To say Steven Levenson is on a roll these days is an understatement. The Bethesda native, 31, writes for Showtime’s Masters of Sex, and this week is back at his old stomping grounds at Arena Stage for the world premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen, which runs through Aug. 23. Four years in the making, it features lyrics and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and Levenson’s original script.
Raised in Bethesda, Levenson was introduced to theater by his culture-loving parents. After graduating from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (“perfect for a nice Jewish boy,” he says, laughing), Levenson attended Brown University where he concentrated in theater and English, hoping to become an actor. But by his junior year, playwriting took hold. A few years later, the piece he began in college, Seven Minutes in Heaven, received a full production. Soon he was supporting himself in New York on playwriting commissions, supplementing his income working in the office of an SAT prep service.
These days, Levenson writes in Los Angeles, where a burgeoning number of playwrights are working in television. Levenson spoke to us last week from L.A. about his Bethesda roots and about writing for stage and small screen.
How did you get interested in theater?
It was in sixth grade at St. Andrew’s. I was in Bye Bye Birdie — the Ed Sullivan role. That was my first feeling of the itch for being involved in theater. As a kid I grew up going to Studio Theatre, Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth later on, and the Kennedy Center. I grew up in a house that very much loved theater and was very involved. We watched all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, but it never really clicked until I started acting myself in school. I did a summer theater program at the JCC called STAY — Summer Theater Arts for Youth.
When did you start writing?
In my junior year of college, I really got into writing seriously and, by the time I left college, I had decided I wanted to write plays. I was 24 or 25 when my first play was produced, far too young to really understand how rare that was. It was a really terrific experience. It was a play I started my senior year of college.
Your plays — Seven Minutes in Heaven, The Language of Trees, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin and this latest, Dear Evan Hansen — are foremost family plays. Was that your intention?
It’s funny. I never really set out to write those plays with a family in mind. But it does seem that a lot of my work tends to move in that direction. I do find the dynamics in the family to be fascinating and endlessly variable. Family is, obviously, among the most universal experiences. We all come from some kind of family, for better or worse, healthy or not. Family has always been very important to me and has always been something that is such a rich part of our experience. I guess people living together is always a fraught enterprise, filled with so much beauty, so much joy and so much sorrow.
What’s Dear Evan Hansen about?
It’s about a boy who is a senior in high school and is missing a lot in his life. He feels that ache and that yearning for something more. He wants to feel that sense of belonging, a sense of the perfect family that would be there for him, no matter what. His mother is in many ways like a lot of parents today, harried. She has too much going on and tries to do everything right, but is just constantly making the wrong decisions for all the right reasons.
Is there a perfect family?
The perfect family — that there could be a family that would not have any problems — is a fantasy. Part of what a family is about is the failure, the hurting of one another.
Did you become a television writer for the money or is the work interesting and fulfilling?
The work happens to be incredibly interesting, so the money is really a happy coincidence in many ways. Television is really in a terrific moment creatively today. The kinds of stories you can tell and the range of characters you can create are just so wonderful right now. It’s also exciting to write in a different medium and to flex a different set of muscles.
So, TV or stage, what’s your preference?
Theater will always be my first love. In theater, I love being able to collaborate so directly and so intimately with the actors and directors. TV just moves at a faster pace. It just doesn’t allow for the kind of close work that you can do as a writer in theater. I’m enjoying being able to do both, and I feel like I’m honing different skills in moving back and forth between the two. n