I can imagine that this worked really well on stage as the actors can feed off of the audience’s emotions and the immediacy of the theater brings everyone together. That feeling is hard to replicate in a film. Movies have an influence on the audience but the energy level does not change from each showing. The emotions can only flow in one direction, and the somewhat static nature of a film , even one that is dynamic, does not provoke in the same manner. The difficulty this movie will have is less due to the material and more to the medium.
One of the problems that I have with modern musicals is that the tunes are not distinctive and the lyrics don’t lend themselves to singing along. So much of this film is made up of dialogue that is sung and could easily have just been spoken. There are not any extravagant show stopping moments. The closest you get to something that you would describe as a production number is a sequence that takes advantage of social media as a way to advance the song and character. It’s as if this movie is the anti- “In the Heights”. That movie was all about the wild color and flourishes of a musical, this film is all internal self directed mediation where the songs are basically happening in a persons heads more than anywhere else (there are a couple of exceptions).
The story has it’s heart in the right place. The perspective of someone suffering from social anxiety, depression and ADD, is handled with a great deal of sympathy.. In my discussion of the film on the podcast this week, we had a brief debate about whether the lead character of Evan Hansen is the victim or the antagonist in the story. We all agreed he had the best intentions but we also acknowledge that old saying about the road to hell being paved by those kinds of intentions. For my part, I always try to see the context of events to try and judge actions. Evan’s deception takes place in circumstances where being honest would be hurtful to others, and he can’t bring himself to do that. The pain of the family of Connor is impossible not to empathize with. Connor was troubled, his sister at one point calls him a monster. He was certainly horrible to many others, but that seems to stem from biological and chemical issues more than anything else. The fantasy that Evan concocts would have been fine if he had not crossed a certain line and if Connor’s Mother could just accept the story on it’s face. Like every sitcom over the last fifty years, one complication has to lead to another and in this situation the result is tragic rather than humorous.
I have heard some criticism of the decision to stick with Ben Platt as the lead for the movie. He is the Tony Award winning actor who originated the role, but he has aged enough that playing a high school senior may be a reach. I did not really have a problem with that, since I have been conditioned by years of watching movies with thirty year old’s playing teens. His voice is superlative for the way the songs are arranged and presented. I may not be a big fan of that style but I can recognize the talent it takes to pull it off. The other actors are also capable in the singing department. Amy Adams is known for having those talents but Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever have not been singers in the past, at least not that I am aware of, they both meet the needs of their parts.
This movie was going to be a hard sell from the get go. In spite of it’s credentials on the Broadway Stage, is is not a very appealing subject to most audiences. In the past we have had a successful holocaust comedy and a semi successful teen terminal cancer love story, so why not a musical about depression and teen suicide? The answer is that people go to the movies for different reasons than they go to the theater. The earnestness of your stories intentions don’t always translate into a warm audience embrace. We can be manipulated emotionally, but we have to be open to that manipulation to let it have an impact on us. Movie audiences are very fussy about what they will let themselves accept. My guess is that most of the film audience, in these times, will not be receptive to this sort of storytelling.