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

The actor breaks down her original song 'The Anonymous Ones,' written for the film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical

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 outside, a cheerful overachiever involved in almost every extracurricular club at their high school — confides in Evan that she’s struggling, too. 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, carefully, at first. “Do you ever look at all 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,” begins 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, but 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 trying to comfort the parents of a classmate, Connor Murphy, who committed suicide. Evan’s good intentions, and his desperate yearning for connection, quickly snowball into a complicated web of deceit that draws in all around him. But everyone is experiencing some kind of pain, fighting internal battles of their own, whether they show it or not.

Erika Doss/Universal Pictures

Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Platt and Amandla Stenberg

Like Alana Beck. Portrayed in the film with beautiful nuance by Amandla Stenberg, the character is expanded from the original stage production (now to also include her own original song). Alana doesn’t have many friends, burying herself in activities and the pursuit of good grades. When she hears about Connor’s death, she reaches out to Evan, sensing they might have some common 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 many 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 every single extracurricular activity. I was so hard on myself and I was such a perfectionist. If I received any criticism or got an A-minus on a test or paper, like, it would destroy me.”

“It's taken me a lot of time and a lot of therapy to understand that and recenter my value in myself as just intrinsically existing in me, as opposed to 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, regardless of the perception of other people.”

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

Stenberg’s star was already rising with her performance as Rue in The Hunger Games when, at just 17, she was named one of Time’s most influential teens after her video about cultural appropriation, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” went viral on Tumblr. “I don’t know if I ever set out to try to be a role model or an activist,” Stenberg, who is nonbinary, recently told Cultured. “Am I going to try to use the power of storytelling to direct attention towards things that matter to me? Yes, that is what makes my career feel worthwhile.” Now 22, Stenberg continues to make 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 police officer 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 thoughtful 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 country whenever I need to,” she quips with a grin) and so early songwriting meetings were done virtually. “It’d end up being 2 a.m.,” Stenberg says, “and we would just get delirious and so silly 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

Dear Evan Hansen, Ben Platt and Amandla Stenberg

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 when the character’s outward facade briefly slips to reveal what’s underneath: like when Alana takes the podium in the gymnasium 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 said something about that moment, the crack in the mask for a second — or if they had said something to me — maybe we could 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 together, which is the fact that we're all going through it,” she notes. “Capitalism will have you out here covering up those feelings, not normalizing having conversations about mental health, not normalizing being a human. And so it's important that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, that we are real about what we're dealing with, that we make space for each other, and that we truly offer care towards the people that are hurting.”

That relatability is one reason why “The Anonymous Ones” transcends the context of the musical. Dear Evan Hansen, of course, 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 see which tracks they responded to most. SZA came with her family and connected with “The Anonymous Ones” — so much so she recorded a demo within a couple of days. SZA’s version is sparkling and stripped back, turning out an ethereal, emotional slow jam. “It is absolutely stunning and completely different and new, but 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 can help quiet that inner voice insisting otherwise. That it emphasizes how these difficult feelings are normal, that so many others experience them, and that it’s OK to talk about it. “I’m dealing with those feelings on a day-to-day basis,” Stenberg continues. “There's not a single day that goes by that I'm not like, OK, how's my anxiety and depression going to say hi today? And then when it does and I’m like, all right, that's information. But having conversations with my friends, my loved ones, people around me, and my therapist about what I'm feeling makes it feel so much less heavy or scary. I hope that this can be kind of a starting point in that conversation, for those who haven't had the ability to have it yet 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 single 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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