‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Screenwriter Steven Levenson Creates Drama in Los Angeles

Steven Levenson’s daughters love to touch his Tony Award medallion to watch him 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 the biggest names in theater and film is beyond his dreams. of childhood.

“Oh my God,” he says, thinking back to his youth: “I don’t think he could have really imagined all this. »

The Tony is for “Dear Evan Hansen,” created with songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Along with “Hamilton’s” writer 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 is filming a music series for Hulu with “Frozen” songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

Recently, he found himself in conference with Jason Alexander. The “Seinfeld” star is also a frequent theater manager, directing Levenson’s “If I Forget” for the Fountain Theater in East Hollywood. Performances begin Wednesday while “Dear Evan Hansen” coincidentally makes its second visit to Los Angeles, playing at the Ahmanson Theater through the end of the month.

Well-received on its off-Broadway debut in 2017, “If I Forget” unfolds in a series of crackling conversations as three siblings reunite in 2000 and early 2001 at their childhood home in Washington, D.C. , to assess the needs of their declining, recently widowed father and the fate of a family business. Long-simmering resentments and conflicting internalizations of their Jewish heritage quickly shatter a fragile detente.

Although their interaction was brief and long-distance, Alexander says he quickly felt a creative connection with Levenson as they discussed the play and Alexander’s ideas for directing it. In Levenson’s writing, “what immediately jumps out at me”, says Alexander, “is how deeply strong he is at understanding characters”. And “the language is beautiful.”

‘If I Forget’ at the Fountain Theater with Valerie Perri, left, Leo Marks and Samantha Klein.

(Jenny Graham)

During a videoconference from his apartment in Brooklyn, NY, Levenson acknowledges how “crazy” he is that Alexander is directing his play. With black hair falling over his forehead, he smiled at his good fortune.

With “Si j’oublie”, “I wanted to write a great family piece, like the [ones] that I loved,” he says, citing 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 on display in front of your family in a way no one else can bring out. You can’t hide from them.

Levenson borrowed some of the details from his own life. He grew up near DC in Bethesda, Maryland 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 essential part of my identity,” he says, but he felt “a lot of ambivalence and a lot of uncertainty” about it. Something about American Jewry “had become somewhat impoverished” and was “beginning to unravel.” He found himself grappling with notions such as: Are belief and ritual still of paramount importance? Is it social justice? Addressing the Trauma of the Holocaust? Or has identity become more political?

“I’m always interested in ambivalence,” says Levenson. “When I’m not sure how I feel about something, I know that means it’s ripe for exploration.”

Family tensions in “If I Forget” are heightened by the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords and the start of the Second Intifada, as well as the contentious presidential election of 2000.

In the midst of it all, Levenson tries to pull his characters out of their day-to-day self-interest long enough to ponder questions like: what do we owe each other? What do we owe to the past?

An actor throughout his childhood and teenage years, Levenson transitioned into writing during his junior and senior years at Brown University. “It felt like an extension of acting to me,” he says, “but more fun, because there are no limits. As with acting, you give voice to the characters and live people.

At Brown, Levenson spent a semester studying with Paula Vogel, the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for her play “How I Learned to Drive” and legendary mentor for young writers. She taught him the “plasticity” of language or, as he puts it, the idea that “language can do anything and create anything”.

A summer internship at New York’s New Dramatists gave her the opportunity to learn on the job, as did a two-year stint in the literary department of Playwrights Horizons shortly after college. The 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 play focuses on an isolated boy and distracted mother, only in this case the source of household disruption is an absent father in early 2000s Iraq.

Levenson added television to his resume in 2011 with writing work 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 eye of up-and-coming 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 Best Musical, and has been on Broadway since late 2016, with a 21-month COVID hiatus. It is scheduled to close on September 18.

Three men pose at the opening of "Dear Evan Hansen."

“Dear Evan Hansen” writer Steven Levenson, left, and songwriter-lyricists Benj Pasek, center, and Justin Paul at the musical’s Toronto opening in March 2019.

(Tom Sandler)

Fans of the show can easily quote the final affirmation Levenson wrote for the main character as he tries to put aside his insecurities and the harmful behavior they’ve stirred up in him: “Dear Evan Hansen. Today Today is going to be a good day and here’s why. Because today, no matter what else, today at least… you are 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” about what motivates people. “You don’t think, ‘That’s a great Levenson line’ as much as you really believe the words come from the mind and mouth of this character…you get lost in his stories.”

Some fans go so far as to tattoo themselves with the aphorisms of the series. “It’s wild and also incredibly humiliating,” says Levenson. “I’m proud that we were able to do this musical about a really complicated character doing really complicated things.”

Steven Levenson in a tuxedo, holding his Tony Award.

Steven Levenson at the Tony Awards party, June 11, 2017. Writing is like acting, he says, in that “you give voice to characters and inhabit people”, but writing is better because “there are no limits”.

(Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Working on “Tick, Tick… Boom!” — which premiered last November and earned Andrew Garfield an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of “Rent” creator Larson — has come full circle for Levenson in a number of ways.

“I saw ‘Rent’, I think I was 12, and it was a watershed moment,” Levenson says. While in college, he starred in a production of Larson’s earlier musical “Tick, Tick…Boom!” He was therefore particularly familiar with the material when the opportunity to adapt it to the screen presented itself.

“Jon [Larson’s] The version was pretty skeletal in terms of who the narrator was — like, he was kind of this regular composer,” Levenson says.

He and Miranda, who directed and produced, shaped the story into a biography of Larson. “Lin and I met a lot of Jon’s friends and family and kept adding things that had actually happened and characteristics of him that were real.”

Now, Levenson is in the midst of producing “Up Here,” an eight-episode series that will premiere on Hulu in 2023. She’s developing an idea that husband and wife Lopez and Anderson-Lopez have been developing for years – he appeared on stage at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015 – about two people in love who keep tripping over the clutter of luggage in their minds.

He’s come a long way, but it’s not that 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 to do the same thing as when I was 13, 14, 15 years old. I was at the theater, late at night, trying to put on a play.

Steven Levenson shows in Los Angeles

“If I Forget”

Where: Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Ave, East Hollywood

When: Previews at 8 p.m. from July 20 to 22. Then 8 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, 2 p.m. on Sundays. (A few exceptions.) Ends September 10.

Tickets: $25-$45

Information: (323) 663-1525, fontainetheatre.com

“Dear Evan Hansen”

Where: Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown LA

Tickets: $40-$175

When: 8 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Sunday. Ends July 31.

Information: (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org

COVID-19 Protocol: At both sites, proof of vaccination and photo ID are required, as are indoor masks.