I Will Sing No Requiem
How "Dear Evan Hansen" captured the complexity of grief in one song
As I write this, I have not seen the West End production nor the film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen. I plan to see the film version, so I will not be commenting on the controversy surrounding the casting or creative decisions until I get a chance to see and review it.
However, after listening to the soundtrack, one particular song stayed stuck in my head. "Requiem" is the fifth song in the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack and the fifth song in Act One of the musical.
Zoe, Larry, and Cynthia are singing about Connor, each character struggling with their grief and Evan’s “revelations”. This song is about how the family refuses to mourn Connor's death from their different perspectives.
What this song explores is a side of grief that is rarely explored in fiction, but all too familiar in reality. It is a common cliché to write families coming together in grief or reflecting on happier times. But what happens if you had an unhealthy or even abusive relationship? What if there are deep rooted resentments or unresolved conflict? What if you’re in complete denial about who your loved one was or how they treated others?
The song writing duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, known together as Pasek and Paul, are best known for their musical talents on La La Land and The Greatest Showman and have even won awards for Dear Evan Hansen - yet, I feel their intimate character driven numbers are definitely their most poignant.
Here main love interest, Zoe reflects on how she doesn’t want to “pretend” that her brother was someone he wasn’t or how his actions have left scars that her parents refuse to acknowledge:
Why should I play this game of pretend?
Remembering through a second-hand sorrow?
Such a great son and wonderful friend
Oh, don't the tears just pour
I could curl up and hide in my room
There in my bed, still sobbing tomorrow
I could give in to all of the gloom
But tell me, tell me what for
Why should I have a heavy heart?
Why should I start to break in pieces?
Why should I go and fall apart for you?
Why should I play the grieving girl and lie
Saying that I miss you
And that my world has gone dark without your light?
I will sing no requiem tonight
Zoe is the main driving force of this song, her inability to express how she actually feels and resents the image that her parents and inadvertently Evan has created triggers her to reflect on how much Connor has hurt her in the past.
A secret that the audience learns about this character is that a part of her is relieved Connor’s abusive and toxic presence is gone - this is one of the few times she has felt safe in her home, but she now resents how her mother and father are rewriting history or becoming emotionally detached.
The emotional detachment comes from Larry, who struggles with his grief like his daughter. Except his resentment stems from the fact Connor did what he did when he “gave him the world and he threw him away”. Larry can’t comprehend Connor grieving because it has shattered the family image he had, especially when the family had tried to help Connor through his struggle. Instead of giving into his feelings, he keeps it all inside:
I gave you the world, you threw it away
Leaving these broken pieces behind you
Everything wasted, nothing to say
So I can sing no requiem
And then we have grief in the form of denial. Instead of accepting how Connor’s behaviour affected the family, Cynthia is clinging to the idea of him. This idealisation is being fed through Evan’s forged emails, but she is also refusing to actually grieve now.
Cynthia concludes her verse that she will not grieve Connor - not because how he treated them or the loss is too much, but because she doesn’t feel like she needs to. This is a very isolating comfort for her, but this is a comfort nonetheless:
I hear your voice, I feel you near
Within these words, I finally find you
And now that I know that you are still here
I will sing no requiem tonight
Although each character sing the same lyrics after these individual insights, the meaning and key words change. This highlights the disconnect as the emotions run higher, all three face their own individual grief.
Zoe’s voice overpowers her parents’, the emotions consuming her as she reflects on her conflicting memories of Connor as the “‘villain” and “monster” of her childhood. Now this stranger (Evan) is presenting a version she never knew, which causes a pain she cannot express to her mother or father.
This is a slightly different writing article, but musicals are actually a great way to delve into a character's psyche. If you are going to tackle difficult subject matters, remember each character's experience is valid. The conflict that is bound to arise with these characters in Dear Evan Hansen is that no one can actually express what they really feel, which causes internalised tension and conflict. All of which create poignant and compelling storytelling.