Yesterday, Universal released the first trailer for Dear Evan Hansen, Stephen Chbosky’s big-screen adaptation of the Tony-winning musical from composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and writer Steven Levenson. Two things happened in quick succession. The first was that the people of the internet collectively noticed that Ben Platt, the actor whose performance in the titular role earned him a Tony and near-instant stardom, doesn’t exactly look like a high-schooler anymore. The second was that many of them then googled “dear evan hansen plot” and had an experience. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
There are many worthy reasons to adapt a play or musical into a film, the best being that the story in question would, you know, make a good movie. But when the stage production is one like this, anchored by a performance that is, by all accounts, somewhere between excellent and once-in-a-generation, there’s an additional incentive. Preserving such performances is a worthy pursuit, and the impulse to keep Platt in the role so that the world at large can experience it is understandable. But while it’s not always easy to accept someone who’s obviously a fully-grown adult playing a teenaged character on stage, it’s even harder on film. And when the story requires a lot of subtlety and earnestness, it becomes nearly impossible. Ben Platt is not too old to play Evan Hansen, and in certain circumstances, he never will be. But he’s too old to play him in this movie, and it’s because the movie is not a play.
Of course, the fact that Platt looks like he’s about to say “how do you do, fellow kids” isn’t actually the weirdest thing about Dear Evan Hansen, so let’s briefly address the plot. Platt plays, yes, Evan Hansen, a teenager with devastating social anxiety writing letters to himself at the behest of his therapist. Connor (Colton Ryan in the movie, reprising a role he understudied on Broadway), a fellow and similarly isolated student, takes one of these letters from the printer, and after a confrontation with Evan, brings it home. Then Connor dies by suicide, his parents find the letter, and they reach out to Evan, believing Connor to have written the letter to an apparently close friend. For reasons both well-intended and mercenary, Evan keeps up the ruse, and this lonely 17-year-old boy winds up inventing a profound friendship with a dead classmate he hardly knew, piling on lie after lie to comfort Connor’s parents (admirable) and to maintain the connections growing between him and other students, notably Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), on whom he has long had a crush and with whom he begins a relationship (uh, not so admirable).
Creepy plot or no, watch Platt sing a song from the show and it becomes instantly clear why Chbosky and Universal would want to capture this performance in amber. Chbosky said as much to Vanity Fair:
“You just have to hear him sing the songs… His understanding of the character is so complete and so profound. I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing it. It’s his part. I felt very strongly about it. And to me it was never even a consideration.”
It’s hard to argue with that. And we pretend a lot when we go into a theater, whether we’re looking at a stage or screen. It’s part of the contract that exists between audience and artist: They agree to try to bewitch us, and we agree to let them try. Dragons exist. Gangs can dance and snap for dominance through the streets of New York. And yes, a 27-year-old man can play a 17-year-old boy, all thanks to the power of imagination. It’s what theater dorks call the willing suspension of disbelief. And it has to be a joint effort.
It’s much easier to pretend with theater (speaking here of the performing art, not the place). Ben Platt is not 17 anymore, but he also wasn’t 17 when he won a Tony for playing Evan Hansen. It didn’t limit his performance or damage the story then; it was just another (then much smaller) hurdle to jump. Some of the reasons it’s easier to suspend your disbelief at the theater are straightforward. Even in the smallest black box theater, the audience will not see the actors in extreme close-up, their faces 30 feet tall. But it’s not just physical distance. Theater also comes with unavoidable mental and emotional distance, because the artifice is unavoidable. In theater, when Peter Pan flies, you can always see the wires; audiences are confronted with body mics, stage makeup, painted scenery, the list goes on. We accept all of it because we have to.
Often that artifice is emphasized, not masked. Revolutionary theater artist Bertolt Brecht deployed a famed “distancing effect” to push his audiences from a place of passive empathy to active analysis. In contrast, playwrights like Paula Vogel, August Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and even William Shakespeare have used it to deepen the emotional connection between actors and audience. Acknowledging that we’re all playing that game of pretend, the thinking goes, allows us to put aside the need for realism (or the “fourth wall”) and give ourselves over to a collective emotional experience. Platt could return to Evan Hansen when Broadway reopens in September and audiences would get on board, because all they have to do is say yes to the experience.
When audiences sit down to watch Hansen on screen in September, suspension of disbelief will need to kick into gear right away, as it does anytime we sit down to watch a fictional narrative. But the hurdles will get higher almost immediately, and not just because it looks like a sorrowful adult man is wandering around a high school library. It’s because Dear Evan Hansen is a musical. Love the plot or not, it’s the kind of story perfectly suited to the genre, which sees characters burst into song (or dance) when the emotion is so great that speech alone is no longer sufficient. The lack of realism shouldn’t be a deal-breaker—acknowledged artifice or theatricality can be just as effective on film, as evidenced by decades of movie musicals, Lars von Trier’s Dogville, the films of Wes Anderson and the Coens, and many, many others.
So why can’t the same be true of Dear Evan Hansen? Well, it can be. But the trailer indicates that Chbosky aims to reflect the nuance and vulnerability in Platt’s performance in his own filmmaking choices, and approaching movie musicals with an eye toward naturalism is always a tricky needle to thread. It can be done. Look, for an unexpected example, to La La Land, which was actually produced by Ben’s father, the veteran stage and screen producer Marc Platt. Though the film is hardly a bastion of realism, its emotional fulcrum is a performance of great subtlety, and the film’s artifice allows that performance to flourish while giving the audience permission to dwell on the emotionality, not the theatricality or lack thereof.
Emma Stone does not play a high-schooler in La La Land, but it would be easier to buy her as one than Platt as a 17-year-old because Damien Chazelle gives us the permission to make such a leap. And audiences were able to make it with Platt when he played a high-schooler in The Politician, a hyper-stylized Ryan Murphy joint in which none of the kids seemed kid-aged. The absurdity didn’t make the story harder to buy. It made it easier.
The best arguments for the existence of the movie version of Hansen are the preservation of a tremendous performance, and the opportunity to see the show that it affords those who couldn’t see it on stage because of distance or onerous prices. But those are still-better arguments for preserving such performances in their original state and then—and this is key—making those recordings widely available to the public. Beyond that, there’s no law that says that Chbosky’s approach must be realistic, or even that he can’t use a theater. Put 27-year-old Ben Platt on a stage in the polo and cast, and suddenly it’s a lot less jarring; make it a “concert version,” à la the “dream cast” anniversary production of Les Miserables, and it’s even easier to get on board. Or he could, of course, cast an actor who belongs in the movie he’s making, not the stage production of 2017. The solution for capturing great theatrical experiences doesn’t have to be film adaptation. And film adaptations don’t always need to be about preserving these remarkable performances. (Looking at you, Rent.)
Next month, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ In The Heights will open in theaters, some 10 years after it closed on Broadway. Miranda will no longer play Usnavi, the role he originated, because he’s too old for it. Instead, Usnavi will be played by Anthony Ramos, another remarkable performer. Maybe audiences will struggle to accept the artifice of In The Heights, as some do to accept the artifice of any musical. But at least the film has removed one barrier to suspension of disbelief. As for the Evan Hansen movie, we can only hope that Platt’s age isn’t one barrier too many.