The writer of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ discusses writing about mental health
Steven Levenson’s first foray into musicals can already be deemed a massive success. A seasoned playwright, he was approached by composer and lyricists (and now Oscar winners) Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to collaborate with them and write the book (aka the non-singing script) for what would become the now major Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen.
Dear Evan Hansen, starring Pitch Perfect scene stealer Ben Platt, has been garnering buzz since it debuted in DC in 2015 before moving off-Broadway. Now it’s nominated for multiple Tony Awards, including one for Levenson. It tells the story of high school senior named Evan Hansen who suffers from crippling social anxiety. When a loner classmate of Evan’s commits suicide, a misunderstanding leads that student’s family, and the rest of the school, to believe Evan had secretly been his best friend. This new fame brings Evan acceptance, friendships, and romance, but his lies lead to more and more complications.
Mashable spoke with Levenson about his journey to bring Dear Evan Hansen to life, and how he and the rest of the writing team tackled the heavy topics it contains.
Telling a universal teenage story
Levenson worked closely with Pasek and Paul to craft a story about human connection. “From the beginning we knew this had to be a story about a teenager,” Levenson explained. “There’s something about those years. The stakes are never quite as high after that ever again. Even though that’s not really true, that’s how it feels. Our lives [then] have so much passion and drama and chaos.”
“We’re all constantly looking at what other people are doing, and feeling left out, and wondering if everyone’s life is better than ours”
Being a modern story about teenagers and their interactions, consistent use of technology was a must. The creative team worked hard to make sure these onstage social media moments weren’t jokey or awkward. “We wanted it to be seamless. We never were commenting on technology, we were just showing it as ubiquitous and a part of these characters live.” But partly through that process, Levenson felt a connection to his teenage characters: “I feel so increasing like we’re all sort of teenagers again with social media. We’re all constantly looking at what other people are doing, and feeling left out, and wondering if everyone’s life is better than ours.”
Though in the end, the characters’ use of technology and social media all ties into the overarching theme of communication. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
As Levenson put it, “In this world of ever-widening connection, when we’re all connected to each other at all times of the day, we’re all one text away from each other, we all somehow strangely feel as disconnected as we ever have and as alone as we ever have. And so Evan was this idea of trying to make that metaphor concrete by having a character who was incapable of connecting, who found it impossible to connect, who looked at the world, as he says, as though he’s looking through a window. And everyone else seems so fluent and capable with communication and technology, he just feels helpless.”
Tackling the tough stuff
Evan’s, and every other character’s, inability to communicate connects back to one of the most emotionally brutal aspects of the show: teen suicide. Evan’s classmate Connor takes his own life off-stage not long after the musical begins, and Evan deals with his own depression and suicidal thoughts over the course of the show.
Portraying this onstage is a huge undertaking, and a responsibility the creative team did not take lightly. According to Levenson, they began with research. “We read a lot. I thought it was really helpful to read a book for parents, how to deal with a child who has mental illness. I also read this book called What You Must Think of Me about crippling social anxiety. And we did a lot of research online and found a lot of news articles about the epidemic of suicide in this country among all ages, but especially among young people.”
“It’s not just the character finding himself or coming of age; it’s about a character saving his own life.”
Having that background is only half the battle. Then there’s the challenge of crafting a story. There is a fine line, to one side there’s parody, the other cheesy “very special episodes” style stories. To Levenson, the key to navigating that was keeping the characters in perspective. “We never wanted it to feel like an issues show, and it never evolved that way. We wanted to be true to the characters and to their journeys and their struggles and their desires. We were always really rigorous with ourselves about telling the truth, then it would feel emotionally true and relevant and interesting. Going from the characters out. We wanted to figure out what made these characters tick.”
That thought process led them to some powerful discoveries along the way. One of the most powerful, perhaps, was a late realization about Evan himself. “It’s not just the character finding himself or coming of age; it’s about a character saving his own life.”
Bringing the issues onstage
The world that Levenson and the rest of the creative team and cast have created has struck a chord with theater fans. What the audience sees onstage every night reflects what so many have dealt with in their own lives, and they’ve often felt moved to share those stories with the crew.
“The most gratifying part of this journey has been getting to talk to people who have either had similar experiences themselves, or have loved ones who have, and have found something comforting or validating about the show… That’s been such a profound experience and something none of us was expecting. We’re so grateful for that response. When you make art you always hope that you’ll make something that will reach people, but it’s really incredible when it feels like you have in some small way.”
“People felt really relieved to finally have a way of talking about these things with one another.”
Those responses, like everything in telling the story of this show, come with responsibilities. But the team was prepared. “We partnered with a number of mental health organizations which have been amazing,” Levenson explained, including groups that helped us with some of the initial research. “The Child Mind Institute, The Jed Foundation, The Trevor Project, and a few others… We needed to figure out what to tell [the actors] to say to people if they felt like people needed help or whatever. Obviously none of these actors is an expert in these things, none of us is, so it was about figuring out what to tell people and how to get people to the right resources.”
The conversations don’t end with the actors. For a show about the inability to communicate, it has sparked countless conversations. “People felt really relieved to finally have a way of talking about these things with one another. Parents could talk to their kids about it, kids could talk to their parents, by talking about the show instead of how [themselves]. It was an easier way into the conversation.”
Feeling the power of art
2017 so far has been a rough time for mental health and for the arts. As Levenson noted, it’s “a moment where funding is really tenuous and may be cut for a lot of these things, [and] it feels like people are more afraid and more anxious than ever before.” But because of that, it feels like the right time for this story.
“Theater can start conversations.”
“It’s exciting to work in theater [right now] where it feels like, if there’s one thing, theater can start conversations. It can allow people to talk to each other and hear each other.”
For Levenson, the show has helped him relearn the power of storytelling. “You can be really cynical about things, but this is a story that really reaches people and really touches people and you realize [that] sometimes art can have an affect on people’s lives. Sometimes a story can reach people. And I totally give so much of the credit to the composers and the actors who bare their soul night after night. I’m so proud of them and so proud that we have a show that is reaching people somehow.”
And what does Levenson hope the audience gets out of the show? “I hope in a way it’s an argument for the truth, even though it’s a show about a lie. And ultimately I think it’s a story about affirming the value of being who you are and accepting who you are and loving who you are.”
Disclosure: Mashable’s Chief Operating Officer, Mike Kriak, is a producer for Dear Evan Hansen.