Hit Broadway musical 'Dear Evan Hansen' finds enough fans to beat 'Hamilton' in chart debut

'I think this musical speaks to universal issues that will resonate in cities and towns in rural areas all over,' says Marilyn Plotkins, chair of the Suffolk University Theatre Department.

Matthew Murphy
'Dear Evan Hansen' stars Mike Faist (l.) and Ben Platt (r.).

A teenager named Evan Hansen is the new golden boy of Broadway.

The musical “Dear Evan Hansen” drew positive reviews when it opened on Broadway last December, with critics lauding its story of a high school student, Evan (Ben Platt), whose classmate commits suicide. Evan becomes unexpectedly drawn into the aftermath after his classmate Connor’s family believes Evan and Connor were close friends.

The music and lyrics for the show are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who have become well-known for another musical success: their lyrics for the movie musical “La La Land,” starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, which won six Oscars at the 89th Academy Awards and was nominated for a record-tying 14. 

“Evan” found even more success when the cast recording debuted on the Billboard 200 chart, which measures album sales. When it arrived on the chart in February, it debuted at number eight, which is the highest slot for a cast album since 1961, when the album for “Camelot” came out and placed at number four on the mono chart (this was before the Billboard 200 mono and stereo charts were put together). Yes, “Evan” debuted higher on the chart than a certain Alexander Hamilton.

Since the “Hamilton” soundtrack is still on the Billboard 200 chart, the numbers harken back to another musical-loving era: it was 1965 when two top-20-charting cast recordings were last on the Billboard 200 at the same time.

What’s drawing people to the show? “I think what has struck a chord with this musical is that it's about, at the core, the extreme isolation and anxiety that people feel and their sense of hopelessness in being able to fix it,” says Marilyn Plotkins, the chair of the Suffolk University Theatre Department. But Evan does change his life following the suicide of his classmate. “There's something about that struggle between a reality you think you can't fix and then the ability to remake your world in a way that fulfills a reality that you thought you could never have,” Dr. Plotkins says.

Comparing “Hamilton” to “Dear Evan Hansen,” which beat the historical drama in its chart debut, Plotkins sees them as very different productions. The newer show “takes us into that world and helps us to see how a terrible tragedy like the suicide of this kind of friendless peer helps [others] to remake their world…,” she says. “It's nothing like recreating the history of our first Treasury secretary, but in my view, it's just as ambitious in its own way and maybe more so because it does so without the flash and spectacle and size and scale of ‘Hamilton.’”

Those behind “Dear Evan Hansen” used streaming services to bring the soundtrack to listeners, with multiple songs from the show becoming available to stream before the full cast album debuted for streaming, and the physical album format of the cast recording arriving weeks later. Partly because of this, Plotkins sees the success of the show continuing to grow.

“I think because of the way in which they are spreading the score through digital platforms … this musical will find its way deeper and deeper in the culture,” she says. “Not only in the major cities but all over the country, because I think this musical speaks to universal issues that will resonate in cities and towns in rural areas all over.”

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