By Rabbi Daniel Brenner
Have you seen the Broadway musical about teen suicide and social media? I was admittedly skeptical about spending a Sunday afternoon at the musical, Dear Evan Hansen. On my way to the theater with my wife and teen daughter, it was hard to stop myself from imagining the varieties of sappy dreck that I would encounter in a show that stars acapella vunderkind Ben Platt. I steeled myself for three hours of nobody loves me, nobody understands me, la la la, blah blah blah.
The dramatic set-up for the show was rather straight-forward: a high school aged boy, Evan, is under psychiatric care for an anxiety disorder and he struggles to make friends. He wants to speak with a girl but his palms start to sweat when he thinks of her. His only ‘friend’ is a nerdy Jewish boy who brags about hooking up with an Israeli at summer camp (big nervous laughs from the Yidden in the audience). After a boy in his class commits suicide, Evan exploits the tragedy on social media in a desperate attempt to change his own social status.
But from that rather uncomplicated set-up, the show moves into seldom explored dramatic territory. I won’t spoil the drama – but I will say that it includes a compelling critique of the stumbling, inconsistent parenting approaches that are foisted onto today’s teens, the faux altruism that social media amplifies, and the inherent tension between the online persona and the persona within. The music is pop-y but beautifully executed, Platt delivers a masterful performance as both an actor and singer, and the work of Rachel Bay Jones, who plays his mother, had many audience members reaching for their Kleenex. The show is the first musical to reflect the angst of the social media saturated generation and it pulls firmly at the heartstrings, offering an especially emotional ride for parents of teens.
The first reason that you should see Dear Evan Hansen is because it is a clear and profound meditation on loss, social isolation, fragility, and the zeitgeist of the generation. The second, less obvious reason is that it is one of the best commentaries I’ve seen on today’s teen boys and how they are struggling to make sense of the world around them.
All teens are spending more time on screens, but boys in particular spend more time playing video games and less time relating with others. According to NYU psychology professor Niobe Way, boys are now struggling to maintain friendships as they enter high school. On top of that, many teen boys are reluctant to seek psychological help and to share their feelings with peers. The suicide rates for boys age 15-16 are four times those for girls.
After the show, I joined about two hundred parents and teens from synagogues in the New York area working with Moving Traditions (a Jewish organization dedicated to mentoring teens) to hear a talk back with producer Rachel Weinstein. She asked the teens in the audience – “what in your life is similar to the drama that took place on stage?” We waited for an awkward silence to break. Then a teen boy, a junior in high school in the back row, answered her. He said that in ninth grade he was socially isolated. Much of the anxiety and depression that the characters wrestled with on stage was a reality in his own life. When a classmate committed suicide, it was a “wake up call” for him – and he started to make more efforts to reach out to other people in his class. He made friends, and now he wants to help boys who felt the way that he did. As he spoke, the other teens in the room listened with rapt attention, and it was clear to all of us parents in the room that there would be much to talk about over dinner.
In Jewish life, we are fond of quoting Ecclesiastes – “there is nothing new under the sun.” But I would argue that Dear Evan Hansen illuminates the complicated future that lies ahead. In five years, we will encounter a generation that has grown up with tablets in their hands from toddlerhood. They’ll need to balance the multiple instant-gratification-based online interactions they have with the spiritual advice of the 19th century Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz – “You should receive every person with warmth, listen to their sorrow, and treat them with gentleness as if you were a servant in the palace. It is part of human kindness to listen to someone talk, even if the person overdoes it.”
There are many redeeming aspects of our new modes of communication, but my hope is that many of today’s teens will see Dear Evan Hansen and reflect on what has been lost in digital environments. And who knows, maybe today’s teens will be able to help the generation rising behind them to reclaim the sacred practice of face-to-face conversation.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner is the Chief of Education and Program for Moving Traditions, a nonprofit organization that helps teens grow into healthy, connected Jewish adults.