Saturday, August 11, 2018

Theatre Thoughts - The Great Comet of 1812 + Dear Evan Hansen & The Portrayal of Mental Health in Musical Theatre

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By: Emma B.  

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series about musicals both the popular and the little known shows.

Broadway Musicals are interesting. 
They often originate from Disney movies or the lives of historical figures (Hamilton) or from your favorite book or movie. 
However, for those who are interested, there is an entire world of musical theatrefrom Broadway to Off-Broadway, with varying different styles in tone and character growth and of course, themes. What moral or lesson are the playwrights trying to get across by telling their story (provided they are not writing musicals to make loads of money)? 
Now, musical theatre’s history is so vast and complicated, I couldn’t possibly begin to discuss or analyze every musical in an article of rational length. So today, I’d like to discuss the similarities and differences between two musicals, Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. I want to unpack why one sky-rocketed into the popular consciousness and try to answer which musical is better or does that even matter.  

An Introduction: 
In 2012, a little off-Broadway show called Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 hit the stage. What is it about? Basically, it is a musical based off a 70-page sliver of the novel War and Peace by Leo TolstoyYes, that War and Peace. Now at first glance, one might think, “Well, that sounds...absolutely terrible.” 
And despite many people having that thinking it turned out to be a smash. In the Off-Broadway scene it was very well received and when it eventually made it to Broadway where it had a minor explosion. That was before The Tony Awards and a minor controversy ended the whole affair prematurely. I will talk about this later.  
To give some context, the musical primarily focuses on a love-triangle (don’t worry, it’s actually complex this time) between Natasha who is engaged to her lover Andrey but who is being emotionally manipulated by a man named Anatole while Andrey is at war. 
However, there is another character essential to the flow of Great Comet and he is the primary reason some people draw parallels between this musical and the musical, Dear Evan Hansen. 
This character is Pierre. An old, stout man who has a drinking problem and wife who is unfaithful to put it very delicately. Some think, this character is seen as a window into those who suffer from mental illness 
Now what particular mental illness he has is rather unclear, most people say he has depression based on actions in the novel, War and Peace as well as his introductory song, simply titled Pierre. Some people also think that his claimthat he feels weirdly unfulfilled and yet he can’t exactly piece together why might also lead to the theory that he has depression. However, there is also another popular theory that states it’s possible that Pierre might have Bipolar II Disorder due to his behavior constantly going in-between fits of drunken determination and horrible depression. 
Creator, Dave Malloy has confirmed that Pierre battles mental illness. He did not detail the specifics.   
I know you might be thinking, “Emma, what does all of this have to do with Dear Evan Hansen?” 
Well, Dear Evan Hansen is another musical that premiered the same year as Great Comet. Dear Evan Hansen premiered on Broadway 
However, this show was, on paper, much more simple. 
The show follows Evan Hansen, a teenager with heightened social anxiety, who pretends to be the best friend of another teen named Connor Murphy. Conner Murphy is a drug addict who takes his own life. 
Already based on the premise alone, Dear Evan Hansen seems to be a lot blunter than Great Comet. It’s a contemporary musical told in a contemporary style and even though it’s far darker premise than Great Comet. 
But Dear Evan Hansen has its own weird complexities, such as the fact that the primary thing that pushed this musical into the spotlight was the fact that it builds its audience off of making a show, essentially, for those who struggle with mental illness. This is the main thing that thrust Dear Even Hansen into the spotlight but were other things that caused the musical to blow up as well.  
The music is well done, the stage direction is good and the song, Waving Through a Window is probably one of the best representations of anxiety, as far as I’ve experienced it. Now granted my personal anxiety isn’t exactly as bad as Evan’s but it still is incredibly relatable, at least to me personally. 
So, with all of this in mind, why are there still people who believe Dear Evan Hansen is doing a disservice to Broadway? Well, to understand that question, I think one has to understand the history of how mental illness has been portrayed in musicals. 

A (Very Brief) History: 
Now the history of mental illness overall on Broadway is nuanced and full of a lot of theories and speculation but the history of directly tackling mental illness is actually relatively short. 
The first incident of such a topic in a musical was in 1941. The musical was called Lady in the Dark. It was about the editor of a fashion magazine who is undergoing psychoanalysis to try and treat her mental illness.  
Many people hold this musical in high regard, as a movie was made back in 1944 and there hasn’t been a proper revival. There was an off-Broadway revival in 2001However, I won’t be discussing this musical much since I’ve never seen the musical or the movie. 
And for years that was about all Broadway fans really had.  Sure, we had quite a few musicals where characters are alcoholics or musicals where characters have cheated on their wives. But as for musicals that deal with medical mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression the Broadway scene was dark 
Until, 2008 with the release of Next to Normal. 
The New York Times praised this musical, calling it brave and breathtaking. The musical itself focuses on a woman’s struggles with Bipolar Disorder and how it affects her and the people around her. The show in particular focused on her daughter and even though I can’t comment too much on it, I have enjoyed what I have heard so far. 
However, this musical also set something of a trend for Broadway shows that tackle mental illness well, the bittersweet tone. 
As The New York Times stated, “Next to Normal does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical.” Not that this was considered a bad thing, far from it. Despite the tone, The New York Times praised this musical and especially the fact that it had such guts in its storytelling. 
It was followed by Promises, Promises which was not nearly as well received. Most critics complained that it’s aspects of mental illness made the show incredibly messy and furthermore, everything about the musical felt weak and half-baked. 
Essentially it wasn’t a win for the mental health or theatre community. 
Then Dear Evan Hansen and the Great Comet of 1812 released, and since they are the two most recent and probably most well-known of modern-day musicals focusing on mental health, this is why they are the primary subjects of this article.  

Plot & Music: 
When the Great Comet of 1812 and Dear Evan Hansen released, most websites and critics had nothing but praise for both shows. Leading actors Josh Groban (Great Comet) and Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) received great reviews. 
Even those that didn’t care for the show had a massive respect for the intentions of both shows. 
However, even though many had already had speculations about Pierre being struggling with mental illness, the conversation really got started with the addition of a single song. This song, is the song, Dust & Ashes. This song was not only a ballad for the newest addition, actor Josh Grobanto sing his heart out but it also served as a song that shattered Pierre’s character arc. Turning his arc from a linear path to a vast struggle. Some theatre goers felt that this change to Pierre’s character made the show more impactful.  
Dear Evan Hansenin contrast, was praised for simply tackling the subject of anxiety directly, and with music that was rather catchy and endearing to boot. 
The Washington Post stated, “It’s an entertainingly smart piece, with several lilting ballads that you’ll immediately want to be channeled into your earbuds.” 
Both musicals rose to prominence very quickly. However, with such a high growth and success for both musicals, there came the natural comparisons. 
Warning: Spoiler Alert! If you don’t want to know what happens in these shows skip to the next section of this article: The Viewer Mind.  
Great Comet had a somewhat realistic ending, with Pierre accepting that he has some ways to go but that there is hope in his life. Meanwhile, Dear Evan Hansen has the title character, Evan Hansen, confessing that he had been lying about his relationship with Connor and yet he receives almost no consequences, he simply ascends into a state of being better. 
At first, this wasn’t seen as much of a big deal but as the Great Comet of 1812’s popularity declined and Dear Evan Hansen soared to dizzying heights, the debate slowly began to surface. Heightening, even more, when Dear Evan Hansen beat Great Comet at the Tony’s, followed by an intense controversy. 
However, that still leaves the relative questionwhen tackling the subject of mental illness, which musical did it better? 

The Viewer Mind (IE: My Opinion): 
There is something about Dear Evan Hansen that makes it very appealing to an audience. The music pretty good. It also has something that most shows about mental illness don’t have- a relatively happy ending. 
The ending suggests that Evan learns to manage his illness incredibly quickly after the Connor incident. Furthermore, the Murphys don’t tell anyone anything about him lying about his relationship with you-know-who. This ending, say what you will of it, is ultimately a happy ending, perhaps a little bittersweet.  
Meanwhile the Great Comet of 1812 and Next to Normal have very grounded and realistic endings, both having the primary character with the mental illness spend time alone and find hope. 
Other than that, in my opinion, most other musicals about mental illness directly aren’t exactly well-remembered or are just not very well done. 
However, is that relevant? 
Now I am not suggesting that mental illness should be represented badly. I think the only way we can truly come to understand and accept mental illness as something within our society is to have positive representation on how it affects people. 
But, in the case of musicals like Dear Evan Hansenthe Great Comet of 1812 and Next to Normal, I think the discussion might focus on something a little different. Most professional critics and even theatregoers agree that these musicals are great and one of the few times mental illness is represented rather well. 
So maybe the true discussion shouldn’t be, which Broadway musical represents mental illness the best but rather, regardless of content, how are we as the audience discussing mental health? 
Whether it’s in Imperial Russia or in the modern day, mental illness is something that needs to be talked about, regardless of how we feel about it and Broadway, through the few decent shows there are, can be a healthy medium to start discussions. Let’s talk. 
If you feel that you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or otherwise feel that you need mental health support, please reach out to a trusted adult such as a parent, teacher, or other family friend. You don’t have to work through it alone.  

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