Broadway Spotlight: Interview with Steven Levenson

Tony-Winning “Dear Evan Hansen” Scribe

The Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen scribe Steven Levenson is having a golden year, with his first musical snagging six Tonys out of nine total nominations and another play, If I Forget, being staged simultaneously. The 33-year-old playwright grew up in Bethesda, MD and world-premiered Dear Evan Hansen in 2015 at the nearby Arena Stage in Washington, DC, went to a number of local theaters growing up planning to pursue acting, and by college was drawn to writing.

Levenson now has credits as diverse as ever, having written and produced for Showtimes’s Masters of Sex and written for Fox’s Wayward Pines, not to mention his other plays Seven Minutes in Heaven, The Language of Trees, Core Values, and The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. A Brown University alumnus, Levenson started working on the new musical Dear Evan Hansen starring Ben Platt back in 2011, working alongside La La Land composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Next up, Levenson is writing an adaptation to Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig’s musical based on the Steve Young and Sport Murphy book Everything Is Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. But for now, Steven continues to bask in the spotlight while working hard on various projects now that he signed a two-year overall deal with 20th Century Fox Television developing content for cable, streaming, and broadcast. Levenson spoke with New York City Monthly about the pleasure it is writing for a musical, mentioned his other favorite shows right now on Broadway, and discussed how Dear Evan Hansen, a show about high school tragedy, was a long-time coming…

Congratulations on an incredible Tony this year. What was it like that night after winning and the week after? Did you hear from anyone you haven’t heard from in a while?

The night itself was just incredible and very overwhelming. It was a really, really exciting night for all of us. Benj [Pasek], Justin [Paul], and I have been working on this show since 2011, to have it all culminating into this – getting to share this with so many people who were instrumental in making the journey happen. The cast, the producers, it just felt like a real family a air; it was just really, really special.

I remember I was backstage when I won my award to do press, and Ben and Justin had just won for Best Score and they were back there getting their pictures taken, so seeing me back there was the first time they realized that. So we had this amazing moment back there; for a moment they were like, “what are you doing back here?” That was definitely one of the highlights of the night.

I’ve heard from so many people that I did theater with as a kid, like from the JCC theater camp that I did as a pre-teen. People like posting pictures on Facebook of me doing a production of Pippin, Tommy, and that’s really surreal. I’ve heard from a lot of family members and friends. It’s been a great excuse to hear from people.

You have already written the scripts for two shows on stage in NYC this year, the Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, for which you won a Tony yourself and the dramedy If I Forget. What do you find the biggest different between writing for a musical and writing the book for a drama or comedy?

You know the thing about writing a book for a musical, your job, if you do it right, is to be in service of the score. Like, if you’ve done your job right, the music is the star. So it’s a little bit of a disappearing act in some ways.

In  a play, it’s all about the words and it’s all about the writing. You have so much more freedom and so much more space and time, and in a musical you’re very aware of the clock. Your job is to keep pushing things forward and to be as economical as possible, which is not to say it’s not rewarding; it’s really incredibly exciting and challenging to try to figure out always how to get as much information and characters and stories as possible, and I actually enjoy the puzzle of that. With a musical, the moments you do have are important because there are much fewer that you have to squeeze in. Whereas with a play you figure out how to stay disciplined in that and not just be indulgent, and make sure the acting is moving forward.

What’s the first show you ever saw that made you want to pursue writing?

The first show I ever saw that made me want to pursue writing was at William Town Theater Fest where I was an apprentice, the summer before my junior year of college, and I was a performer up to that point. It’s called Eurydice, by Sarah Ruhl. It was done by this non- equity group that a lot of people there are now big: Steve Kazee, who was in Once on Broadway. It just really blew my mind and it made me think I really want to do that.

You have also worked on the Showtime series Master of Sex. Is there a particular writing process you enjoy the most: theater or TV?

They all have different challenges and different rewards. The thing that I love about theater, the reason I think I keep coming back, is that the process is so collaborative from the beginning. In TV, the interaction that you get to have with the actors, it’s sort of limited, you just don’t have the time. Once in production you’re usually running behind anyway.

You basically need the actors on set once the episode is already written and you’re ready to just shoot the scene. The thing that’s great about writing for TV is that you get to work with other writers, so unlike theater where you’re by yourself, you’re in the writer’s room–there is camaraderie.

With theater, you are building this thing together with the director and the actors, and there is not a separation between the creators, and there’s something incredibly rewarding about that that I nd hard to let go of. I think that’s why so many actors, and writers and directors return to theater.

What’s a show besides your own that really impressed you on or off Broadway this year?

I loved two plays that are both sadly about to close, Indecent and Sweat. Those plays were each, in different ways, so timely and urgent and both funny and sad and beautiful and so brilliantly realized. Those were two that stuck with me.

What is at the heart of Dear Evan Hansen that you are most proud of being a part of this new phenomenon?

I think [what] I’m most proud of as a writer is the fact that Benj and Justin and I had this idea together and that
we got it to this point. It just feels incredible. And it’s been so improbable. I’m most proud of that people that I don’t know are seeing the show and having a really emotional response to it, and they see themselves and their stories and their struggles. As a writer, that’s really why you do it in the first place – to feel like, as someone that sees theater and sees movies and reads books, it’s great, you don’t feel alone. It’s an incredible humbling and powerful experience.