Friday, June 9, 2017

The Sorrows Of Young Evan: How Broadway's Biggest Hit Might Be A 1774 German Novel

Note: This blog post is lengthier than usual. Read it when you have time.

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"Thwarted happiness, confined activity, and unsatisfied wishes are not faults of a given period, but the problems of every single person, and it would be a bad thing if, once in his life, everyone did not have a period in which he felt that Werther had been written exclusively for him."

So said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe regarding his 1774 epistolary novel, The Sorrows Of Young Werther, about a young artist who goes to a quaint little village, falls in love with a woman who does not love him back, wallows in self-pity for a little while, and then shoots himself with her husband's pistol. It became wildly popular, regarded as one of the most significant and influential works in romantic literature (a movement which Goethe later derided as "everything that is sick") and served as an inspiration for many subsequent works. It also lends its name to a sociological phenomenon.

Today, there is a new Werther. He dwells at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, and goes by the name Evan Hansen. He is the star of Dear Evan Hansen, one of this season's most popular musicals, and has built a large, rabid, and divisive fan base. He has been called everything from "inspirational" to "sociopathic."

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If you're concerned for spoilers (read any of my blog posts mentioning Il Trovatore for an explanation of why you shouldn't be) turn back now.

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Evan Hansen suffers from what has been identified by audience members as social anxiety, depression, asperger's, and everything in between. None of the writers behind Dear Evan Hansen have anything relating to psychology or mental health on their resume, and so whatever Evan suffers from, it remains rightly unnamed in the script, and is probably not entirely accurate to any specific condition. "Social anxiety" probably comes closest, if for no other reason than it can be interpreted as either a specific clinical term, or a more general one. At any rate, he's a troubled young lad, who has no friends (except for when he does) and cannot deal with social situations (except for when he can).

I had originally written up a synopsis here, but I realized that it was rather biased, and thus undermines my wish to discuss this musical objectively. I therefore recommend, if you do not already know the story and do not care about spoilers, reading the synopsis on Wikipedia.

The one observation I had in the synopsis I wrote which I think is worth mentioning here, as it is not something I have seen explored elsewhere, is that Connor's line when he signs Evan's cast about how they can "both pretend to have friends," possibly indicates that he had already made up his mind that he was going to kill himself, and wanted people to believe that he did have friends when he finally did. It's possible that keeping Evan's note on his person was also an attempt to deliberately induce some sort of plot to the effect of what followed, although probably not with those exact details. It seems unlikely that the writers intended this, but it could have been an interesting path to go down.

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I find the score of Dear Evan Hansen largely mediocre, but it has provided the world with two new soon-to-be-overdone audition songs. The first is Evan's Act I ballad, "Waving Through A Window" is a contemporary pop single about how alone and isolated he is. It's the new "On My Own." The second is the Act I finale, "You Will Be Found," cataloging the explosive growth of the Connor Project, and carrying with it the feel-good message that you are special, and that you matter.

Which is a fine enough message on its own, but it comes with heavy contextual problems, and highlights the two main criticisms of the show. The first is that Evan is using Connor's death for his own gain. The second is that in this, Connor actually is forgotten, because the only semblance of him left by the end is the entirely false portrait Evan has painted. In a sense, Evan erases Connor's memory in order to overwrite it with his feel-good "you matter" message, which is more than a little hypocritical. And the musical's fanbase likewise seems to forget Connor in favor of buying into the lie Evan spins. It is important to remember that by the end of the musical, everything Evan has told us about Connor is blatantly false, and that we have to scrub "For Forever" and "Sincerely Me" from our minds in order to maintain a clear and objective view of what has transpired.

I have seen it explained that Dear Evan Hansen is meant to be a satire and critique of people using tragedy for personal gain, and of people trying to make themselves seem more important and connected than they actually are. That You Will Be Found is supposed to feel threatening. The moment when Evan fully gives into the lie. But if this is Dear Evan Hansen's intent, it fails miserably.

Parade is a musical I like quite a bit. It has a book by Alfred Uhry and a score by Jason Robert Brown, and it tells the true story of Leo Frank, the superintendent of a pencil factory in Atlanta. One of his employees, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, is murdered, and he is scapegoated because he's Jewish and this is 1913 Georgia. At the trial, in the musical, Mary Phagan's mother sings a touching ode entitled "My Child Will Forgive Me," which, if well-performed, is sure to draw tears from the audience. It builds our sympathy for Mrs. Phagan, and makes us want just as much as her to find and convict the murderer. And then she blurts out the final line, "And so I forgive you... Jew!" The accusatory exclamation of "Jew!" suddenly drags the audience back to their senses, and we realize with a fright just how easily we were swayed by the song's pathos. Jason Robert Brown does this again and again throughout the musical, drawing us in with wonderful and engaging songs, and then tossing us back to the ground with the revelation that we can be just as easily swayed by mob mentality as any of the characters on stage.

Dear Evan Hansen is "My Child Will Forgive Me" without the final "Jew!" We get pulled into the lie with Evan by these catchy songs with a lot of catchphrases and little substance ("Waving Through A Window" seems to have practically been designed to be a radio hit), but we don't get the chance to regain our objectivity. There is no moment where everything collapses on top of Evan, or where he seems to unwittingly step to far. (It would go a long way in solving this problem if one of the first things Evan did wasn't deliberately forging emails to make it look like Connor was his friend. Not denying the Murphy's assumptions is one thing, but it's quite another to consciously fabricate this narrative, especially after he ought to have had some time to think it over.) And he doesn't really suffer any tangible comeuppance at the end. Zoe even forgives him (which I have a hard time believing, given that he more or less blatantly emotionally manipulated her into a relationship, even if he didn't intend to do so maliciously), and says that her family is closer for the whole ordeal. Everything seems to work out just fine. If Dear Evan Hansen is meant to be a critique of profiting off of tragedy, it sure seems like a romanticization of it.

The only think that comes close to a critique is when Jared (who is the comic relief character) sells buttons with Connor's face on them. He freely admits that what he's doing is morally dubious, and says that what Evan's doing is basically the same. But the musical doesn't really expand on this, and leaves the morality of Evan's actions at the ultimate good that comes of it. The song "Good For You" comes close to doing something right, but is too quickly undermined by the too-neat resolution which follows. Evan is forced to come clean, but ultimately, the ending wraps up everything to everyone's benefit.

There is a parallel here in how Werther has been identified by some analysts as a parody of the Romantic movement in literature. Never mind that the Romantic movement didn't really get into full swing until after Goethe wrote it. It is only Goethe's later remarks and revisions that lend any credence to the idea that Werther is not to be taken seriously. At the time it was originally published, Werther was exactly what it appeared to be.

There are a few things that would make this all much more palatable. The first and biggest thing, for my tastes at least, would be to strike out Evan's relationship with Zoe entirely. Have her remain skeptical of him, and leave his affection for her unrequited. It's too convenient that Evan ends up with everything, and the girl on top of it. It also removes any questions about the morality of Evan's relationship with Zoe if he never actually has one. Another thing to do would be to slow Evan's fall, and make it more based on factors out of his control. That is to say, don't have him fabricate emails. Only have him spin verbal lies, and only when pressured to. If he must put more thought into his fabrications, let it be in Act II, when he's already out of his depth. The musical could also take an idea from Heathers, which deals with similar subjects, and have the ghost of Connor appear to Evan, not as a reassuring voice, but as a critical one, to remind both Evan and the audience about everything wrong here. But the biggest thing of all is that Evan needs to be faced with the fact that he caused significant damage, to the Murphys, to the memory of Connor, to his own reputation, to his relationships with other people, and that even if there is a chance of undoing said damage, it can't be done so quietly off stage during a time skip. I don't want to see Evan crucified, but I do want him to actually have to face real consequences for his actions, not just superficial ones that get nullified in the final scene.

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So how does this musical become designated the feel-good hit of the year? Why the rave reviews? What makes the public go crazy about this musical? Well, the rabid fans make it clear that the primary attraction is Ben Platt's portrayal of the lead role. It has become apparent through the discourse surrounding the show that, above all, people love the character, and will work hard to defend and justify his actions, or else meekly say "well it's fiction, he doesn't have to be perfect." Which, though technically true, comes close to the "well could you write anything better?" defense in pointlessness.

The fact that the songs are written with pop principles in mind and are therefore easy to have a strong reaction to upon first hearing doesn't hurt Evan's likability. This is not strictly a bad thing in and of itself, but when the song is meant to be part of a larger work like a musical, it creates a too-hasty generalization. Pop songs work differently from theater songs, and that's just the nature of the medium. But considering all the questionable-at-best things he does, what makes this character so appealing to the crowds?

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Anyone who's watched How I Met Your Mother can accurately tell you that the hero of the classic 80s film The Karate Kid is not Daniel, but rather Johnny, who is a studious karate student, tragically defeated by an upstart with an illegal kick to the head. The Karate Kid problem is something the internet likes to have fun with, but it also provides a valuable insight into how people respond to different types of characters.

It is not, I think, a revolutionary idea to point out that people like an underdog. Daniel is a more appealing protagonist than Johnny because he has to struggle more for his goal. The story of someone coming up from nothing is more compelling than the story of someone who's good at a thing, and does the thing, and succeeds at it because they are good at the thing. Likewise, the story of someone searching for a purpose in life is more dramatic than the story of someone who has a pretty good idea of what they want to do, and then does it. Struggle is what makes a dramatic story, and therefore protagonists are more likely to be underdogs.

But statistically, everybody can't be the underdog. For every Gabriela Montez, there has to be a Sharpay Evans who is, quite justifiably, peeved that this random outsider is swooping in and playing the lead despite having no theatrical experience. The fact is that few people get the true underdog story, and likewise few get the Sharpay story. Most people are more like the crème brûlée guy who thinks he's special for having more than one interest or personality trait. (Although, for a background character, that actually is an impressive feat.)

But because of the cult of the underdog, nobody wants to be Johnny or Sharpay. People want to feel like they're the struggling underdog, treated unfairly by the world. In some cases, it almost feels like a victim complex. Most people would rather compare themselves to Eponine than Cosette, Elphaba rather than Galinda, Louise rather than June. Even though Cosette, Galinda, and June don't do anything wrong (or in the case of the former, really anything at all), they are more likely to be vilified in the eyes of the audience. And this goes all the way back to ancient Greek drama. The protagonist is Antigone, not Ismene. Elektra, not Chrysothemis. (Although those sets of sisters don't compete in the same way.) In the bible too. Esau is born with advantage over Jacob, so by necessity Jacob is the hero, even though, taken in a vacuum, he's really kind of a jerk to his brother. Same thing with Joseph and his brothers. I could go on. In the case of Werther, the title character is made up as being the underdog to Charlotte's husband Albert, even though their rivalry only exists in Werther's own head.

This is the phenomenon that makes Evan such a popular character, and why it's so important to the musical's success that whatever condition Evan may or may not have remains unnamed. Mental illness is not a subject that is treated lightly, nor should it be. That's why people take care to distinguish between "feeling depressed" and "having depression." The former is something everyone experiences from time to time. The latter describes a much smaller set of people with a much bigger problem than simply occasionally feeling upset. And if Evan had been specifically diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, or depression, or something else, it would restrict the number of people comfortable saying they relate to him without fear of being corrected. But everyone can relate to occasionally feeling left out, and so for two hours or so, as long as Evan is never diagnosed, people are free to identify themselves with him as much as they choose, despite it being a small minority of people who have actually had the experience necessary to fully empathize. And again, there is no particular problem in relating to characters with whom one may actually have little in common. My objection in the case of Dear Evan Hansen is twofold. One (which I will come back to shortly) the musical has been hailed as one of the first musicals to deal with mental illness, but fails to actually identify or even indicate any specific illness, thus opening the door to rampant unprofessional misdiagnosis. Two, putting Evan on a pedestal as so many seem to be doing implicitly endorses some highly troubling behavior. Even Hamilton is honest about its title character's flaws.

But I can't really fault the musical for this. Dear Evan Hansen does portray its title character as an extreme case, even for fiction. This is more of a grievance with the victim culture that pervades sections of the internet. But the result is that Evan is forced into the position of everyman in the worst possible way. Because all of this makes him a character highly susceptible to inducing the Werther Effect.

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Following the publishing of The Sorrows Of Young Werther, many young people in Germany began emulating its title character. Like Evan Hansen, Werther was a misunderstood loner, which, for the same reason as Evan, appealed to a lot of people who sought to identify with him. As I quoted above, Goethe viewed it as a phase everyone goes through where they basically feel like Werther, alone and misunderstood. It isn't a problem to have characters that are relateable to certain people in certain phases of their lives. It isn't even a problem when people begin dressing like the character and quoting them, although it does begin to get weird. It is, however, a problem when people begin to kill themselves in the same manner as the character.

Werther was subsequently banned in many places as "Werther Fever" spread through Europe.

The Werther Effect has become a term for copycat suicides. Where reporting suicide, or portraying it in fiction, makes other people more likely to follow suit. This is why it is advised to avoid publicizing suicides, and part of why the recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has attracted controversy.

The somewhat reassuring thing is that Evan's problems resolve without him committing suicide -- although he did try. He does, however, benefit from someone else's suicide, and his actions are not the most commendable. For a character with the memetic relatability of a modern-day Werther, this is not a good road to be traveling. A potentially dangerous one as well. People contriving empathy with Evan leads to normalizing, or worse, romanticizing his actions, which ought to be against the entire point of the musical. That is what makes Evan more problematic than other suicidal characters of theater. Hedda Gabler, like Evan, feels alone and misunderstood, but unlike Evan, she is explicitly manipulative, and is not in danger of being put on any pedestal. (It doesn't hurt that her play is not particularly popular among the young and mob-minded sections of the internet.) I am not so much concerned with Dear Evan Hansen per se, as much as I'm concerned with how it has blown up and garnered a strong and misguided internet following. (Although, as I've discussed, the musical itself has a number of problems which have allowed said misguided following to exist.) We have to remember that the point is that Evan isn't important, and that we still don't know anything about Connor or his reasons for killing himself. This is a musical that needs an analytical and removed vantage point. It should have been written by Kander and Ebb. But Pasek and Paul's relentless pathos make the audience just as lost as Evan.

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Let's pause for a moment and have a bit of cheerful counterpoint. There is a corollary to the Werther Effect known as the Papageno Effect (named after the character from The Magic Flute) whereby presenting alternatives to suicide makes people less likely to commit suicide. Which seems stupidly obvious when you say it like that, but is important to consider when reporting suicides. Potential Werther damage can be offset by coupling the report with a Papageno-friendly PSA. 

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There is a strong dissonance, which is not Dear Evan Hansen's fault, in the mere fact that Evan is the protagonist. For instance, it is a requirement of Evan's character that he be completely isolated and friendless. But it is a theatrical necessity that he have someone to talk to, so that the plot can advance. This is the role that Jared fulfills, and though the script tries to emphasize that Jared is not Evan's friend per se, the fact is that Evan is not entirely alone with no one to talk to about his problems. And that is just one example of the dissonance required in making a character like Evan a protagonist.

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Next To Normal is a musical which famously portrayed mental illness. But the illness portrayed in Next To Normal is designed to be more dramatic than Evan's. Next To Normal is unabashedly fictitious, and at times surreal, which allows it to take more liberties in its plot. It also helps the audience stay somewhat removed from the action, which is important. The character in Next To Normal which the tumblr demographic likes to identify with is not the protagonist, Diana, but rather her daughter, Natalie. And rightly so. Natalie, a supporting role, is a teenage girl dealing with what are, though in extreme instances, basically high school problems. Meaning that the young demographic can freely identify with her without belittling or distracting from the more major issues of the musical. It also works because Next To Normal does not resolve. It does not end in either tragedy or triumph, and so it cannot set any expectation or course of action like Werther and Evan do.

In its ending, Next To Normal takes a page from one of the generally agreed upon "great American plays", Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. The central figure of The Glass Menagerie is Laura Wingfield, an antisocial shut-in who in many ways is indicated to be worse off than Evan in her condition. She interacts with no one but her family, cites times when the prospect of social interaction has made her physically ill, and, at almost a decade out of high school, shows no indications of getting better. What enables her to be the central figure of the drama is that she is still not the protagonist of the play. That title belongs to her brother, Tom, and the play chronicles his misguided and ultimately failed attempt to set his sister up with a colleague of his. In fact, Laura herself is off stage for much of the first two thirds of the play.

One of the things I find most interesting about The Glass Menagerie is its incredibly frank observations and discussions about Laura's condition and behavior, and its acknowledgement of the cognitive dissonance that comes with it. Take, for example, a fear of bugs. I know that objectively, I have nothing to fear from cockroaches except in the most contrived of circumstances. But that doesn't stop me from jumping when I see one, and being extremely cautious when I attempt to get rid of it. I'm sure you can sympathize. Likewise, Laura can consciously observe and agree with Jim that she has an inferiority complex, and that it is irrational and she has nothing to feel self-conscious about. But just acknowledging that as true won't stop her from feeling that way. And even when it seems like Laura is going to come out of her shell and get better, she ultimately sinks back into it and ends back on square one.

Something that both Evan and Laura do (and Werther does this too) is manufacture relationships in their head. In Evan's case this is clear. He makes up this story about having been Connor's best friend, and at a certain point, begins to believe it. Laura's is smaller in scale. In her conversation with Jim O'Connor which makes up most of the final third of the play, she clearly begins to develop feelings for him. She is able to develop these feelings so quickly because, one, she had already had a crush on him in high school, and, two, she is dramatically undersocialized. When it becomes clear that Jim does not return her feelings (he is, in fact, engaged, and assumed he was at the Wingfield house for a regular old dinner with friends) she blames herself for the misunderstanding and sinks back into her shell. It's sad. Read the play. But Evan has no such crash. We see him begin to believe his lies about Connor, but we never see him ultimately come to terms with the fact that he was deluding himself, which, to my mind, could have been the most affecting moment of the script.

Dear Evan Hansen, by necessity, utilizes this sort of cognitive dissonance, because it would otherwise be nearly impossible to have Evan as a protagonist. But it does not acknowledge it, or seem to embrace it for its own advantage. It is left hanging there like any other plot hole, and any speculation that it is intentionally ambiguous must be left as nothing more than speculation. And because it forces itself to resolve satisfactorally, unlike Next To Normal or The Glass Menagerie, it, to an extent, implicitly endorses the actions that lead to its ending, even if it doesn't intend to. And again, there are plenty of stories where people get what they want through dubious means, and that's absolutely fine. It's part of creating interesting stories. What makes Evan the unique subject of my criticism is the pedestal he's placed on, which is not strictly the fault of the musical itself.

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I think there is also an attitude that denotes a strong emotional reaction as a sign of quality. But emotional response should not be an indicator of quality. It should be a factor considered, of course, but pathos can be misplaced. I'm going to dip into opera here, so bear with me.

Massenet's opera based on Goethe's Werther has a fine example of well-placed pathos. The hit aria of the opera is "Pourquoi Me Reveiller" in Act III. In the opera, it is a poem read aloud by Werther to Charlotte, which is designed to reflect Werther's intense self-pity. The music is sorrowful, ominous, and thrilling. It uses its emotion to force us to sympathize with Werther, much as "Waving Through A Window" does for Evan. But, as I said, the music of "Pourquoi Me Reveiller" maintains an ominous tone which Dear Evan Hansen lacks, which clues the audience into something more negative. Even the darkest songs of Dear Evan Hansen sound strangely uplifting, which distracts from their subject matter and their context. Just because they express emotion does not mean they express the right emotion. "For Forever" is the song that comes closest to having a dark tone in contrast to the subject of the lyrics, and is just another example of something Dear Evan Hansen begins to do, but fails to follow up on. (In contrast, almost all of Werther's music in Massenet's opera sounds incredibly dark, and after "Du Gai Soleil" in Act II, there is scarcely a lighthearted moment in the remaining two-and-a-half acts.)

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The worst thing about it for Evan himself is that much of this scrutiny would go away if the musical were simply more explicit in what its intended message is. Without that certainty, people have spawned many different interpretations, each of which has its own set of problems. And without specifying or even indicating a correct interpretation, Dear Evan Hansen leaves every one of those problems open. Instead, it gets so caught up in the emotions that it forgets what it's doing.

People have praised the musical's moral ambiguity as being "complex," but there comes a point where I feel it's just calling its own vagueness by the name "ambiguity" as an excuse. People can come up with narratives that explain why Johnny is the tragic hero of The Karate Kid, but I doubt any of us actually believe that that is what the filmmakers intended. And it's not wrong to have a work that can be interpreted in many different ways. But again, Dear Evan Hansen is just so vague and so popular that it becomes a problem when discussing the musical.

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One of the most prominent parallels between Dear Evan Hansen and The Sorrows Of Young Werther is the emphasis on letter. Werther is an epistolary novel, told largely in letters written by Werther to a friend of his who does not factor in the plot. Dear Evan Hansen, though not an epistolary musical as Passion is, deals a lot with writing letters. The goal in both cases is to give a great deal of insight into the character's psyche, as both stories focus intensely on the troubles of one young man, whose struggles to fit in with society cause a great deal of drama.

Although Werther was an immediate hit, it caused some trouble for Goethe, who struggled with how personal it was to him when he wrote it. It was written almost entirely from a sentimental standpoint, as opposed to the more complicated and analytical nature of, say, his Faust. A decade after its initial publication, Goethe went back and substantially revised Werther, expanding on its minor characters, in particular making Albert much more sympathetic. A good thing too, because Albert doesn't actually do anything wrong in the story at all, and the only reason he is vilified is because he happens to be married to the girl the protagonist loves. Remember the underdog fallacy.

Goethe initially wrote Werther based on recent and immediate experiences, but at a point when he was further removed from it, he rewrote it with greater objectivity, and, I think most would agree, greatly improved it. I think Dear Evan Hansen would do well to undergo a similar set of revisions a few years down the line, after we see how it holds up.

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(Aside: I also find myself wondering how well Dear Evan Hansen actually will hold up. Its use of social media as a medium for storytelling seems like it could become dated extremely quickly, and ten years down the line, it may seem like too much of a period piece to be worth revisiting. I may be wrong. This is something that only time can tell.)

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I'd like to conclude with a little disclaimer denying something I've been told a fair bit when expressing my views on musicals like Rent and Spring Awakening, where my view differs greatly from the mainstream. People have been quick to deduce that because I don't like Rent, I therefore must be some hipster who thinks he's above liking anything that's popular. This is not the case. There are basically four distinct and mutually exclusive categories of musicals, and they are as follows:

1. Popular musicals which I like. (Into The Woods, Chicago, Wicked)
2. Unpopular musicals which I like. (Passion, The Visit, If/Then)
3. Unpopular musicals which I don't like. (Aspects Of Love, Whistle Down The Wind, Love Never Dies -- man, when Andrew Lloyd Webber flops, he flops hard!)
4. Popular musicals which I don't like. (Rent, Spring Awakening, -- that's mostly it.)

With the first category (which is also probably the largest, or perhaps second to category two), there is little cause for discussion, because the mainstream and I basically agree, even if the specifics of our liking the shows differ. Likewise in category three. If I don't like a show, and you don't like a show, why even bring it up? It is only in the second category, where I defend shows I felt were wrongly flops, or bring attention to shows that have slipped through the cracks, and in the fourth category, where I take a stance contrary to the mainstream, that much discussion is likely to ensue. This creates the illusion that I disproportionately exalt unpopular musicals and tear down popular ones, because in cases where the general population and I agree, I don't find it worth my time to write something like this. I hope this explanation will dissuade people from dismissing my remarks as those of a "Hansen-hating hipster."

Further, it is always good to be able to honestly discuss something's flaws. Even Gypsy has flaws, which I will happily point out. But this doesn't mean Gypsy isn't a great musical. It certainly is. Just not a perfect one. So I hope we can take Evan off of his pedestal, and observe him objectively.

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Printed in 12pt, Times New Roman font, singe spaced, this blog post takes up eleven pages. (This final postscript pushes it onto the twelfth.) I believe this is my longest blog post to date. Most of my posts seem to tend to be between two and five pages. Thought I'd end with a little lighthearted trivia.

Join me again tomorrow when I follow this up with a post comparing the other big hit of the Broadway season to a classical oratorio!

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