Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why. Because today all you have to do is be yourself. (Beat.) But also confident. That’s important. And interesting. Easy to talk to. Approachable. But mostly be yourself. That’s the big, that’s No. 1. . . . (Beat.) Also, though, don’t worry about whether your hands are going to get sweaty for no reason and you can’t make it stop no matter what you do, because they’re not going to get sweaty so I don’t even know why you’re bringing it up, because it’s not going to happen.
That was the opening scene of Dear Evan Hansen, the Tony-winning, must-see that finally made its Broadway debut in December 2016. Directed by Michael Greif, and whose music and lyrics are written by the duo Benj Pasek (Jewish), and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen’s success is even being compared to “The Hamilton of the Season”.
As an American-Jew close in age to the main characters of the show, facing, first-hand, the damage that the pressures of both school and social media can have on our generation, I have looked forward exploring how the role of stereotypes that often associate Jews with being anxious and neurotic is portrayed on Broadway. Specifically, through two leading characters in the hard-to-catch, Dear Evan Hansen.
Evan Hansen, a 17-year-old outsider battling a consuming social anxiety, played by Jewish ~Angelino~, Ben Platt gets tied up in a lie involving the death of a classmate, a romantic interest and his entire reputation. The musical incorporates a ground-breaking level of social media influences to symbolically confront the complexities of today’s younger audiences and to complement the plot in order to resonate with newer generations.
On the other hand, Jared Kleinman is Evan’s excessive, wise-ass family-friend, with a know-it-all attitude, who represents both a blunt, but “mockingly amused voice of reason”, as well as the deeply insecure camp kid that many Jewish-Americans have crossed paths with many a time. (Want an example of the punk-ish remarks he makes? Just check out the quotes on his Fandom page.) Evan, alone, desperate and inspired, ultimately enlists Jared to help partake in his elaborate letter-writing mission until things spiral out of control and they each threaten to expose one another. We can safely assume Jared is Jewish from his familiar camp references (likely inspired by Pasek’s own camp experiences, if not adjusted when Camp Ramah alum Ben was casted), including his sexual awakenings with Israeli soldiers and from his allusions to his parents’ liquor that hasn’t been touched since Rosh HaShana.
Throughout the first act, we aren’t told what happened to Evan’s father, what is up with his distressed mother, Heidi, nor why he fell out of the tree (which we later subtly learn was a cry for help). We figure out most of the story ourselves through the characters behaviors and seeing how they are affected.
Social Anxiety and Dear Evan Hansen
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) affects 15 million adults, or 6.8% of the U.S. population.” Anxiety and Depression, however, affect nearly 44 million adults in the US. It also states that the average onset for SAD sets in during the teenage years, typically beginning around the age of 13. Individuals who face SAD may worry about the way they come off to others, fearing an impression of stupidity, awkwardness, or even being boring. These traits are often correlated with physical fumbling, such as sweating and stumbling over one’s words.
Platt does an outstanding job at painting Evan as a neurotic misfit, suffering from shyness and insecurity that mark his days and interactions. While there is no evidence that Evan is Jewish, his conceiver, Ben Platt, was, and many actors’ personal lives often influence the cultivation of their characters. Evan depicts many socially anxious tendencies, which Ben Platt absolutely nails. Platt does a surreal job at characterizing Evan, introducing an unfamiliar, refreshing, undeniably real performance. Everything about his portrayal of Evan is mysteriously, emotionally raw. He sings through mucus and tears. He picks at his nails, twitches, fidgets, plays with his clothing and lacks impulse control. It seems so natural. He credits this to his Jewish values and upbringing in a tight community, which translate into his ability to perform. He shared in an e-mail interview last year, “As a theater artist in particular, Judaism has cultivated a unique sense of empathy in me for which I am very grateful. Judaism encourages us to see beyond the surface to try to understand those who are different from us. This has afforded me the opportunity to better comprehend the character of Evan and the characters around him.”
Jared, originally played by Will Roland, strongly executes “ironic, self-deprecatory ethnic pride” that appears with Jews in media over and over again. He is deeply insecure and alludes to a potential homosexuality through his histrionic homophobia. His frequent use of sarcasm and desperate attempts to seem “chill” do a lousy job at hiding his own discomfort and raging loneliness. He often says things to make himself feel liked, accepted or wanted. There is a serious shock value to a plethora of his quotes, such as:
Or my favorite, “School-shooter chic.”
Humor is his mask, and he ceaselessly shoots Evan down, reminding him that his parents essentially pay him through car insurance to be his friend, or when he crossed the line during their fight with by declaring that Connor’s death was the best thing that ever happened to Evan. Ouch. He eagerly involves himself with The Connor Project, he to feel involved with something, or feel important to achieving something through his involvement.
The team behind Dear Evan Hansen sharing their insights on Evan’s troubles:
The Neurotic, Anxious, Histrionic, Nervous Jew
The Stereotype. You get the point.
The concept of Jews being endlessly associated with and portrayed by the entertainment media as histrionic, neurotic, anxious and nervous is nothing new. This concept is so widely accepted that people don’t think twice about it. Americans already view Jews as the poster child that you’d find next to these adjectives in the dictionary.
Interestingly enough, there is hardly any empirical data that Jews suffered from anxiety at any higher rates than anyone else. It is wildly repeated, glamorized and well-known, yet there is no scientific data to support any higher-levels of mental illness among Jews. Many argue that the image produced by this stereotype is self-perpetuated and encouraged society to view us as neurotic and anxious. My family’s photographer saw me pick up a piece of paper with my foot the Thursday (you know, the Thursday that every Jewish family Bar/Bat Mitzvah portraits take place,) before I became a Bat Mitzvah. He excitedly pointed out that “That’s how you know you’re a member of the Tribe. All Jews pick things up with their toes! You’re a natural.” Of course, that is an extremely silly thing to believe, but it has always stuck with me. Rabbis from multiple movements have acknowledged the stereotype. For some unknown reason, writers relish in the creation, and it’s the comedians and actors who have been able to sell it to the world. New York Times Opinionator writer and author of Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, Daniel Smith, dives into the “We Are the Champions” theory that Jews in Hollywood have propagated this inferior Neurotic Jew image that closely-enough breaks many striking similarities to the historical “troubling anti-Semitic imagination.”
However, this is certainly a positive light to shine on this: Think from the perspective that just maybe there are more Jews out there with psychological differences and personality traits. There is no research to back that up, but Jews’ heavy usage of self-deprecation in the entertainment industry (such as Jared’s) promotes laughter rather than a derogatory ‘laughing at’. It is typically making light of anxiety. Neurotic and anxious behaviors, often portrayed by Jewish actors and characters alike, make people laugh and accept these sides of themselves, and the portrayals remind people to be comfortable with something because it is not a very “different” trait to be dealing with, people do understand you and most importantly, you are not alone.
Pasek and Paul were comfortable putting a still-not-yet-widely spoken about topic on stage. In fact, the social anxieties that come with being an outsider is another way that Jews can exhibit pride! Somehow, there is a fresh, unrequited comfort or familiarity that comes with the idea of the Jewish anxiety stereotype. It is so widely viewed as an affliction, but Jews are also coming together to be somewhat cheerful to whatever degree about our common past of having suffered for thousands of years. In Dear Evan Hansen, Evan is being tortured by rejection and loneliness. Ben Platt shared that he succeeded in relating so deeply with Evan as he mentioned, “I come from a big Jewish family and we all have our neuroses and our anxieties. And I’ve definitely had experiences in the past having to deal with that in terms of therapy and that sort of thing.” He starts by basing his social awkwardness mostly on people he has encountered in life, and by trying to understand the way he may be taken over by his anxiety if he were ever in specific situations and unable to bring himself together – open about having dealt with his own anxiety.
Lastly, Smith (who shares that his non-Jewish last name was changed upon arriving at Ellis Island) rebuts the faults of the “Neurotic Jew” image by bringing up the correlation between anxiety and excessive intellectual activity…or just excessive intelligence. “Because if anxiety is rooted in excessive intellectual activity, then it is also rooted, by association, in excessive intelligence.” He points out that Jews identify with a tribe that is known to be one of the most neurotic peoplehoods in existence, and calls out famous Jewish intellectuals, grouping “Spinoza and Marx and Freud and Einstein — and Roth and Allen,” all into our same tribe. This link between anxiety and intelligence is in fact credible, according to a study from 2012 by institutions including Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Penn State University and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The transitive property may not necessarily be able to be applied to every single anxious Jew out there, but as a Jew, I’ll take it.
Despite the lack of evidence behind Jews leading the numbers of anxiety diagnoses, Jews are instrumental in the advances of psychology and psychiatry. Sigmund Frued considered the most famous psychologist in history is Jewish. In 2007, a study conducted among psychiatry and religion found that of those who identify with a religion, “more than twice as many are Jewish.” On top of that, 29% of psychiatrists are Jewish, with a remaining large percentage of physicians being Jewish as well. Moreover, compared to the Jewish physicians who were more likely to send patients to a psychiatrist, only half as many protestant physicians reported being likely to do so.
While there is no evidence that Jews face more mental illness, I think Jews would be me more tolerant towards a trait places them against adversity due to the way in which their peoplehood have always been fabricated. This shone through the primarily-Jewish writing team’s work. Jews are very familiar with having a hardship against them, something that makes them a minority, and prevailing through it to live a normal life, accepting themselves for who they are because they aren’t going to be able to change. “…Jews have a lengthy history of persecution and even planned eliminations (pogroms) by people in countries…Jews have long been “the other,” (Kamalipour 101). Jews would be most understandably able to empathetically see past these stigmas. Just like their Jewish identity is something that Jews must learn to live with and accept, so is the social anxiety that Evan suffers from every moment.
Peer Reviewed Sources
Kamalipour, Yahya R., et al. Cultural Diversity and the U.S. Media. State University of New York Press, 1998.
The Relationship Between Psychiatry and Religion Among U.S. Physicians
Farr A. Curlin, M.D., Shaun V. Odell, B.A., Ryan E. Lawrence, M.Div., Marshall H. Chin, M.D., M.P.H., John D. Lantos, M.D., Keith G. Meador, M.D., and Harold G. Koenig, M.D. Psychiatric Services 2007 58:9, 1193-1198
Coplan, Jeremy D et al. “The Relationship between Intelligence and Anxiety: An Association with Subcortical White Matter Metabolism” Frontiers in evolutionary neuroscience vol. 3 8. 1 Feb. 2012, doi:10.3389/fnevo.2011.00008 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3269637/