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Steven Levenson's unlikely journey to Dear Evan Hansen
In 2011 Benj Pasek and Justin Paul pored through stacks of plays in search of a kindred spirit. The composer/lyricists had a seedling idea for a new musical, and when they chanced upon Steven Levenson's writing, instinct told them he might be the ideal book writer for a project that would become Dear Evan Hansen.
The hunch proved correct, despite the fact that the playwright had never worked on a musical before. "I think they recognized a shared sensibility," Levenson says. "None of us is afraid of sincerity or sentiment—which is, of course, very different from sentimentality, to which I would say all three of us are allergic."
Levenson's plays include Core Values, The Language of Trees and The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin , which received an Outer Critics Circle Award. When Pasek and Paul reached out, he was also immersed in television, writing for Showtime's Masters of Sex.
He quickly realized that compared to television, a musical provides an almost overwhelming abundance of time and creative options.
"In TV, the process is condensed," Levenson says. "The episode must be shot at a certain point. There is a hierarchy and a writer/producer who says 'yes' or 'no.' Without that, everybody would go insane. But what's interesting with musicals is that that process never really ends. The buck doesn't stop anywhere. That can be maddening, but it's also thrilling. It means that you're constantly refining. Working with Benj and Justin, no one of us had final veto power, so that forces your ideas to be better: if you have to argue and fight for your ideas, they will get better in the process. It's a careful balance of figuring when to stick to your guns and when to listen to other people."
Directed by Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen premiered last year at Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage and is currently in a limited run at Second Stage Theatre.
The musical's titular central character, played by Ben Platt, is a socially awkward high school student. When a fellow student commits suicide, his family is mistakenly led to believe that Evan was a close friend. In order to soothe their grieving, Evan tells them white lies, but this leads to further falsehoods that eventually spin out of control on social media. As the ruse escalates, he risks hurting all those around him.
For Levenson, the challenge was humanizing someone whose behavior could potentially alienate an audience. "The question of—and this is a simplistic way of saying it—'likeability'—was an issue from the very first time we landed upon this character," he explains. "We played a lot with the balance of how much things are thrust upon him versus how much he is making choices.
"We discovered that the audience goes along with him when we see him making active choices for the right reasons. And I do believe this about the character: he is not cynical or manipulative. He wants to relieve the suffering of the family. And yes, in the process he does relieve some suffering of his own, but it's always about helping other people. It's really about Evan becoming the person that he's meant to be."
Levenson now heartily welcomes future musical theatre endeavors. "Perhaps Dear Evan Hansen could have existed as a play in the sense that the story has the kind of human scale that a play can live at," he says. "But working with music takes it to a bigger, emotionally resonant place that I'm very excited about."
Jeff Potter is an arts journalist and musician living in Washington Heights.
Photos by Matthew Murphy. Top photo: Ben Platt as Evan Hansen.
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