a musical should do.


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