Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen has an A-team of creators: composers and lyric writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote the Academy Award-winning song “City of Stars” for La La Land; Alex Lacamoire was music director and conductor for Hamilton; and director Michael Greif has numerous Broadway credits including Rent, Grey Gardens and next to normal.
Steven Levenson, the Tony Award-winning bookwriter, crafted the show’s spoken words. And although he’s the least known, he has an impressive string of accomplishments for TV and theater — he wrote scripts for Showtime’s Masters of Sex and he’s on the team behind the new Fosse/Verdon series for FX; he’s written award-winning off-Broadway plays; and he’s working with Lin-Manuel Miranda on a screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM!. We recently had a conversation about Dear Evan Hansen, which marked Levenson’s first experience with a musical team.
The show’s idea came from an incident at composer Pasek’s high school, where a tragic teen suicide had some people exaggerating their connections to the victim. Pasek and Paul thought that might be the core of a powerful tale, but they needed a bookwriter who could turn it into a bonafide story. Producer Stacey Mindich, who landed a commission for the show, helped them consider several playwrights. They responded particularly to Levenson’s voice as a writer.
“I was so inexperienced that I didn’t know I was inexperienced,” says Levenson, who was living in Los Angeles and busy writing Masters of Sex at the time. “So I jumped in without really knowing how hard it would be. We all kind of learned together.”
For Dear Evan Hansen, he returned to L.A. and wrote the story of a teenager who invents a role for himself in a tragedy that he did not earn — and then sees it take off virally on social media.
As Levenson, Pasek and Paul spent time building the story and wrapping their heads around the characters, Levenson says they were able to “speak in one language and merge (their) sensibilities.”
They were surprised by Dear Evan Hansen’s success, having imagined it as a small-scale chamber piece. “We never conceived the show as a commercially exciting idea that would go to Broadway,” Levenson says.
But during its tryout in Washington, D.C., Levenson saw kids lining up for tickets: The show’s buzz, not unlike Evan’s unintended consequence, took off on social media. Teenagers, they realized, were having a very personal experience with the show. In December 2016, it opened on Broadway and won six 2017 Tony Awards. It’s still onstage at the Music Box Theatre, on the brink of 1,000 performances.
What’s Dear Evan Hansen’s appeal? Levenson says, “For me, it’s about a group of people, including Evan, who feel incredibly alone and isolated. Only through this sequence of events do they find one another. We’re all so interconnected, and yet we feel so alone. That’s the heart of the show. Evan is eager to find a family. He’s not a hero, and he finds himself in a situation of his own doing, but it quickly goes beyond his control. We don’t want to emulate him, but we can relate to the situation.”
Dear Evan Hansen’s success still seems startling to Levenson, including the best-selling novelization by writer and singer-songwriter Val Emmich published last fall. A movie could be in the works; Levenson would write the screenplay, which fits right into his multi-faceted career. Despite all the opportunities, theater remains his first love.
“There’s nothing quite like it,” he says, “It’s so immediate. No other form of collaboration is quite so intense.”
Levenson has high praise for the tour stopping at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center. Actors come and go from the Broadway production, but the touring cast started from scratch like an original production, which Levenson says lends this company a “palpable sense of togetherness.” Ben Levi Ross plays Evan; on Broadway, he was the understudy for several roles, including the lead.
“He is so well prepared, it’s amazing,” Levenson says.
Levenson told another interviewer he likes new challenges. He certainly rose to one with Dear Evan Hansen.
Dear Evan Hansen, as presented by Broadway in Cincinnati runs through May 12 at the Aronoff Center. More info/tickets: cincinnatiarts.org.