By Laura Moyer
4:39 a.m. is a hideous time to get a text message. But the 100 or so students who received it on a chilly March morning knew they were lucky – picked by lottery from more than 900 UMW applicants for a free trip to see live New York theater.
Wake up! The day has arrived! Time to get to duPont Hall to get on the bus to go to NYC to see DEAR EVAN HANSEN on Broadway!
The script and cast recording of Dear Evan Hansen were the subject of this year’s Common Experience – a campuswide reading-and-listening pursuit involving students, faculty, and staff. It’s the fourth year for the Common Experience program (originally Common Read) and the first to highlight a theatrical work.
Dear Evan Hansen is a musical, but it’s no frothy comedy. It deals with loneliness, social alienation, teen suicide, and a deception that spins out of control on social media.
The UMW community created a video performance of the musical’s gorgeous anthem You Will Be Found – about clinging on through life’s bleakest moments and eventually making connections. You can see it at umw.edu/youwillbefound. The hopeful message resonates with people in their late teens to mid-20s. It’s also relevant to people old enough to be their professors or parents, and a few of us from that age group got to go along.
Invited as a University Relations “embed,” I willed myself into invisibility throughout the 17-hour trip and just listened. What I heard reminded me how much I like Mary Washington’s smart, funny, empathetic, and enthusiastic students.
Outside in the cold before the buses arrived, there was lots of chatter. But as the bus I was on rolled north in the dark, conversation diminished to whispers and then to nothing as students made up for lost sleep.
Hours later a student excitedly told her seatmate, “We’re in the Meadowlands. Keep looking right and you’ll see the New York skyline.”
As the bus trundled toward Times Square, the conversational tap opened full force: “Hey guys, look! You can see Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.” “I see a man dressed as a shamrock and pushing a girl on a bike. Why?” “He’s happy. Let him live his authentic life.”
Dear Evan Hansen, by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson, won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Musical. It’s still a tough ticket to get, but David Spry ’08, a senior director for a major theatrical producer, arranged for UMW’s Common Experience program to buy the tickets.
No professor had to coax discussion on the bus ride home. Plot and character analysis tumbled out.
Evan Hansen, an alienated high school senior, allows a misunderstanding to go unchecked so as to comfort the parents of a classmate who dies from suicide. But what starts as an unwitting deception morphs into an intentional lie and a viral social media phenomenon.
It’s an agonizing mess even as it delivers Evan some surprising benefits: the confidence to break through his social anxiety and a sweet relationship with the girl he’s fallen for.
“Honestly, I didn’t like reading this play, but it was good to see it performed.”
“Oh, I loved it, though! I read it to my mom. And she loved it.”
And then, as the bus traveled through Pennsylvania and Maryland and back into Virginia, thoughts returned to the realities of college life. A five-page paper due Monday. A Spanish test to study for. Chemistry problems. Roommate problems.
But the students had gotten something beyond the ordinary out of this long day. A common experience, and an uncommon one.
Theatergoer Laura Moyer is the associate editor of UMW Magazine.