If your idea of a Broadway musical about high school students is “Grease,” “Hairspray,” “Heathers,” or even “Carrie,” the good news is it’s now OK for musicals to take the real world as a reference point rather than escapist cartoons or lurid horror, while still being able to entertain audiences quite well, thank you. Exhibit A: “Dear Evan Hansen.” If you want to examine the state of the American musical in the first quarter of the 21st century, “Hansen,” whose national tour stops Dec. 10-15 at Bass Concert Hall, is as good a place to start as any.
Without getting into plot spoilers, let’s just say that “Hansen,” which won six Tony awards, including best musical, in 2017, delves deeply into the significant role social media plays in our lives, along with the related phenomenon of private tragedies playing out in the public sphere. Teenage angst, family dynamics, peer pressure, depression and all that’s related mixes into an irresistible brew, aided in no small part by the songs. How does the show do “uplift” so well with such potentially disturbing subject material? Again, best to wait to see it.
Reached by phone in London’s West End, where he was assisting the “Hansen” cast the day before previews were set to open there (“It’s all very exciting and a little nerve-wracking”), Steven Levenson, who wrote the show’s book, seemed a bit dazzled by but very grateful for its success. “I’ve been a playwright for a while, and I’ve never had a production that lasted more than a couple of months,” he says. “So it’s really thrilling to see all of these different companies and different actors coming in and out of these parts, and really learn more about the show, in some ways.” Oh, late last year Universal optioned a “Hansen” movie, too (“It’s really still very early stages, but we’ll see”).
Eight years after he started work on “Hansen,” four years after its initial premiere in Washington, D.C., and three years after it hit Broadway, Levenson, 35, is still Evan Hansening all over the place as he visits the various companies to see that everything is running as it should and give advice to the actors. (He was also writer and showrunner for the biographical miniseries “Fosse/Verdon,” on the FX channel.) Along with the show’s songwriters, his friends and generational peers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who also scored “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman”), Levenson’s surfed the social media zeitgeist in his chosen art form more successfully than all but a few others. “I think we totally rode the wave,” he says.
Certainly, the playwright isn’t shy about giving props to those shows that, well, showed him the way. “We have been so lucky in the last 20 years – well, even before that,” he says. “The musical I grew up in love with was ‘Rent,’ and that really shaped my understanding of what you can do with a musical and the kinds of subjects you could explore. And then definitely in the 2000s, (with) ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Next to Normal’ and ‘Fun Home’ and ‘Hamilton,’ it has felt like the form has been as open as people creating musicals want it to be, and that’s been really exciting, and we’re totally standing on the shoulders of all of those amazing artists.”
The musical’s origin point began with Pasek, who remembered a high school classmate who died of a drug overdose. “The student hadn’t been particularly popular or even well liked,” Levenson says, “but in the aftermath of his death, Benj watched all of these other kids in school (who) wanted to claim friendship with him that they hadn’t had, or exaggerated the friendship that they did have, and it was very strange, this trying to be a part of something terrible.
“And in the years since then, social media came about and that phenomenon seemed to only get bigger, and the feeling that whenever there was a tragedy in the world, people rushed to social media to insert themselves into the tragedy, to put themselves somehow at the center of it.”
Answering the question of what that was all about spurred them to work on the musical.
“We started to feel like it had something to do with a desperation to connect and a desperation to belong that seemed universal but also particular to the time we’re living in,” Levenson says. “And so that’s really where the germ of ‘Evan Hansen’ began.
“When we started writing the show in 2011, it felt like at that point we still had to convince people that social media was something that had to do with more than just teenagers, and now, of course, the proof’s in the pudding and social media has kind of swallowed all of our lives in a lot of ways.”
Aside from that, something about the high school experience in general just seems to stay with people throughout their lives. The playwright certainly agrees.
“I’ve always liked writing about people at this age,” Levenson says. “Everything feels like the most important thing in the world, whether or not it is, and emotions are so high and feelings are so outsize, so it just makes a rich area to explore.”