Step Into the Sun: Musical Humanism and “Words Fail” from “Dear Evan Hansen”

In which teenagers are anxious, Counts are unfaithful and tomfoolery is abound.

Dear_Evan_Hansen

To my dear reader,

For those of you living under a rock, hidden away from the onslaught of contemporary musical theater, there is a hot new “it” musical, and its name is Dear Evan Hansen. It tells of the anxious, dysfunctional titular character as, in the wake of the suicide of classmate Connor Murphy, he grows close with the Murphy family by fabricating a friendship between himself and the late Connor. With a fun, contemporary, musically inoffensive score, the musical sounds a bit like a distillation of every radio song you’ve heard in the past decade, but, to some, better (and used for a better purpose).

I’ve never watched the musical, so I can only comment on its score, but concerning the score and the musical’s incredible hype, I have mixed feelings. People laud the musical as magical and ground-breaking and capable of curing all your ills, which I find highly suspect. No part of the story has not been explored – and to darker depths – in musicals like Rent and Next to Normal. No aspect of the pop-rock, radio-friendly music has not been heard before – and in more distinctive ways – in musical like Wicked, and is nowhere near the level of coding and sophistication as that of Hamilton. Nevertheless, there is a simple, effective charm to the music, and a contemporaneity in its themes of the isolation that social media creates. All of this reminds me, oddly enough, of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the musical humanism of his famous opera The Marriage of Figaro.

Mozart’s opera tells of the titular servant and his sly, quick-witted fiancé as they navigate hilarious cases of mistaken identity, infidelity, and tomfoolery in the house of their lustful Count. Alongside its lively, clever musical score and charmingly comic characters, the opera draws much of its allure as the epitome of Enlightenment ideals. Despite their cartoonish hilarity, the conflicts are ultimately resolved through reason, understanding and truth – those great ideals of Mozart’s time – and nowhere is this more exemplified than in one of the opera’s greatest arias, “Più docile io sono.” It is sung by the Countess, wife of the unfaithful Count, as she magnanimously forgives her husband for his infidelity and the hilarious chaos it has caused, and in resolving the opera’s conflicts through empathy and understanding, the Countess highlights the important of these humanistic, Enlightenment ideals. Oddly enough, Dear Evan Hansen, and its musical resolution “Words Fail,” operates in a similar way.

“Words Fail” is one of the last songs of the musical, sung when Evan finally reveals to the Murphys that his alleged friendship with Connor was a lie he made up to get close with them because he was so lonely. Weaving in bits of the musical’s first big number, “Waving Through a Window” – in which Evan sings of his wish for community – the song reveals how Evan was driven to such drastic measures by the severity of his emotional isolation. Much like with The Marriage of Figaro, the story’s conflict is closed through understanding, forgiveness, and honest communication. As mixed as my feelings may be about the musical’s inoffensive score and allegedly “ground-breaking” nature, I appreciate the similarity in allure both works of music theater, through musical humanism and use of reason to solve conflict, have.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert

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