Aspen Ideas: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ writer Steven Levenson on Broadway and mental health
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’: Broadway and Mental Health
Where: Aspen Ideas Festival, Paepcke Auditorium
When: Thursday, June 20, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $30
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: The event will include a performance by ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ castmember Josh Strobl, the show’s Tony-winning writer Steven Levenson and Child Mind Institute president Harold Koplewicz; aspenideas.org
When they were writing the story and songs that would become “Dear Evan Hansen,” writer Steven Levenson and composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul weren’t thinking much about “Dear Evan Hansen” as a national catalyst for social change or as a force to destigmatize mental illness among young people.
They didn’t imagine it would have a big enough audience to matter on that scale. What they did focus on was telling rang a story that rang true.
“Our mandate was that everything be authentic,” Levenson said in a recent phone interview from home in Brooklyn. “That we tell a story that felt true. That’s the standard we were judging ourselves by — that an audience would see it and many see their experience reflected in it.”
Audiences did. The musical became a huge hit, won six Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical for Levenson. It made “Evan Hansen” originator Ben Platt a star. And it inspired conversations among kids and parents about mental health and suicide as its songs became anthems for an ascendant generation of young people who are giving mental illness a more prominent and accepted place in American culture.
The show premiered in Washington, D.C., and then ran Off-Broadway before its ongoing Broadway run began in late 2016. It’s now also in its second year of national touring, and is set to open in London’s West End.
Levenson will discuss the show and its place in the mental health conversationThursday night at Aspen Ideas Health in a presentation that also will include a performance by “Dear Evan Hansen” castmember Josh Strobl.
The title character is a lonely teenager who writes inspirational notes to himself. It tells of how his life intersects with a loner classmate who dies by suicide and a lie that amplifies into social media fame for Hansen.
Levenson and his team took care not to sensationalize, and not to romanticize, the suicide and the mental health issues in the show from a public health standpoint. And from an artist’s standpoint, he recalled, they had to be careful not to let it devolve into over-sentimentalized treacle. While dealing with suicide for the stage has its pitfalls, Levenson was equally as sensitive about telling the story of a young person, in Hansen, who makes an awful mistake and finds a way to work through it.
“He needs to be able to have another chance,” Levenson said. “For young people in particular, who may find themselves doing something stupid or making a big mistake, and may feel like there’s no hope, it’s important to see that there is life on the other side of that.”
Given the subject matter, they knew they had a public health responsibility with the show, and that communicating it personally would largely be up to its actors when they meet fans at the stage door. So they had mental health experts come and talk to the cast about how to interact with kids who reach out about depression or suicidal thoughts and what resources to direct them toward.
But even before that, the creative team had engaged the medical community. Harold Koplewicz, of the Child Mind Institute, consulted on the script and the songs throughout the creative process. He’ll join Levenson and Strobl onstage at tonight’s presentation.
In an indelible moment that spoke to the impact of “Dear Evan Hansen,” early in the Broadway run, Platt received an anonymous fan note in his dressing room. It read, “Because you didn’t let go I didn’t let go,” echoing a line from the show.
“Not only was it clearly a life saved, but someone using the language of our show to express that,” Levenson said. “As an artist, in your wildest imaginings, you hope that you’re able to give a voice to something that is voiceless, or that allows someone the possibility of change.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” was Levenson’s first musical. He’d previously written straight plays. This spring, his “Fosse/Verdon” about Broadway legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon became one of the year’s most acclaimed television dramas. He is currently at work on a film adaptation of Jonathan Larsen’s “Tick, Tick…Boom,” to be directed by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The “Evan Hansen” event is the first of many at Aspen Ideas Health and Aspen Ideas Festival presentations about mental health. They include public events like the “Our Children Are in Trouble” panel on the rising rates of teen depression and anxiety (today, 5:30 p.m., Wheeler Opera House Bar), a live taping of the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” (today, 8 p.m., Hotel Jerome Ballroom) and a panel about music and healing with headliners from the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience (Saturday, noon, Jazz Aspen VIP Tent).