'Dear Evan Hansen' and 'next to normal' are Basically the Same Show, But in the Best Way

  • Ginny Kang

A good story has an introduction, a buildup of tension, an unforeseen climax, and a resolution. An impactful story includes a lesson to be learned so that the audience can take away more than just a satisfied hunger for some laughs and jaunty tunes. The fantastic stories—Tony-worthy shows—speak to the audience, so they not only walk away with a nice break from stress and responsibilities but are indoctrinated with a fresh perspective on life. 

If Dear Evan Hansen were written in the Murphys’ perspective, it would be next to normal. Having directed both musicals on Broadway, that feeling may have crossed Michael Greif’s mind countless times during his current position at the DEH stage. Both shows tackle the issues of mental illness and how it affects the environment surrounding the person suffering. If you take out the music and instruments for a moment and analyze what you’ve got left, they are words you hear every day; words which deal with severe depression, anxiety, manic bipolar, post-traumatic stress, and even schizophrenia. 

The takeaway from next to normal is that psychotherapy is mostly guesswork, as evidenced in the song “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Often it may help, but when each session ends up in another miss, then—much like physical diagnostic medicine—one method of treatment is attempted. If that either does nothing or worsens the situation, go with a different course. If that doesn’t work, you try again until…the agony just stops. That was the underlying goal, and it has been achieved.

The thing about mental illness, however, is that not only is the struggle unable to be seen by man or any kind of brain scan, but that kind of pain never ends. There are good days, which you cherish because when the bad days hit you need something good to hold onto. Otherwise, you find yourself in Connor Murphy’s contemplation. 

What was interesting about Connor’s story in Dear Evan Hansen—besides the fact that his was a mere catalyst of the protagonist’s journey—is we never find out what triggered his final moment. What was the last straw, which drove him to end his own life? These questions are frustrating to try and answer because it reflects how the living deal with a loved one who chose to end their own suffering. In the YA novel of this story, released by the creators of the Broadway show, only partially written in Connor’s perspective, he explained more in depth as to why he felt there was no other way out: he was all alone in his own world. His family wanted to help him, but disagreed on how to go about treatment, which contributed to the amount of tension in the environment, and that certainly did not help Connor’s chemical imbalance. 

next to normal proved that being treated for a mental illness is a shot in the dark. There were a lot of unanswered questions at the end, but not in a way that they would be considered plot holes. The fate of this family is in the air because the finale was not the end for them; their story, next to normal, was finished, but the struggle continues after the last chord of the show because that is the reality; it never ends. And, to this day, Dear Evan Hansen continues to show that “every time that you call out, you’re a little less alone.”  The first step is admitting you need help. Next is finding someone who understands your pain. Not even someone who wants to fix it, like a therapist who needs to pay rent; find someone who knows what you’re going through because that alone can help you breathe a little easier. 

Everyone appreciates a good story: it can be uplifting, powerful, or just be a good break from your chaotic, day-to-day life. The ones that you would keep in your heart forever though are the tales you will want to look back on and cherish. Because of next to normal, I know that therapy may not work for me, and that’s fine because there are other options out there. Because of Dear Evan Hansen, I know that there is an entire community determined to fight against the stigma of mental illness, and as someone who faces this disease myself, I will join the crusade.