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Stage-to-Screen adaptations – Why has Dear Evan Hansen failed?

Dear Evan Hansen & Cats - film fails
Movie: Dear Evan Hansen |
Released: September 2021 |

The conversion of successful stage musicals and plays into films has been a long-standing tradition with Hollywood, accounting for dozens of Best Picture Oscar winners over its history. Celebrated stage-to-screen adaptations include Casablanca, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Amadeus, Driving Miss Daisy and Chicago. Even without winning the Best Picture award others have been huge commercial successes, such as Grease, Evita and Mamma Mia. And so many of these adaptations have produced award-winning film performances for their casts, including Liza Minelli and Joel Grey for Cabaret, Catherine Zeta-Jones for Chicago, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls, Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables and Viola Davis for Fences.

However, there has been a recent spate of controversial and disastrous efforts such as Cats, Rent, The Prom and the latest casualty, Dear Evan Hansen (DEH).

The stage-to-screen transfer for DEH comes 4 years after the a very successful (and continuing) run on Broadway, winning the production a Tony award for Best Musical in 2017, along with 5 other awards; Best Lead Actor for Ben Platt, Best Actress in a Featured Role for Rachel Bay Jones, Best Book for Steven Levenson, Best Original Score for songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and Best Orchestrations for Alex Lacamoire (who has also been recognised for his brilliant work on In the Heights and Hamilton).

Following its recent release worldwide (on 23 September 2021), both critics and audiences have absolutely hated the movie. I’ve not seen a ‘live’ stage performance of the show but have watched a recorded version with Ben Platt playing Evan Hansen on stage a few years ago. On the whole I didn’t mind it, perhaps because I was coming to it from a different starting point. However, we can’t help wondering and exploring why it has failed to resonate with wider film audiences.

So who is Evan Hansen?

For the benefit of those you may not have watched either stage or film versions. Evan Hansen is a teenager suffering from social anxiety and bullying. His therapist has asked him to write himself a letter detailing what will be good about each day. Enter his other angry and disturbed schoolmate Connor Murphy, and Connor’s sister Zoe, whom Evan has a slight crush on. Somehow things progressively turn into a disastrous mess when one of those private letters ends up in the wrong hands. Connor commits suicide and Evan finds himself in the middle of a big lie which he keeps feeding and perpetuating in the mistaken belief it is making Connor’s parents feel better about themselves and their dead son.

Add to this scenario a big serving of the cruel and delusionary world of social media, a thick and goey sauce of the Murphy family (including parents and Zoe) suddenly taking on Evan as a new member of their family and a spicy dash of Evan’s distraught mother trying to figure out what’s happening to her son and we have a recipe for lots of unexpected drama. The conundrum unravels, leaving Evan an even bigger emotional wreck than he started out when he is compelled to come clean. And in the process we discover that his broken arm in a cast was not quite the result of an accidental fall from a tree!

You can imagine all the situational opportunities for heartfelt and tearful singing about loss, sadness, anxiety, regret, distress and sadness!

Theatre-goer's perspective

For theatre-goers, the appeal of the stage show was not necessarily centred on its somewhat sensitive subject-matter and the questionable motivations or the relatable contemporary context. It is also about the affecting acting and delivery of the expressive songs written by Pasek & Paul. For those who enjoyed the original songs from worldwide movie hits The Greatest Showman and La La Land, and an earlier stage musical Dogfight, this was another chance for fans of the composers to hear more brilliant songs from fans of the composers as well as a consummate and emotional performance from a talented young and rising singer-actor.

We first took notice of Ben Platt in the Pitch Perfect movie, and then had the good-fortune to witness his performance as the endearing Elder Cunningham in the 2013 Chicago production of The Book of Mormon. We also loved him in two seasons of The Politician, the comedy drama series created for Netflix by Ryan Murphy. So a stage vehicle designed for Platt to shine was fine, but would it still work when transferred to film?

Differences - stage and screen versions

For the wider film audiences, the expectations of the movie are very different. They would mostly come to it for a believable story, to be entertain and engage at a more direct and realistic level. And this was probably where it fails. There were strategic adjustments made by the film director, so it was not like he did not understand the need to re-pitch the piece for a very different audience and medium. Steven Chbowsky is known for his previous directorial and screenplay work film adaptation of the teenage coming-of-age book The Perks of Being a Wallflower, so he should know what he was doing.

While the overarching story remains intact, certain songs and reprises were removed and new songs introduced for characters like Connor. Also, new songs have been added to adjust the weightage of certain characters to enhance the story-telling and characterization. Did these changes alter the plot to the point it made us empathise less favourably with Evan’s actions than the stage version did? [New songs are often typically added to contend for a Best Song Oscar award.]

There have been dozens of reviews and articles all trying to explain this. You can read some of them in the links provided on the right.

I would offer these as factors to consider in a stage-to-screen adaptation:

1. Casting Choice

Much has been made of the decision to cast Ben Platt, now 27 playing a 16-year old in a movie that has to make a film context more age-realistic. We read that a key motivation for making the movie was to “immortalize” his much lauded stage performance. Yes, we have seen other movie adaptations ditch their stage casts for ones that would have greater screen appeal. Think Audrey Hepburn replacing Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and Rita Moreno replacing Chita Riviera in West Side Story. And of course there is all the thirtysomethings in Grease passing themselves off as bubblegum-chewing teenagers which didn’t matter back then. But that was a light-hearted comedy in which realism may not have mattered as much to a less critical film audience. 

In the DEH film, Julienne Moore was cast as Evan’s mother. As a non-singer actress she half speaks her way through her only song ‘So Big, So Small’. And a different song her character would have sung at the beginning of the stage show has been removed. For theatre audiences, this would have been disappointing. In the film version of Les Miserables, the casting of Hugh Jackman as the main protagonist Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as his arch enemy Javert, with both having mainstream appeal and only adequate singing chops to pull off their roles. Yet for serious fans of the stage musical, these were significant headlining singing roles which traditionally demand a competent tenor and booming baritone respectively.

Film producers were sometimes willing to sacrifice some of the initial artistic intensions of the stage production to allow the film to succeed with a wider cinema audience, commercially at least. They fully understand and exploit the reality that cinema audiences may not have the musical nous to insist on this technical casting requirement but were satisfied with their acting-driven delivery. This approach worked in the case of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger’s singing performances in the screen version of Chicago, which would not have cut it on Broadway.

Platt was determined to reprise the titular role in the DEH film, having invested many years workshopping and creating the role of Evan Hansen. And with his father producing the film, it is not surprising he got his wish. With movies, age may not necessarily be a huge factor if the actors appear convincingly youthful which, in this case, he did not. So, would casting someone else younger have made a difference? Maybe.

2. Movie realism vs. theatrical imagination

It is in the nature of stage productions to present you with an abstraction of reality. This is unlike films in which a camera usually acts in a voyeuristic way to immerse the viewer into a realistic situation. So with creative sets, lighting and stage craft, certain aspects of a dialogue or song can be heightened or focused on to direct attention to the audience. While close-ups offer that in a film, it is done very differently. The ‘less is more’ concept in films is often the preferred approach. Film audiences’ expectations of their cinema experience have evolved substantially where hyper-reality is now often demanded. A mere shedding of a tear is old hat and a more subtle look in a reflected window shot may speak volumes instead.

Actors on stage, on the other hand, employ exaggerated facial expressions and gestures to be able to engage with an audience physically spread over varying distances and multiple levels. Platt says he had to tone things down for the film given the close-ups. But this meant also slowing things down making it more painful to watch his every twitch and stammer, which would appear differently on stage. That is not to say that extreme emotional displays and outbursts do not work in movies. Picture Anne Hathaway’s Fantine weeping and singing through snot in Les Miserables and Viola Davis’ brief but powerful snotty exchange with Meryl Streep’s Sister Alysius in Doubt. This is about authenticity and maybe Platt’s fidgety version of Evan, singing self-consciously through emotional strain just felt too deliberate and unreal to a non-theatre audience.

3. Subject matter you can sing about

Certain stories do not quite lend themselves easily to musical expression or interpretation. What may be fine on a stage, may not work on screen. I recall, during an interview with the illustrious Stephen Sondheim some years ago which we attended, when he was asked what inspired him to create his musicals. He explained that you have to firstly ask yourself if anything is worth writing about or, more importantly, appropriate to sing about. The older, ‘traditional’ musicals in the great American Musical genre were mostly confined to a narrow range of subject matter. Historical operas and musicals have always been about big happy show dance numbers, arias or ballads or romantic duets expressing feelings of unrequited love, jealousy or anger and grief from impending death. And we often see comedic witty ensembles.

However, we’ve progressively seen a more ambitious shift towards more difficult subject matter. In Rent, we have seen the social devastation of the theatre and LGBTIQ community with the AIDS epidemic, in Spring Awakening we have been faced with actors singing about adolescent pregnancies and suicide and in Next To Normal, we have seen characters singing to their imaginary dead children, grappling with their schizophrenia and suicidal thoughts. Stage musical and play audiences are generally more ‘pre-occupied’ with the music and song delivery than the plot and subject matter. And surely the mental issues of challenged teenagers shouldn’t be something we can deal with in the cinema? Perhaps not yet. And the way it is told on stage (to a certain audience) and on screen (to a very different audience) was not fully understood.

In Sia’s recent movie directorial debut Music, about the musical escapades of an autistic child, we saw how the creative world responded to her efforts at filmmaking favourably. But mainstream audiences and in particular the autistic community bashed her for her misdirected efforts. So it is not just about the subject matter per se but the execution within a social context and time that has to be considered.

4. Transforming original stage settings to realistic film settings

Some stage works could benefit immensely from this. For The Sound of Music, set in the beauty of the alpine landscape which the songs sing about in the original stage work, this setting could be directly conveyed by filming on location. Never mind the sleazy Bollywood-like sequences filmed in the Mirabell Gardens of Salzburg against the gorgeous mountainous backdrop Audiences were able to feel a stronger connection with the story’s context. In Amadeus, unlike in the stage play, a film version offered the opportunity to give its audience the full experience of an elaborate staged opera which the play couldn’t. It may also have been that audiences back then were starved of those realistic experiences. But today’s more worldly and well-heeled audiences are not as easily wowed.

While the stage version of DEH offered an abstract representation of the digital social media world, the film offered very different possibilities to enhance what was going on in Evan’s mind. Somehow this conversion did not work positively.

So what works and what doesn't?

As with any artistic and commercial endeavor, the outcomes and audience response are affected by a complex combination of factors. Film producers need to be aware that there are no guarantees and that audience expectations do change over time.

I read a few days ago that Andrew Lloyd Webber has all but given up seeing his ‘musicalised’ version of the 1950 film noir black comedy Sunset Boulevard turned into a film. And that is not for lack of Glenn Close, who created the role of Norma Desmond in the musical, desperately trying to get it made in Hollywood. What was relevant, intriguing and award-winning as a story back in 1950 may have managed to hit the right nerve in 1993 with theatre audiences—it reputedly took an impressive advance sales of $37.5 million when the Broadway production opened in 1994—but will it work again 30 years later with the same stage actress singing about her lost fame and adulation as a silent movie actress? Probably not!

We now eagerly await the release of the Stephen Spielberg’s re-make of West Side Story. We were thoroughly disappointed with his attempt at making War Horse. What had thrilled us with the National Theatre production was the amazing horse puppetry, brilliant stagecraft intertwined with music and great direction. Perhaps to the theatre audience it may have been stage craft rather than the story itself that appealed to them. Spielberg saw that stage production and was moved enough to want to make a movie version of the story he was moved by, which entailed using real horses and people filmed in real settings.

With so many elements of the stage production removed, it was inevitable we were not moved. It’s hard to believe Spielberg would not have understood this, but there it was, a movie that paled in comparison to the stage version for those who had seen it. While his tweaks to the original 1961 West Side Story movie are less likely to be risky (involving screenplay updates, removal of some songs and new choreography), we wonder how well he would handle the classic Romeo and Juliette story set in the 1950s, but re-told to appeal to a 2020s audience and sensibilities.

For the sake of the continued legacy of a much revered work, let us hope his effort with his first attempt directing a musical doesn’t bomb too!