Steven Levenson had never written a musical before when he was approached in 2011 by songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul with an unusual proposal: a musical about our obsession with personalizing tragedy. Levenson, a playwright whose past work had never shied away from darker subject matter, was intrigued and spent the next five years collaborating with Pasek and Paul on Dear Evan Hansen, a musical in which the titular protagonist, a high school student with social anxiety, becomes an accidental internet sensation after his therapy assignment to write a letter to himself is mistaken for a classmate’s suicide note.
The show became an unexpected critical and commercial success on Broadway, with teenagers and their parents swarming the stage door after each performance to voice their appreciation for a story about the difficulties of connecting with others, the pressures of social media, and, above all, the desire to feel like you belong. It is now nominated for nine Tony Awards, including a Best Book nod for Levenson. Slate spoke to Levenson by phone about the musical’s unlikely success, what goes into creating a nuanced portrayal of mental illness, and why he found writing about teenagers especially nerve-wracking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: Can you tell me a little bit about where the show’s premise came from?
Steven Levenson: The idea for the show was inspired originally by Benj Pasek, one of the composers. In his high school, there was a classmate who died of a drug overdose, somebody that no one else was really friends with, sort of a loner and an outsider. In the aftermath of his death, there was this strange outpouring from other students, and this kind of clamoring to claim that “Actually, I was friends with him” or “We carpooled together in fourth grade.” Everybody wanted some kind of part of the tragedy—they wanted to insert themselves somehow into the narrative.
Benj put that memory away and thought there was something really disturbing about that, and as the years went by, and especially with the rise of social media, he and, I think, a lot of us started to notice that that was a real pattern. When a tragedy or a natural disaster would happen or a celebrity would die, there would be this strange ritual of people kind of figuring out how to make it about themselves. Suddenly, everybody has a story about Robin Williams, or everybody has a story about 9/11. There was this personalizing of tragedy and trying to use it as a way of expressing yourself. That was the kernel of the idea.
When Benj met Justin Paul in college and they began writing musicals together, they talked about that experience and felt like it reflected a lot of trends in our generation. Then, in 2010, they were approached by Stacey Mindich, who was then a relatively new producer, and she was a big fan of their music and basically asked them what they were working on that nobody else wanted them to do. They told her this story and, to her credit, she didn’t run out of the restaurant screaming when they proposed this as a subject for a new musical.
How did you react when they approached you with this idea that they wanted you to write about? Obviously, you didn’t run out of the restaurant screaming, either.
As a playwright, it didn’t strike me as such a crazy idea to put such dark material on stage. I’d never written a musical and had very little experience or knowledge, so I didn’t realize then that there’s a different barometer for a musical than a play. I was a little bit fearless out of naiveté, and I thought it was a fascinating idea.
We all realized that there was clearly one version of this story that you could imagine as a sort of satire, like a dark, tongue-in-cheek look at our generation and its shallowness and narcissism. But none of us were interested in telling that story. We were really interested in trying to figure out what the human impulse is underneath this urge to personalize tragedy and to use tragedy as a way of belonging.
In the show, the tragedy isn’t an accidental death but the suicide of a teenager; in fact, the whole plot hinges on that one event and the lies and misunderstandings that follow. How did you decide to make that the catalyst for the story?
I remember talking a lot about the way that Connor would die and why we felt like it had to be a suicide. This was not our first idea—it took a while for this to emerge in the process. After years of working on it, we realized that Connor is, in a way, a stand-in for Evan. And vice versa. The two of them are actually facing many of the same issues, they’re battling many of the same demons, and they just go different ways. That’s how that became so central to the story of suicide and the idea of mental health, when we realized that it’s about the desperate loneliness that both of these young men feel. We never set out to write a musical about mental health issues or about suicide, but a lot of it just came into focus as we developed the characters more and got to know them.
It’s kind of extraordinary to think that even though that wasn’t the initial goal, the mental health aspect has become such a major part of the show. In addition to Connor, the teenager who kills himself, you also have a protagonist, Evan, who is processing that event while also struggling with anxiety and depression himself.
Yeah. When we started talking about the idea of connection and the desire to connect, we really landed on this idea of thinking about what it would be like to have a character who was incapable of connecting in a world that’s so interconnected. That’s where Evan emerged, from this idea of what would it mean to have a character who is completely unable to belong or connect and feels so outside the communication going on around him.
Was there any research involved in writing a character with mental illness?
I read a great book called What You Must Think of Me about a woman’s lifelong struggle with social anxiety and depression. And then we did a lot of internet research, looking at chat rooms and forums for people talking about these issues and talking about suicide. There’s a lot out there, for better or worse.
We were also really lucky in that our producer had relationships with a bunch of organizations that focus on these things, and the one that comes to mind is the Child Mind Institute. Somebody there read the script at one point and had very incisive notes on where he felt like we had gotten things wrong or where it felt not entirely true. That was really helpful, too.
It sounds like a lot of work went into making this depiction as authentic as possible.
Yes. Also, it does deal with young people, and one thing you find with young people is that they can detect things that aren’t true from a mile away. They are such a savvy audience and they’re so used to being patronized and condescended to. They know authentic when they see it; they are the great bullshit detectors.
When you were writing the script, did you specifically have a teenage audience in mind?
From the very beginning, we were really nervous about the fact that it was a teenager at the center of our story. We tried it a lot of ways, but we still felt like No, this character has to be 17. But we never wanted it to feel like a high school musical, that vision of people dancing at their lockers. Our rule was that there would be no lockers in the show.
We also wanted to give ourselves permission to write a show that was adult and had adult ideas and themes. But inevitably, teenagers came to it and responded to it, and that’s amazing.
Mental illness and suicide, particularly in teenagers, are hot-button topics right now. In the past few months, there’s been a lot of discussion about and controversy over how suicide is depicted in fiction, especially in the aftermath of 13 Reasons Why. Did you ever worry about how this show would be received?
Yes, in a healthy way we worried about it, in that we always wanted to be careful with it. We never wanted to make it feel like we were either glorifying suicide or romanticizing it. Even though it’s a story that begins with a suicide, it ultimately leads to Evan kind of figuring out how to save his own life, in a way. We always thought of that as sort of an antidote to those feelings.
It’s something that has come up since we’ve been in New York and on Broadway and had a bit more exposure. A lot of people come to the show with their own issues, and the actors who stage-door every night hear a lot of gut-wrenching stories from people about their struggles. We ultimately spoke to people at the Child Mind Institute and the Jed Foundation to try to help the actors know exactly what to say in those circumstances, because we never want to steer people in the wrong direction or offer the wrong advice. It’s incredible to hear these stories and it’s incredibly gratifying to know that people are being reached that way. But it’s also obviously incredibly important that the actors aren’t posing as experts, because they’re not. They basically steer people to the website, where they have a lot of resources.
I want to ask about the letters used in the show: Evan writes some of them to himself as part of a therapy assignment, including the one that is mistaken for Connor’s suicide note, and they’re very raw and honest. Then, there are some others that Evan and classmate Jared forge to reinforce the appearance of a fake friendship between Evan and Connor. Where did that idea of letter-writing come from?
Early on we settled on this idea that there would be this mistaken friendship and that that was the heart of the story. And then it was like, figuring out the mechanics of what Evan could have on him that would seem to suggest that. Actually, for a really long time—like four years of the development of the show—it wasn’t a letter to himself assigned by a therapist. It was a college essay question: Write a letter to yourself 10 years from now, about yourself. It really felt like a coincidence in that case.
Then, we had a workshop before we went to D.C. for our first production, and it felt like there was something that wasn’t emotional about that. There was something so much more emotionally grounded and emotionally resonant in it being an assignment from his therapist, and it just tells you so much about what he’s going through.
We had a lot of fun coming up with the fake letters that [Evan] and Jared write, because obviously those tell you a lot more about Evan and Jared than they do about anything else. That was a nice moment of lightness.
Despite exploring some pretty dark subject matter, there are quite a few of those moments of lightness in the show.
I find it difficult to have no sense of humor about things. I don’t like watching those things and I don’t like writing them, where it’s just grim. I think life has a lot of colors to it, and even in the most horrific of circumstances people are still laughing. But yes, that was always a challenge. You don’t want it to be in bad taste, and you don’t want to make light of things that are serious, but you do want to give the audience permission to enjoy itself. If it was just doom and gloom, I don’t think it would land as emotionally as it does. I don’t think it would be as satisfying an experience.
You mentioned earlier that audience members and fans of the show have been sharing their stories with the actors. What about you, have you had people reach out to you personally to tell you that they’ve connected with this story?
Yeah, I have. The most touching was, recently, I got an email from someone I went to college with who’s now a public school teacher in Alabama, of all places, in a town I hadn’t heard of. He has a student who is I think 14, and she’s lost both of her parents. He noticed that when she returned from a long absence from school, she was drawing a picture of this person he didn’t recognize—and it’s this picture of Mike Faist [the actor who plays Connor]. He forwarded it to me and said that she had discovered the music online and she had seen clips of the show and that it had really helped her and really spoke to her. That was just the most moving thing I’ve heard. It’s remarkable and kind of unbelievable to hear that kind of thing.
Did you ever imagine that there would be such a strong response to the show?
No! No. What I always tell people is This is a terrible idea for a musical. But I’ve come to believe in terrible ideas, I guess. So many good things, when you think about them, sound like terrible ideas.
This particular terrible idea now has nine Tony nominations.
It really has been a surreal journey. We felt like we were making this tiny little musical that would hopefully find its audience in a way that a lot of small musicals do. We never imagined that it would have any kind of reach. It’s just nuts that it’s happened and that it’s on Broadway.
It’s like the Passover thing—dayenu. “It would have been enough.” And we keep feeling that way about every step on this journey. Everything would have been enough. It’s just amazing that it’s still going on.