How Amandla Stenberg's Dear Evan Hansen Song Became A Sparkling SZA Slow Jam

How Amandla Stenberg's Dear Evan Hansen Song Became A Sparkling SZA Slow Jam

By Yasmine Shemesh

About midway through Dear Evan Hansen, the film adaptation of the Tony-winning musical of the same name, Evan and his classmate, Alana, are sitting on swings in the park. Alana — from the outdoors, a cheerful overachiever involved in each and every extracurricular club at their high school — confides in Evan that she’s struggling, also. Like Evan, she is living with anxiety and depression. Like Evan, she is on medication for it. And like Evan, she feels alone and invisible.

Over raw guitar strums, Alana sings softly, cautiously, at first. “Do you ever look at all of the people who seem to know exactly how to be? You think, they don’t need piles of prescriptions to function naturally.” She laughs nervously. The song, “The Anonymous Ones,” starts to swell into a triumphant declaration of vulnerability.

“Spot the girl who stays in motion, she spins so fast so she won’t fall,” Alana’s voice rises with urgency. She booms, with conviction: “So nobody can know just what the cracks might show, how deep and dark they go.” And then comes the refrain, at the end. She grows quiet again, her voice like a whisper: “The parts you can’t tell, we carry them well, however that doesn’t mean they’re not heavy.”

The song’s themes — isolation, self-acceptance, external validation — also run through Dear Evan Hansen. Directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), the story follows Evan (Ben Platt), a lonely teenager with terrible anxiety, as he tells a lie while attempting to comfort the parents of a classmate, Connor Murphy, who committed suicide. Evan’s good intentions, and his desperate yearning for connection, speedily snowball into a complex web of deceit that draws in all around him. Nevertheless each person is experiencing some sort of pain, fighting internal battles of their own, whether they show it or not.

Erika Doss/Universal Pictures
Like Alana Beck. Portrayed in the film with cute nuance by Amandla Stenberg, the character is expanded from the original stage production right now to also include her own original song). Alana doesn’t have several companions, burying herself in activities and the pursuit of good grades. As soon as she hears about Connor’s death, she reaches out to Evan, sensing they may have some regular ground, and spearheads The Connor Project, an initiative to keep Connor’s memory alive by fundraising to reopen the abandoned apple orchard where he and Evan hung out.

“Alana is a character I related to in so several regards,” Stenberg tells MTV News, speaking over Zoom. “Just in terms of the specific neuro-divergences that she's contending with, you know, dealing with anxiety and depression, being someone who has responded to that anxiety and depression by overcompensating. That really was me in high school. I did each and every extracurricular activity. I was so hard on myself and I was such a perfectionist. If I procured any criticism or got a A-minus on a test or paper, like, it would destroy me.”

“It's taken me a lot of time and also a lot of therapy to understand that and recenter my value in myself as just intrinsically existing in me, as instead of having to be validated by other people,” she continues. “I think that's what this movie is about. It's about finding the value in ourselves, and in our lives, without consideration of the perception of other people.”

Stenberg co-wrote “The Anonymous Ones” with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriting duo also in back of Dear Evan Hansen’s stage production. The song is one of the film’s standout and most emotionally affecting numbers — which isn't surprising, considering the source.

Stenberg’s star was already rising with her efficiency as Rue in The Hunger Games once, at just 17, she was named one of Time’s most influential teens right after her video about cultural appropriation, “Don’t Money Crop My Cornrows,” went viral on Tumblr. “I don’t know if I ever set out attempt to be a role model or an activist,” Stenberg, who is nonbinary, recently told Cultured. “Am I going attempt to use the power of storytelling to direct attention towards things that matter to me? Yes, that is what makes my career feel worthwhile.” Right now 22, Stenberg keeps it up and continues to create a meaningful impact through her acting work, often highlighting feminism, equity, and anti-racism — like in The Hate U Give, a film about a Black teenager who witnesses a policeman murder her childhood friend. Stenberg is also a musician, contributing to the soundtracks of The Hate U Give and Everything, Everything, in which she also stars, and steadily amassing a solo discography. Hers is one of the most mindful and compelling voices of Gen Z.

Pasek and Paul envisioned Stenberg as Alana from the jump and asked her to develop the character’s song with them. Stenberg was speechless, and humbled, at the request. “To be brought into the process as a collaborator and not just an actor, it's an insane privilege,” she says. Stenberg was in Copenhagen at the time (half Danish, she was getting her citizenship to “flee the nation any time While I need to,” she quips with a grin) and thus early songwriting meetings were done virtually. “It’d just be being 2 a.M.,” Stenberg says, “and we would just get delirious and thus foolish and break into, like, ‘Kiss from a Rose’ by Seal for 20 minutes and then be like, ‘OK, wait, we're doing something, we're writing a song for a musical!’”

Erika Doss/Universal Pictures
While Stenberg resonated with Alana’s journey of overcompensating to mask depression and anxiety, writing “The Anonymous Ones” allowed the actor to dig deeper and think more critically about her. “Something that I like to do with my characters is make a bible for them, so I can understand who they are,” Stenberg continues. She ruminated on moments once the character’s outward facade briefly slips to reveal what’s underneath: like any time Alana takes the podium in the health club and, lifting her eyes from the floor, throws on a big smile to shout, “Go Bobcats!” Stenberg couldn’t stop thinking about how she felt in high school. “I felt like there were a lot of kids I went to school with who, if I had mentioned something about that moment, the crack in the mask for a second — or if they had mentioned something to me — maybe we may have avoided a lot of feelings of isolation and loneliness.”

That’s how the song’s first verse materialized. “I really love the way it unfolded, because we were able to capture the thing we were talking about in all of our meetings with each other, which is the fact that we're all going through it,” she notes. “Capitalism will have you out here hiding those feelings, not normalizing having conversations about mental health, not normalizing being a human. And thus it's crucial that we let ourselves to be weak, that we are real about what we're dealing with, that we make space for each other, and that we truly allocate care towards the people that are hurting.”

That relatability is one reason why “The Anonymous Ones” transcends the content of the musical. Dear Evan Hansen, obviously, is filled with songs that have legs, and its soundtrack is dotted with covers by artists like Finneas, Sam Smith with Summer Walker, and Carrie Underwood with Dan + Shay. They were invited, Stenberg explains, to watch the film and visualize which tracks they responded to most. SZA came with her family member and regarding “The Anonymous Ones” — so much so she recorded a demo within a number of days. SZA’s version is sparkling and stripped back, turning out an ethereal, emotional slow jam. “It is absolutely stunning and totally different and new, although also really respectful to the original melody and lyrics of the song,” Stenberg beams, breaking into a joyful smile. “I think it's probably the coolest thing that's ever happened to me.”

Sternberg hopes “The Anonymous Ones” reminds people they’re not alone. That the song will support quiet that inner voice insisting otherwise. That it emphasizes how these tough feelings are usual, that so several others experience them, and that it’s OK to talk about it. “I’m dealing with those feelings on a daily basis,” Stenberg continues. “There's not a solitary day that goes by that I'm not like, OK, how's my anxiety and depression going to mention hi today? And then as soon as it does and I’m like, all right, that's data. Yet having conversations with my companions, my loved ones, people around me, and my therapist about what I'm feeling makes it feel so far less heavy or scary. I hope that this can be sort of a beginning point in that conversation, for those who haven't had the ability to have it however or are struggling to have it.”

You never know what someone is going through. The older Stenberg gets and the more life she experiences, the more she realizes there’s not a sole person that’s not struggling one way or another — and surviving through it all. “That's why I love filmmaking, too,” Stenberg adds. “We get to talk about the parts that are heavy and hopefully experience some catharsis together.”

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