Throughout my childhood, I loved going to musicals in downtown Houston. It was always a big trip that left me with wide eyes and songs to sing for the duration of the car ride home — and the ensuing months. I remember staring in awe as Wicked‘s Glinda rose above the stage in a bubble and being captivated as revolutionaries held their positions at the barricades in Les Misérables, even as shots were fired in the distance.

That same love of far-out plot lines and casts full of oddities led me to sing “Dentist!” from Little Shop of Horrors at a second grade Girl Scout talent show. 

As I got older, I found myself drawn more to the comparatively simplistic shows that lacked flashy costumes or ostentatious sets, the ones that stripped down the story to relate to modern-day issues. Rent made an immediate impression. It wasn’t until I saw the show that I realized musicals could support such weighty debates and social commentary. It was no longer just the songs that remained with me after I left the theater.

That’s the same way I felt after seeing Dear Evan Hansen during the show’s opening night Tuesday.

The show starts simply. Evan, the title character, sits on a twin bed, typing on his laptop in a blue striped polo shirt and white arm cast. Technology is featured prominently, with texts and tweets and Facebook messages displayed on screens placed around the stage. The entire cast is small; only eight characters.

Throughout the show, Evan and his fellow high school students deal with the pressures created by social media and the loneliness it can manifest. Each scene feels relevant to today’s issues and struggles being felt by young people.

In the first half of the show, Evan and his fellow classmates come together in the traumatic aftermath of the death of a fellow student. Their grief becomes exacerbated by the effects of social media, and the audience sees clearly the isolation of each classmate. When Evan sings “You are Not Alone,” he’s not only singing to his classmates, but to everyone in the audience. 

The actor who plays the title character, Stephen Christopher Anthony, was struck when he saw the show for the first time on Broadway.

“It just moved through me like a train,” he said. “What I think is so amazing about it is every person in the audience feels like the show is speaking directly to them.

“I remember thinking if this show had existed when I was a teenager, what it would have done for me. How badly I needed to hear that I wasn’t the only one who felt alone, misunderstood.”

Jessica Sherman plays Evan’s mom, Heidi Hansen. She struggled to think of another show that touched on such pertinent topics.

“It’s not that I haven’t been in things that people are moved by, but this somehow is really reaching into what’s happening right now,” Sherman said. “I can imagine that the original cast of Rent might have felt this way. At the time, this is what needs to be talked about, and we don’t know how else to talk about it.”

Sherman has found that it isn’t just young adults or students who relate to Dear Evan Hansen‘s message. Parents often approach her following performances, thanking her for the conversations it would spark in their own homes. 

Dear Evan Hansen‘s plot points have wide appeal. Theatergoers in their early 20s all the way up to those in their 80s were visibly emotional as Evan struggled to connect with his peers and each cast member grappled with feeling lonely.

I’m an easy target, a sap in most circumstances. Like the rest of the theatergoers in my row, I welled up easily throughout the duration of the show’s runtime. But I like that, while Dear Evan Hansen easily pulls at the audience’s heartstrings, it provides a unique clarity in its overarching message.

It’s shows like Dear Evan Hansen that reaffirm the power of art in these tough conversations. As an education reporter, I often hear teachers and school officials talk about social-emotional learning and the role of technology in the classroom. But it’s rare for those conversations to spark raw emotions that actually get people talking.

So while I’ll always have affection for shows like Little Shop of Horrors for its farfetched plot and punchy songs, I know performances like Rent and Dear Evan Hansen will be the musicals I’ll remember for years to come. And I hope those are the kind of musicals that keep bringing people back to the theater because they are the ones that provide a cultural relevance for all ages and circumstances.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.