The Secret to Tony Winner and Emmy Nominee Steven Levenson's Success? Agility.

Interview   The Secret to Tony Winner and Emmy Nominee Steven Levenson's Success? Agility.
 
The Dear Evan Hansen and Fosse/Verdon writer reveals the work behind his scripts.
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  Graphics by Hannah Vine

People are beginning to learn the name Steven Levenson.

In the past two-and-a-half years alone, Levenson marked the Broadway bow of his first musical—winning a Tony Award for Best Book for Dear Evan Hansen; premiered his play If I Forget at Roundabout Theatre Company Off-Broadway—which was Drama Desk-nominated and later captured for BroadwayHD; debuted his world premiere Days of Rage Off-Broadway at Second Stage; wrote and executive produced FX’s now 17-time Emmy-nominated limited series Fosse/Verdon—including a personal nod for Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or a Special; and began his draft of the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM!.

With this selection from his repertoire alone, Levenson explored the worlds of: desperately isolated adolescents, a Jewish studies professor who contemplates forgetting the Holocaust, an anti-Vietnam war youth collective, and two Broadway legends. His stories reliably surprise. His plots hold us in suspense. His characters undo us.

A master storyteller, Levenson bobs and weaves through theatre and screen—plays and musicals, television and soon-to-be film. No matter the medium, Levenson's stories land with evocative precision every time. Olympic athletes are typically sprinters or marathoners; Levenson is the rare champion of the dramatic decathlon.

What makes Levenson so agile is an unusual combination of imagination, curiosity, sensitivity, humor, wit, analytics, acuity, and finesse.

Master of Depth: Character
People are Levenson's foundation. “I always start from the character in the story,” he says.

In fact, character is what led Levenson to begin writing in the first place. “I came to writing late I think, in part, because in high school and middle school I always hated the first-person narrative,” confesses Levenson, who grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and only began writing his junior year at Brown University. “I always find it very difficult to speak in my own voice. When I discovered this idea that you could write in somebody else’s voice, that was really electrifying to me.”

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Michelle Williams and Bob Fosse Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Whether creating characters from scratch—as in Evan Hansen—or exhuming deeper layers to real-life personas—like Fosse/Verdon’s titular couple—Levenson wields his pen like an X-Acto knife, carving portraits and ditching the scraps.

“I always forget that it’s never good at first, it requires so much refining,” he says. “For me, the creative part—or the fulfilling part—is in re-writing.”

But that initial excess is the key to the incisiveness in emotion and complexity in relationships he crafts in re-writes. “You discover depth and then part of your job as a dramatic writer is to then sculpt away all of the fat, so hopefully by the time you’ve finished you get something like Evan and Heidi [Hansen]’s relationship,” he says. “Those scenes are pretty short, but there’s so much that was written in the meantime that was around the scenes.”

Levenson’s explanations disappear from the page but become subtext and backstory, leading to a nuance you may not see, but you can feel.

“It’s the specificity and the individuality, the quirkiness that leads to such credibility in every character and in every character’s actions throughout the play, which makes it very easy to direct,” says four-time Tony-nominated director Michael Greif, who shepherded Dear Evan Hansen to Broadway. “He writes from inside the head and the heart of these characters with such clarity and such precision, but always in very unexpected ways.”

The Language of Steven: Dialogue, Rhythm, and Tempo
What Levenson looks for, more specifically, in editing are his characters’ voices. “It’s like tuning a radio,” he explains. “It takes a while before the voices start to become clear. I know that I start to hear these people at a certain point—that’s the only way to continue.”

Levenson relies on sound to guide him. A speech geek, he’s always on alert, his ears tuned in to verbal idiosyncrasies. “I just love the weirdness of people talking,” he laughs. “I often find myself writing down weird turns of phrase that people use because I just love the incorrect ways that we speak.” His fascination translates to a naturalism in his dialogue and, in turn, in his people.

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Lauren Patten and Mike Faist Joan Marcus

“Each character has a different musicality,” says actor Lauren Patten, who starred as Jenny in Days of Rage. “That’s what makes it so real and makes it feel not just like one playwright is speaking through every character.” During previews you can often find Levenson at the back of the house with his eyes closed, listening.

Onstage and on screen, his characters talk while they think, they speak over each other, they hiccup, they stammer, they declare, they retract. It feels organic, conversational, but it also dramaturgically conveys his characters’ attempts to be better.

“All of the characters he writes [are] human characters that are very flawed, but everyone’s trying,” says Mike Faist, who originated Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen and Spencer in Days of Rage. “That’s always what you’re going to get with a Steven Levenson play.”

The Hard Way, The Right Way: Imbuing Empathy
Because Levenson is an optimist at heart, he wants to believe the best in people and wants you to, as well. His work is a pursuit to understand.

Even when his characters act in the most questionable of ways (see: Evan’s lying, Jenny and Spencer’s plot to bomb a school as a protest, Michael’s push to forget the Holocaust, Fosse’s maltreatment of women and addiction to drugs and success) he’s able to shake us awake from our black-and-white world and consider the gray.

“What’s satisfying to me is trying to understand why people do the things they do, and how all of us believe we’re the hero in our own movie, you know?” he says. “Trying to figure out: How do people justify their behavior and how do people think that what they’re doing is right?”

Without condoning or admonishing their actions, Levenson creates compassion. “Steven is very grounded in a deep respect for every character he writes,” says Patten. “He approaches every character not as a device for his play but as a person that he’s really bringing to life.”

“I find myself defending the characters a lot,” Levenson admits. “I feel like I’m constantly defending Bob Fosse to people. I understand why the characters do what they do and what I write, or I wouldn’t care.”

Anybody Have a Map?: The Storyline
Levenson has an uncanny ability to surprise as he converts passing details into major revelations, what he attributes to his method of reverse engineering.

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Mike Faist and Ben Platt Matthew Murphy

“Everything in a play, it’s spontaneous,” says Levenson. “I feel like the first draft I’m leaving clues for myself, but I don’t realize they’re clues until I go back and then read it as if I didn’t write it. It’s like, ‘Oh that character, that’s his sister?’”

The big lie in Evan Hansen—not the one about Evan and Connor’s friendship, but the one Evan tells himself and the cause of his broken arm—came from Levenson’s investigation of his own words, rather than a foregone conclusion in an outline. This reverse engineering bore that element of the show, which Greif calls “the most important think he did in the course of the development of the musical—and I don’t say this lightly.”

“You really do have to be a forensic scientist and search for what you’ve written and try to figure out what’s already there,” Levenson says. “What you can’t do in life is what you can do in writing, which is actually freeze frame and look at everything, draw out the connections, and make it all fit.

“The scariest part is just starting because you want to get to a place where you feel sure before you start, but that’s not actually how it works,” he says. “If you’re sure before you start, there’s no journey.”

Where Is He Going?: His Future
Writing is always a process, and the upper echelon of playwrights are all collaborative and adaptive (descriptors that emerge repeatedly when talking about Levenson). What distinguishes Levenson is his excellence as a problem-solver. “There’s a laser sharp ability to diagnose what’s right and if something has gone astray,” says Greif. “He finds the perfect way of being able to synthesize any new material with previous existing circumstances.”

The ability to problem solve is one of the most undervalued skills in writing. Yet, it’s arguably the unlabeled gift that renders Levenson such a sought-after collaborator.

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Steven Levenson and Michael Greif Marc J. Franklin

“He’s really the whole package,” Greif says. “He has an extraordinary imagination. He has an extraordinary interest in the big challenging topics of our times. He has the incredible ability to ground those big ideas and big themes in really interesting character and plot.”

Because Levenson maneuvers his specific characters, language, and plots to examine the essence of human nature. “The other thing that I’m always interested in and the thing I’m always ambivalent about is people changing,” he says. “How does change work and can we change? I’m always a little ambivalent about my own ability to change. Are we stuck in the cycle of our past or are we able to make something new?”

If Levenson’s work is any indication, creating new is possible.

So far, he hasn’t told the same story twice. In fact, as he was shooting Fosse/Verdon he was writing tick, tick…BOOM!, “the exact opposite of the Bob Fosse story,” he says. “[Jonathan] never got the acclaim that he deserved [while he was alive] and Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, on the other hand, wrestled for their entire lives with the acclaim they got. One is a fight for recognition and one is what happens when you are recognized.”

As for his own recognition, he is as unassuming as he is talented. “Success is measured in decades, not weeks,” he says. He keeps himself sharp by shape-shifting—television, musical, play, television, movie musical—as he reaches for the apex of each medium. Luckily, his innate need to solve the mystery behind human impulse sustains him.

“I like to write about things about which I feel ambivalent,” he says. “When I don’t know the answer to something, I feel like there’s a story to be told there. The paradox is I inevitably just end up digging myself deeper into a hole of not knowing.” And so there’s fuel for more.

“I feel like I have to write the next one,” he says. “I do feel this pressure. I feel like I’m a writer, so I better write.”

READ: Inside Tony Winner Steven Levenson’s Dear Evan Hansen Notebook

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