The writer of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and ‘Tick, Tick ... Boom!’ is living the dream
Steven Levenson’s daughters love to flick the medallion of his Tony Award to watch it spin in its frame.
He was raised on visits to “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Starlight Express” and “Rent,” but at 38, his life as a writer working with some of theater and film’s biggest names is beyond any of his boyhood dreams.
“Oh, my goodness,” he says, thinking back to his younger self: “I don’t think he could have really imagined any of that.”
The Tony is for “Dear Evan Hansen,” created with songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. With “Hamilton’s” author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and its director, Thomas Kail, he delivered the FX limited series “Fosse/Verdon,” about Broadway greats Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. He worked again with Miranda on the Netflix musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” about “Rent’s” Jonathan Larson, and with Kail he’s in the midst of shooting a musical series for Hulu with “Frozen” songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
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Recently, he found himself conferencing with Jason Alexander. The “Seinfeld” star is also a frequent theater director who is staging Levenson’s “If I Forget” for the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood. Performances begin Wednesday while “Dear Evan Hansen,” serendipitously, is making its second visit to L.A., playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through the end of the month.
Well received in its 2017 off-Broadway debut, “If I Forget” unfolds in a series of crackling conversations as three siblings gather in 2000 and early ’01 at their childhood home in Washington, D.C., to assess the needs of their declining, recently widowed father and the fate of a family retail property. Long-simmering resentments and clashing internalizations of their Jewish heritage quickly smash a fragile détente.
Although their interaction has been brief and long-distance, Alexander says he quickly felt a creative connection with Levenson as they discussed the play and Alexander’s ideas for staging it. In Levenson’s writing, “what jumps out at me immediately,” Alexander says, “is how profoundly strong he is at understanding characters.” And “the language is gorgeous.”
During a videoconference from his apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., Levenson acknowledges how “crazy” it is that Alexander is directing his play. With dark hair swooping boyishly across his forehead, he grins at his good fortune.
With “If I Forget,” “I wanted to write a big, family play, like the [ones] that I loved,” he says, offering Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” as examples.
A family is inherently dramatic, he explains. “Your true self is exposed in front of your family in a way that nobody else can bring out. You can’t hide from them.”
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Levenson borrowed some of the particulars from his own life. He grew up near D.C. in Bethesda, Md., as one of three siblings, and, like the family in the play, one of his grandparents owned a men’s clothing store.
At the heart of the story, he placed something deeply personal. “Being Jewish was this core part of my identity,” he says, yet he felt “a lot of ambivalence and a lot of unsureness” about it. Something about American Judaism “had become somewhat impoverished” and “was beginning to fray.” He found himself wrestling with such notions as: Are belief and ritual still of primary importance? Is social justice? Addressing the trauma of the Holocaust? Or has identity grown more political?
“I’m always interested in ambivalence,” Levenson says. “When I’m not quite sure how I feel about something, I know that that means it’s ripe for exploration.”
The family’s tensions in “If I Forget” are heightened by the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords and the beginning of the Second Intifada, as well as the contentious 2000 presidential election.
Amid it all, Levenson tries to jolt his characters out of their daily self-interest long enough to ponder such questions as: What do we owe each other? What do we owe the past?
In this age of instant communication, he can’t manage to say anything.
An actor throughout his boyhood and teens, Levenson switched to writing in his junior and senior years at Brown University. “It felt to me like an extension of acting,” he says, “but more fun, because there are no limits. As with acting, you’re giving voice to characters and inhabiting people.”
At Brown, Levenson spent a semester studying with Paula Vogel, a 1998 Pulitzer winner for her play “How I Learned to Drive” and a storied mentor to young writers. She taught him the “plasticity” of language, or, as he explains it, the idea that “language can do anything and create anything.”
A summer internship at New York’s New Dramatists enabled him to learn on the job, as did a two-year stint in the literary department at Playwrights Horizons shortly out of college. Roundabout Theater Company’s 2008 production of his play “The Language of Trees” as part of its Underground initiative for emerging writers gave him a high-profile professional debut. Like “Dear Evan Hansen,” the piece focuses on an isolated boy and a distracted mother, only in this case the source of household disruption is a father away in early-2000s Iraq.
Levenson added television to his résumé in 2011 with a job writing for the short-lived NBC drama “The Playboy Club,” then for CBS’ “Vegas” and Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.”
Along the way, he caught the notice of emerging songwriters Pasek and Paul, who were looking for someone to write a story for a musical they had in mind. “Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony Awards, including for best musical, and has been running on Broadway since late 2016, with a 21-month COVID interruption. It is scheduled to close Sept. 18.
Fans of the show can readily quote the closing affirmation that Levenson wrote for the title character as he tries to set aside his insecurities and the harmful behavior they stoked in him: “Dear Evan Hansen. Today is going to be a good day and here’s why. Because today, no matter what else, today at least ... you’re you. No hiding, no lying. Just ... you. And that’s ... that’s enough.”
Pasek and Paul jointly observe via email that Levenson writes with “a deep curiosity” for what makes people tick. “You don’t think, ‘That’s a great Levenson line’ as much as you really believe the words are coming from that character’s mind and mouth ... you get lost in his stories.”
Some fans go so far as to tattoo themselves with the show’s aphorisms. “That’s wild and also incredibly humbling,” Levenson says. “I’m proud that we were able to make this musical about a really complicated character who does really complicated things.”
Working on “Tick, Tick … Boom!” — which premiered last November and earned Andrew Garfield an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of “Rent” creator Larson — brought Levenson full circle in a couple of ways.
“I saw ‘Rent,’ I think I was 12, and that was a watershed moment,” Levenson says. In college, he acted in a production of Larson’s earlier musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!” So he was uniquely familiar with the material when the opportunity to adapt it for the screen came along.
“Jon [Larson’s] version was pretty skeletal in terms of who the narrator was — like, he was sort of this everyman composer,” Levenson says.
He and Miranda, who directed and produced, shaped the story into a Larson biography. “Lin and I met with a lot of Jon’s friends and family and kept adding things that had really happened and characteristics of him that were real.”
Now Levenson is in the midst of production on “Up Here,” an eight-episode series that’ll premiere on Hulu in 2023. It expands on an idea that songwriting husband and wife Lopez and Anderson-Lopez have been developing for years — it showed up onstage at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015 — about two people in love who keep tripping over the clutter of baggage in their minds.
He’s come a long way, yet it’s not so very far from where he started. “I remember being in tech for ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ on Broadway,” he says, “and it was such a dream come true. And yet, at the same time, it struck me that I was doing the same thing I did when I was 13, 14, 15. I was in a theater, late at night, trying to put on a play.”
Steven Levenson shows in L.A.
‘If I Forget’
Where: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., East Hollywood
When: Previews 8 p.m. July 20-22. Then 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, 2 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions.) Ends Sept. 10.
Info: (323) 663-1525, fountaintheatre.com
‘Dear Evan Hansen’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 31.
Info: (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org
COVID-19 protocol: At both venues, proof of vaccination and photo ID are required, as are masks while indoors.
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