In anticipation of the November 21 release of Dear Evan Hansen: Through the Window, the coffee table tome divulging the “making of” 2017’s Tony-winning Best Musical, Playbill revisits this interview with now Tony-winning book writer Steven Levenson. Here, before Through the Window, Levenson gave an unprecendented glimpse at script pages from the opening scene of the show and the annotations done only for Playbill about his thought process while writing this for Tony-winning actors Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones.
The below article was originally published May 8, 2017 on Playbill.
In 2011, Tony-nominated songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul approached now Tony-nominated book writer Steven Levenson about an idea for a new musical. Levenson had never written a musical before, but Pasek and Paul specifically wanted a playwright.
The duo had an idea for a musical rooted in one of Pasek’s high school experiences. “Between junior and senior year of high school, one of his classmates, who no one really knew very well, died of a drug overdose … and when people came back to school that next year, Benj noticed everybody started to remember things differently and people became obsessed with this person that had passed,” recalls Levenson. “Everybody seemed to want to be included in this tragedy.
“Benj was sort of horrified and also fascinated, particularly by the fact that he, too, felt like ‘Oh, I want to be a part of this, too.’ And that felt so perverse and strange: that grief was this thing that people were vying to show who was most affected.”
But the added layer of what materializes in Dear Evan Hansen came with their observation over the years of tragedies like 9/11 and the “public clamor every time there was a catastrophe, where people seemed to use social media as a way of personalizing every tragedy.”
Their mission became: “How do we take these ideas and themes and turn them into a narrative and a singing narrative?”
Levenson began with the familiar and wrote the entire first act like a play. “I wrote scenes and some of the moments in it we had discussed as songs, so in those parts I would write a monologue, like a heightened piece of text that felt song-like,” he says.
But Levenson learned quickly that a musical comes with a ticking clock, an awareness of how much time has passed since the last song and the next time there’s a song. “If there’s a scene you want to cram as much information and exposition and emotion as possible into it because you don’t have that much real estate,” he says.
Working with the same actors from the earliest stages of development, those voices of those actors influenced Levenson’s writing as he molded the characters. “I find that the more specific a role is to an actor, the more universal it becomes,” he says.
And Levenson wrote Evan’s opening monologue with Ben Platt’s voice in mind. Platt has spoken a lot about the monologue—the rhythm of it, the speed, the gestures that go along with it. But what few know is that the text hasn’t changed since the first time Levenson introduced it to the script.
As Levenson points out below, the monologue nearly serves as an opening number, and also leads into the actual first song.
Here, Levenson annotates his script of Act 1 Scene 1 to reveal what went through his mind as he was writing, re-writing, and refining the script for the opening scene of Dear Evan Hansen.
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