Mining the Past
Bethesda native Steven Levenson recalled his own teenage anxiety to write the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen
Steven Levenson remembers the dramatic family fights during his teen years while growing up in Bethesda. Passions flared over politics, culture or the grudges of the moment. The arguments often ended as quickly as they began, but they left him with indelible memories and insights into the dynamics of his family relationships.
“I definitely had a lot of anxiety as a teenager,” Levenson says of those years, when he would often hang out in downtown Bethesda at the now-closed Barnes & Noble and United Artists movie theater. “I’ve always been drawn to that area of my life.”
At home, his family life was defined by a focus on politics and Judaism, as well as fixations on worst-case scenarios. Family superstitions included putting red ribbons under beds to ward off danger and fears of the evil eye, a curse bestowed by a malevolent glare if one became too successful. “No one remembers why we had the ribbons and the dark concerns,” he says. “They were just part of our life.”
Two decades later, Levenson’s ability to recall and interpret his feelings about those years has fueled a supercharged writing career that produced the monster hit musical Dear Evan Hansen, which explores the themes of adolescence, sex and social isolation through the story of a young man with a social anxiety disorder.
Now 35, the graduate of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac is besieged with top Broadway, film and TV projects, thanks to the success of his Tony Award-winning musical, which premiered at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the theater he attended with his grandmother while growing up.
Levenson, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently became a father for the second time. His wife, Whitney May, whom Levenson met while both were attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, gave birth to their second daughter, Zelda, in August. She joined her 4-year-old sister, Astrid.
Levenson’s sunny circumstances are a far cry from the teenage angst he plumbed in Dear Evan Hansen; he won a Tony for Best Book of a Musical in 2017 for his innovative and emotional portrayal of adolescent crises. Theatrical producer Stacey Mindich had paired Levenson with the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land fame to see if Levenson could translate their concept for a show about a teen who fakes a connection to a dead classmate. Pasek and Paul had read some of Levenson’s plays and thought his voice fit their story.