Dear Evan Hansen Cocreator Steven Levenson Asks More Tough Questions in If I Forget
The powerful new play examines issues of Jewish identity in a story that's accidentally relevant.
Steven Levenson is probably best known to theatergoers for writing the book to the new musical Dear Evan Hansen, an atypical Broadway hit due to its themes of teen suicide and social anxiety (the show's music and lyrics were written by La La Land Oscar nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). But the bulk of Levenson's work is composed of straight plays, several of which have been produced by Roundabout Theatre Company.
This season he returns to Roundabout with If I Forget and another set of hard-hitting questions. The world premiere play, which is directed by Tony winner Daniel Sullivan, follows a liberal Jewish-studies professor who clashes with his family over issues of identity and family history as the clan reunites for their patriarch's 75th birthday. It's set in Bethesda, Maryland, where Levenson grew up, and takes place in 2000, the year he was sixteen. "I was interested in setting the play in 2000 because it felt like a moment," he says, "in which the idealism of the nineties that I grew up with had to die."
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Is this a personal play for you?
It's not autobiographical, but it is a really personal play for me. It came out of a lot of the kinds of conversations that I was having around the dinner table with my family at holidays. Different characters are different versions of me and of people that I've known.
I wanted to write about what it meant to be Jewish at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of this century. And specifically what it meant to be a secular Jew. I felt like that secular identity has changed over the last hundred years, and it felt worthy of talking about because a lot of the art and literature that I knew about those questions were based on issues that I felt like no longer really resonated for my generation, like issues of assimilation and intermarriage. A lot of those things had already been discussed and decided, or at least argued to death.
This play feels very much of-the-moment despite being set nearly twenty years ago. Why do you think that is?
The play became eerily more and more relevant in the last few months. It definitely didn't mean to feel as relevant as I think it does. Like, a few months ago it was kind of inconceivable to imagine swastikas appearing on New York subway cars. So all that stuff has kind of made those issues come to the fore when you're watching it. It feels like issues of Jewish identity mean something different to me, and I think they mean something different to the world now.
The play is set around the collapse of the Camp David peace talks and the election of George W. Bush. It's always interesting to talk about what happens when the party's over — when a certain kind of optimism no longer feels tenable. And we're living in a moment that feels very similar to that, where for the last eight years, for all their ups and downs, it felt like we were on one historical path, and now it feels like we're suddenly on a completely different one. So that is probably the way the play resonates the most for me right now. It's this feeling of, "What happens now?"
Did this play and Dear Evan Hansen have any influence on each other?
They actually happened really close together — I started working on Dear Evan Hansen in the spring of 2011, and I started writing this play in the fall of 2011 — so they have grown up side by side very weirdly. And there's a similarity. They're both about really hard issues, and there's humor in both of these stories.
One of the strange things with this process has been that this is my first play that I'm rehearsing in three years that hasn't been Dear Evan Hansen. Being in the world of a play is totally different, and it took me a minute to catch up. The rhythm is totally different, and the feeling is really different. And it's both incredibly liberating in some ways to be the sole author of something, to be able to make all the decisions. It also feels a little bit lonely after all these years of working with Benj and Justin — to at least be able to look at someone and be like, "Am I crazy?" You sort of have to ask yourself those questions.
Are you nervous about starting a conversation around these divisive topics?
Yeah! I'm really nervous. I was really very scared to write this play. In a way that I think will make everyone unhappy, I try to make sure that anytime anyone has an argument there is a counter argument, and everybody's sort of undercut at a certain point in this play, which is part of the fun of it, I dare say — but also the challenge of it.
I feel a special kind of responsibility right now, and a privilege, to be able to be working in a medium like theater where we're allowed to have these conversations and where they're encouraged and we're not shying away from asking really difficult questions. And I think at this point, like in 2001 and 2002, there's a little bit of a tendency to shy away from asking hard questions and get with the program instead. And I think it's important that theater remain a place where we can have these hard conversations.