With handfuls of Tony Award nominations for a Broadway musical as well as recognition for an off-Broadway play, Steven Levenson’s work is summiting after a long climb. For Levenson, the staging of “Dear Evan Hansen” and “If I Forget” at two New York theaters is a unprecedented convergence years in the making.
“It feels like a really incredibly exciting moment, very unexpected,” Levenson told The Times of Israel. He spoke from his Brooklyn home shortly after a “Dear Evan Hansen” TV appearance on ABC’s “The Today Show.”
“I’ve been working on the play five or six years and the musical six or seven years,” he says. “The fact they are both happening now in New York is a very incredible confluence. My Jewish mother is very excited.”
Levenson’s heart-wrenching Broadway smash, “Dear Evan Hansen,” received a whopping nine Tony Award nominations on Tuesday including “Best Musical.” Levenson is also up for penning “Best Book.” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are contenders for “Best Original Score” and lead Ben Platt — and Rachel Bay Jones, who plays his mother — are candidates for Best Actor and Best Featured Actress, respectively, in a Musical. “Dear Evan Hansen,” which incorporates social media elements, is also up for Best Lighting Design and Best Direction. The 71st Tony Awards will be granted June 11 in a ceremony at Radio City Music Hall emceed by Kevin Spacey.
The breakout Jewish start of “Dear Evan Hansen” is 23-year-old Platt, who played supporting character Benji Applebaum in the “Pitch Perfect” film franchise. On Broadway, he portrays an awkward teenager struggling with adolescent issues. Amidst the Tony buzz, Platt is also nominated for a 2017 Drama League Award for distinguished performance and Time magazine recently named him among the top 100 influential people as “Broadway’s Boy Wonder.” Tickets for “Dear Evan Hansen,” a New York Times Critics Pick, are currently on sale through March 2018.
Levenson’s play, “If I Forget”, is a predictably humorous production starring Kate Walsh (“Private Practice”) about a Jewish family struggling in the months approaching 9/11. When liberal Jewish studies professor Michael Fischer reunites with his two sisters to celebrate their father’s 75th birthday, the siblings clash. Their concerns extend from Fischer’s controversial scholarly work to escalating pressures of caring for their ailing parent.
With an off-screen character experiencing Jerusalem Syndrome, the play describes itself as revealing “destructive secrets and long-held resentments.” The show recently wrapped a limited engagement at the Roundabout Theatre Company — but not before receiving a nomination for a 2017 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
“It’s just been an incredible year — everything lined up in a way that was not planned,” Levenson says.
Levenson grew up in Bethseda, Maryland, where his family operated a nearby store that morphed into a fixture in “If I Forget.” Levenson, who turns 33 in May, wrote his first script at 20 while studying at Brown University. In his senior year, he began a play that was produced years later entitled, “The Language of Trees.” Levenson shared more about the behind-the-scenes creation of his shows and life as a playwright in an extensive Times of Israel interview.
How do you birth two shows at once?
With “Dear Evan Hansen,” we have been working on it for such a long time. We did a production in Washington, DC, and off-Broadway. And we had a tremendous amount of time and space to refine what we were doing and get to work with the actors, and continually evolve the piece, and make it stronger and sharper, hopefully. That was a real joy to work with the same people every time. Each time we finished one production and started the next one, we weren’t starting from scratch — we were starting from a shared experience and shared vocabulary.
“If I Forget” was really great. The first week or longer of rehearsal, we just spent sitting around a table discussing the play line by line. I’d never done that. That is a testament to our director Dan Sullivan’s thoroughness. That’s just the way he works. We had cast the same actors that we had beginning the process. And it was an opportunity for us to really explore the play on a line-by-line basis: the psychology, why motivations of characters shift, and what was behind fine tuning certain character changes…
What do you love about both productions, “Dear Evan Hansen” and “If I Forget”?
It’s an incredibly special and exciting experience. What is so wonderful is the collaboration with other artists. With the musical, it was a deeper collaboration in that Ben and Justin, the composers — we wrote it together. We were in the trenches together for a long time.
In both shows, the experience of working with two very different, equally talented casts and director and designers has been a real treat. It’s forging those relationships and discovering the play or the musical together is what makes theater so inspiring.
In what ways do parts of you end up in the shows?
I always find pieces of myself that find their way into things unwittingly, little fragments of stories that are mine or fragments of my personality.
“If I Forget” has more openly autobiographical elements than any other thing I’ve written really. I’ve really stayed away from that.
Why the shift?
I’ve never been that interested in myself. That’s why I write fiction. I’m always more interested in other people’s stories and other people’s lives. Part of the joy of being a playwright is imagining yourself into other people’s lives.
“If I Forget” has autobiographical elements. It was really the first play where I really was grappling with the legacy of Jews in the 20th century, essentially my heritage and my lineage, I suppose. Before that, I really haven’t delved into that part of me.
What elements are autobiographical in “If I Forget”?
[Heavy sigh.] I guess a lot of the stuff: my family, like the family… It’s not quite, it’s certainly not 100 percent or anywhere close, my family. The family in the play owned a store in Washington, DC. Unlike the store in the play, our store was burned down in 1968 in the DC [race] riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I think they happened all over the country but DC was particularly in the middle of that.
What kind of store was it?
It was a men’s clothing store — in the play as well. It was Brown’s Corner.
In the play it was Haberman’s Corner. What ends up happening is that store that was once a bustling men’s clothing store in Washington, DC, has become, in subsequent years… the family now rents it to a Hispanic family and it’s a bargain store. It’s changed a lot by the time we come in touch with it.
Could you describe the Jewish family?
The family is pretty fractured in many ways, but certainly religious. There is sort of a hodgepodge. There are three siblings. The youngest sister has become very observant as a new thing. Her brother, Michael, who is the central character in the play, is deeply irreligious, but he is also a Jewish studies professor. He is a bit of a contradiction. He knows the most but is not a believer of the things he thinks about the most and talks about the most. His life revolves around that, but he thinks of himself militantly secular.
The third sibling is the oldest and she really has no relationship to her religion. But it’s not in a negative way. In fact, at one point she is accused of going to synagogue only twice a year and she fires back that she also went for Sukkot. She does the stuff. She goes to temple for the High Holy Days and for Sukkot, apparently, but it means very little to her.
Could you tell us more about the Israel-based family member of the play whom audiences never meet?
She has gone on Birthright with a history of psychological issues, an eating disorder. The play is never really explicit about what she is struggling with, bi-polar… She goes to Israel and experiences an episode of psychosis and suffers Jerusalem Syndrome. It was just a very interesting peculiar disorder I found in researching the play.
What about it captivates you?
It is sort of a natural metaphor for me. There seems to be something about Israel that Jews find impossible to divest themselves of. That’s one of the questions the play asks… Partly the store, which ultimately the siblings have to do decide what to do with it. Is there such a thing as a magical place? Places that have history, do they have a certain power over us? And Michael is resolutely against this idea. And Abbey’s experiences complicate that. That’s Michael’s daughter. We hear about her trip… There is something profound and not entirely logically-bound about this land and its place and its pull through time.
Have you ever been to Israel?
No. I have spent no time in Israel.
How do you identify Jewishly?
It’s very much part of who I am and influenced the way I think about the world tremendously. I grew up as a Reform Jew and my family dabbled a bit in Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism. At this point in my life, I guess I would say I am not practicing but still trying to be engaged with the ideas, the issues and the questions of Jewish life. It’s in my DNA both literally and metaphorically. It’s just part of who I am.
What else is a critical part of your identity?
I’m a father. My wife and I had our first and only child at this point a year and a half ago. That has really impacted the way that I think about the world and the kinds of stories that I’m telling.
My wife, Whitney May, is not involved in theater. She’s worked in art history and design history. She used to work at MOMA. Now she is a full-time mom with our toddler, Astrid.
Is Judaism a part of your home life?
Whitney is not Jewish. She is not a religious person really at all. We haven’t quite decided fully on how we are going to raise our daughter.
Is this family dynamic of “If I Forget” paralleled in your family? In what ways do you identify with its characters?
I am one of three. Although I have a brother and a sister, it’s two boys and a girl so that part of it is not one to one.
I identify with all of the characters at different points in the play and to different extents and although a lot of the play is about ideas, I was very careful in writing it because I don’t know all the time how I feel about things. I’m careful to never tip my hand and let the audience know what the playwright thinks. I tried to play around with how the audience identifies with characters. If I’ve done my part correctly, there are points where you think you identify with the character and then the rug gets pulled out from under you. There is no center to the play. That is what I’m trying to do. There is no surrogate for me.
How do you innovate that concept in the play?
All works of fiction will often have a writer surrogate or an audience surrogate, the one you are supposed to identify with. Sometimes it’s the same thing. And I try in this play to subvert that.
Partly for me, the reason I don’t write essays, the reason I prefer writing fiction and particularly, drama, where you can inhabit so many different voices, is I don’t always know where I stand on things. Like many people, I can see the shades of gray. Part of what I found exciting about this play was trying to allow the audience to see these very complicated issues from other points of view and not allow them or myself to blindly identity with what I’m supposed to identify with. The writing forced me to interrogate what I really believe and see if what I believe is as stable as what I would like to imagine that it is. These are hard issues of Jewish identity. Politics and family and heritage are thorny and complicated and I want the play to reflect that, not just in terms of what it says, but the experience the audience has with it.
The other part of that is that the play is ultimately pretty funny. So in all of my work, I’m always not even really trying but I like to find the humor in everything. Perhaps that’s a Jewish thing. There’s a certain kind of fatalistic humor that runs throughout the darker things that I’ve written. In a lot of ways, this play is a comedy. It’s funny. But yes, it’s bitterly funny at times.