No secret, I’m pretty obsessed with musicals, and I’m not ashamed of it. A few years ago, I did a couple of posts (eg this one, about Miss Saigon) based on musical theatre songs – some thoughts on them, just my own impressions, without any real expertise in language beyond my own interest. Since those posts, I’ve gained my BA, my MA, and I’m now in the early stages of my PhD, specialising in the linguistic effects of literay texts. And I will argue until I’m blue that some of these amazing songs are definitely literary texts!
So I thought I’d take a look at a couple of shows with my literary linguistics hat on. Today: Dear Evan Hansen, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
First, disclaimer: I have never seen Dear Evan Hansen, or clips of the show. I’ve just listened to the soundtrack a hundred times. On the other hand, that does mean that everything here is based solely on the words, not the action, so it’s valid from a linguistic angle.
I’m perfectly happy to remedy that if anyone wants to donate the cost of a trip to London’s West End, from Durham, post-COVID… 😉
Second, this isn’t an academic article, so the language isn’t formal, I haven’t spent hours working on it, and there are no references beyond credit to the writers when I use a quote.
So, the title of this post is ‘Truth through denial’, and that’s because Dear Evan Hansen is based fundamentally on a lie, and its sub-plots revolve around an absence of truth, either by lying or by omission. A quick summary of the plot: Evan, a teenager with multiple mental health issues (including, as far as I can tell, social anxiety and depression), is advised by his therapist and mum (who’s been raising him alone since his dad left when he was a toddler) to write himself positive letters every morning, beginning “Dear Evan Hansen…” One of these falls into the hands of troubled classmate Connor Murphy after a run-in at school. When Connor commits suicide, the note is found in his pocket and his parents think it’s a suicide note to Evan, and that Evan is his best/only friend. Evan sees how happy they are by the idea of Connor having a friend and so throws himself into the deception, making up other letters between himself and Connor.
The Murphys bond with Evan, who in turn loves the attention he gets from the wealthy family, particularly the dad, since he’s been without his own dad for years. He also finds a great deal of self-confidence and a sense of purpose through the deception. Eventually, of course, it all comes unravelled.
The gap between Evan’s fabricated relationship with Connor and reality is manifested in different ways through the show. An enactor (or a version) of Connor appears in various numbers – when Evan and his friend are creating the letters between the boys; when Evan tells Connor’s sister Zoe, whose relationship with her brother was severely damaged, about all the ways that Connor had loved about her; when Evan describes for the Murphys a “perfect day” he and Connor shared. Ironically, the deception that Evan is building comes to a crescendo with “You Will Be Found”, a turning point in which Evan finally begins to come to a sense of who he himself is and to feel the courage to stand up and be seen for his real self—and encourage others to do so—at a moment when he is most enshrouded in deceit.
Anyway, that’s the show; the song I really wanted to write about is “Requiem”. It’s one of the songs that first got me hooked on the show, and it’s sung by the Murphys, mainly Zoe, after Connor’s suicide, and just after Evan’s stories have made them think there was another, nicer side to Connor.
Zoe conveys her anger and frustration with Connor in two main ways, direct negation:
Why should I play the grieving girl and lie…I will sing no requiem tonightRequiem, Pasek & Paul
and hypotheticals, which are implied to be negative:
I could curl up and hide in my roomRequiem, Pasek & Paul
There in my bed, still sobbing tomorrow
I could give in to all of the gloom
But tell me, tell me what for?
She also uses sarcasm:
Such a great son, and wonderful friend; oh don’t the tears just pour?Requiem, Pasek & Paul
Zoe’s use of negation builds through the song until by the time she reaches the bridge, almost every line is negated:
‘Cause when the villains fall, the kingdoms never weep
No one lights a candle to remember
No, no one mourns at all
When they lay them down to sleep
So don’t tell me that I didn’t have it right
Don’t tell me that it wasn’t black and white
After all you put me through
Don’t say it isn’t true
That you were not the monster
That I knewRequiem, Pasek & Paul
At the peak of the bridge, Zoe even has double negation: “don’t tell me that it wasn’t black and white”. The double negation conveys the confusion and turmoil she is experiencing in her conflicted feelings about her brother. The audience has to do a bit of complex cognitive footwork here, because of how negation works.
Every time a negative statement is set up, you first have to think of the thing that isn’t there, in order to understand what is missing. A double negation means doing this same trick twice in quick succession – or, in Zoe’s case, repeatedly in quick succession. That’s why it’s so successful at getting across her conflict. In the quoted bridge above, you’ve got “never, no one, no, no one, don’t, didn’t, don’t, wasn’t, don’t, isn’t, not” in 10 short lines. Or, in other words, 1 in 6 of the words in that section is a negative (counting ‘no one’ as a single lexical item). So not only is the audience performing repeated cognitive somersaults with the negation, they’re also getting a strong impression of denial due to the sheer density of the negative phrases.
Protesting too much?
Whilst Zoe is undoubtedly angry and frustrated, it’s reasonable to assume she’s upset, too. There’s little direct evidence, other than towards the end when her voice trails off:
‘Cause I cannot play the grieving girl and lie
Saying that I miss you
And that my world has gone dark…Requiem, Pasek & Paul
However, returning to the idea that when you negate something, you first have to create the idea of that thing in your head, Zoe has been foregrounding strong expressions of grief and mourning throughout the song. Additionally, early in the song she asks the questions:
Why should I have a heavy heart?
Why should I start to break in pieces?
Why should I go and fall apart for you?Requiem, Pasek & Paul
Because of the dense negation building in the song and Zoe’s use of hypotheticals (“I could…”), it’s easy to assume that these are also both hypothetical and negative. However, with the impression of conflict within the lyrics, it’s also possible that these are genuine questions, and that despite their fractured relationship, she is genuinely mourning Connor.
Just to wrap up the discussion on this song, there are two other characters who take part: Connor’s dad, who shares in Zoe’s negativity, and Connor’s mum. At the start of the show she is seen trying to connect with Connor and making an effort to help him straighten out, fully aware of his issues. By the time we get to Requiem, Evan’s letters have given her hope that Connor wasn’t as bad as she thought, that there was another side to him; probably the hope of any parent who wants to believe that their innocent child is still in there somewhere, beneath their issues. She, in polar opposition to Connor’s dad and Zoe, is finding some peace and hope:
I hear your voice, I feel you near
Within these words, I finally find you
And now that I know that you are still here
I will sing no requiem tonightRequiem, Pasek & Paul
She is completely certain and accepting of her feelings, and notably only uses negation once, to refuse to accept the need for a requiem, to deny that she has lost Connor at all. But there is poignancy in the fact that this clear certainty is based on a false Connor, the Connor of Evan’s deception; in this respect, despite her unambiguous assertions, she is just as much in denial as Zoe.
This song gets me every time; the way the writers get across so effectively the conflicting emotions experienced with grief and loss, and the way they can make the truth shine through the denial of the characters, so that the audience knows just what they’re feeling.
Pasek and Paul have some impressive credits under their belts: La La Land, additional music for the live action film of Aladdin, and the mega-hit The Greatest Showman (definitely going to take a look at that some time!). But the more I listen to Dear Evan Hansen, the more layers and effects I notice in it, and I’m increasingly sure it’s their best work.