What happens when a somewhat misfit kid creates an outsize role for himself inside a tragedy he had nothing to do with? Put another way, what happens when a lie mushrooms out of control and you have no choice but to live that lie?
That’s the story of Dear Evan Hansen. But it’s also a gross over-simplification.
The 2016 Broadway musical—with poignant music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a gripping book by Steven Levenson—won six Tony Awards and struck a chord with everyone from angsty teenagers to cynical adults. The much-praised show explores what happens when nerdy Evan Hansen, who wants desperately to connect with someone, writes himself a letter on the advice of his therapist. What is supposed to be an exercise in self-help winds up in the hands Evan’s nemesis, a bullying figure named Connor Murphy, who later kills himself. When Connor’s parents find the letter, they believe it to be a suicide note written to Evan, to whom they turn for insight about their son. Drawn into a web of deception, Evan sees things spin out of control, and he has no clue how to make any of it right.
“I think the appeal is that people see themselves reflected so clearly and so honestly in the show,” says Jessica E. Sherman, who plays Heidi Hansen, the title character’s mom. “Some teens look for belonging more openly than others. But we all want to feel we belong somewhere.”
Sherman loves the musical's tangled action, as well as the realistic way it demonstrates how one small thing can become so huge. Her character is a single mother who’s struggling to be a good mom and wondering if she’s getting it right.
“She’s three-dimensional,” says Sherman. “And she’s this flawed, real person whose M.O. isn’t to get a husband. She’s trying to juggle all the balls, and she knows her son is the center of her world, but she also doesn’t know where that leaves her, as a woman. She’s just so human.”
Sherman believes the show will resonate strongly with theatergoers. When her own parents came to see it, she recalls, they mentioned being surprised at how much they related to it, especially to the questions certain characters ask themselves, which so many parents grapple with: Are they doing enough for their children? How should they handle it when they know they've missed the mark?
While the show deals with some heavy subjects, it’s ultimately about hope and compassion. That’s what Sherman hopes theatergoers take away from it.
“Everyone is hurting—and not showing it—about something,” she says. “And, even though it’s a cliché to say this, you’re not alone. Life is messy and it’s hard, but it’s hard for everyone. I think there’s such comfort in knowing that.”
The show runs at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts from Nov. 12-24. Tickets start at $55. Go to houston.broadway.com for more information.