‘Dear Evan Hansen’ writer Steven Levenson is generating drama in L.A.

Steven Levenson’s daughters love to flick his Tony Award locket to see it spin in its frame.

He grew up attending 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 exceeding all his childhood dreams.

“Oh my god,” he says, thinking back to his younger self: “I don’t think he could really have imagined it.”

The Tony stands for “Dear Evan Hansen”, created with songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. With “Hamilton” writer Lin-Manuel Miranda and its director Thomas Kail, he delivered the limited FX series “Fosse/Verdon” about Broadway greats Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. He worked again with Miranda on the Netflix musical Tick, Tick…Boom!, about Rents Jonathan Larson, and with Kail he is currently directing a musical series for Hulu with Frozen songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson. Lopez.

He recently found himself in a conference with Jason Alexander. The Seinfeld star is also a frequent theater director, directing Levenson’s If I Forget for the Fountain Theater in East Hollywood. Performances begin Wednesday, while “Dear Evan Hansen” is happily making its second visit to LA, playing at the Ahmanson Theater through the end of the month.

Well-received on its 2017 Off-Broadway debut, “If I Forget” unfolds in a series of sizzling conversations as three siblings gather at their childhood home in Washington, DC in 2000 and early 2001 to address the needs of their recently deceased children, widowed father and the fate of a family retail property. Long-simmering resentments and contradictory internalizations of their Jewish heritage quickly shatter a fragile détente.

Though their interaction was short and long, Alexander said he quickly felt a creative connection with Levenson as they discussed the play and Alexander’s ideas for the staging. In Levenson’s writing, “What immediately strikes me,” says Alexander, “is how strong he is at understanding characters.” And “the language is beautiful.”

Three stage characters are talking.

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

(Jenny Graham)

During a video conference call from his Brooklyn, NY apartment, Levenson admits how “crazy” it is that Alexander is directing his play. With dark hair falling boyishly over his forehead, he grins at his good fortune.

With If I Forget, “I wanted to write a big family play like that [ones] 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 will be revealed in front of your family in a way that no one else can. You can’t hide from them.”

Levenson borrowed some details from his own life. He was raised as one of three siblings near DC in Bethesda, Maryland, and like the family in the play, one of his grandparents owned a men’s clothing store.

He placed something deeply personal at the heart of the story. “Being Jewish was this central part of my identity,” he says, but he felt “a lot of ambivalence and a lot of insecurity” about it. Something about American Jewry “was becoming a bit impoverished” and was “starting to fray.” He wrestled with questions like: Are faith and ritual still paramount? Is social justice? Coming to terms with the trauma of the Holocaust? Or has identity become more political?

“I’ve always been interested in ambivalence,” says Levenson. “When I’m not quite sure how something makes me feel, I know it’s ripe for exploration.”

Family tensions in If I Forget are compounded by the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords and the start of the Second Intifada and disputed presidential election in 2000.

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

Levenson was an actor throughout his childhood and adolescence, switching to 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 boundaries. Like acting, you give characters and people a voice.”

At Brown, Levenson spent a semester with Paula Vogel, a 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner for her play How I Learned to Drive and a legendary mentor for 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 with New York’s New Dramatists allowed him to learn on the job, as did a two-year stint in the literature department at Playwright’s Horizons shortly after college. The Roundabout Theater Company’s 2008 production of his play The Language of Trees as part of their underground initiative for emerging writers gave him a high-profile professional debut. Like Dear Evan Hansen, the play focuses on an isolated boy and a distracted mother, except in this case the source of the household disturbance is a father in early 2000s Iraq.

Levenson added television to his resume in 2011, writing for short-lived NBC drama The Playboy Club, then for CBS’ Vegas and Showtime’s Masters of Sex.

Along the way, he caught the attention of aspiring 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, on a 21-month COVID-19 hiatus. It is scheduled to close on September 18th.

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

Dear Evan Hansen writer Steven Levenson (left) and composers and lyricists Benj Pasek (center) and Justin Paul at the musical’s premiere in Toronto in March 2019.

(Tom Sandler)

Fans of the series can readily quote the final endorsement Levenson wrote for the title character as he tries to put aside his insecurities and the harmful behaviors they have fueled 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 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 drives people. “You don’t think, ‘That’s a great Levenson line,’ as much as you actually believe the words are coming out of this character’s head and mouth… you lose yourself in his stories.”

Some fans go so far as to tattoo themselves with the show’s aphorisms. “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 with his Tony Award.

Steven Levenson on Tony Award Night, June 11, 2017. Writing is like acting, he says, in that “you give voice to characters and you inhabit people,” but writing is better because “there are no boundaries.”

(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 – brought Levenson full circle in more ways than one.

“I saw ‘Rent’, I think I was 12, and that was a turning point,” says Levenson. In college, he was in a production of Larson’s earlier musical, Tick, Tick… Boom! As such, when the opportunity arose to adapt it for the screen, he was intimately familiar with the material.

“Jon [Larson’s] Version was pretty skeletal in terms of who the narrator was — like he was some kind of everyman composer,” says Levenson.

He and Miranda, who directed and produced, fashioned the story into a Larson biopic. “Lin and I met with many of Jon’s friends and family and kept adding to things that really happened and qualities of him that were real.”

Now Levenson is in the middle of production on Up Here, an eight-episode series that will premiere on Hulu in 2023. It expands on an idea songwriting couple Lopez and Anderson-Lopez have been developing for years — it surfaced onstage at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2015 — about two lovers who keep tripping over the clutter of luggage in their minds.

He’s come a long way, and yet it’s not that far from where he started. “I remember being in engineering for ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ on Broadway,” he says, “and it was such a dream come true. And yet, at the same time, I realized 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 LA

“If I Forget”

Where: Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Ave, East Hollywood

When: Previews 8 p.m. 20.-22. July. Then Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. (Some exceptions.) Ends September 10th.

Tickets: $25-$45

The information: (323) 663-1525, Fountaintheatre.com

“Dear Evan Hansen”

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

Tickets: $40-$175

When: 8pm Tuesday to Friday, 2pm and 8pm Saturday, 1pm and 6.30pm Sunday. Ends July 31st.

The information: (213) 972-4400, centertheatregroup.org

COVID-19 Protocol: Proof of vaccination and photo ID are required at both venues, as well as masks indoors.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-20/steven-levenson-writer-dear-evan-hansen-tick-tick-boom-if-i-forget ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ writer Steven Levenson is generating drama in L.A.

Sarah Ridley

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