Steven Levenson’s star keeps rising.
The 2002 graduate of St. Andrew’s saw his musical “Dear Evan Hansen” perform to positive reviews this summer at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. Levenson wrote the script and worked on the musical piece with Michael Grief, a Tony-award winning director, and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
It wasn’t Levenson’s first play, but it was his first musical and a new and interesting challenge for him. “It’s a lot of moving parts,” he said.
Playing at Arena Stage was a homecoming of sorts for Levenson, and not just because he is a native of the D.C. area. His love of the stage was ignited while accompanying his grandmother, who was an Arena ticket subscriber, to shows.
Having the play in D.C. also gave him the opportunity for local support from Maryland-area friends and family, including his parents and sister, Liza Sulinski, who teaches fourth grade at SAES.
Levenson came to St. Andrew’s as a sixth grader when the school was located at the Bradmoor Campus. He spent seven years as a Lion and lived through the transition to the Postoak Campus.
Levenson has his feet planted in the TV world, as well.
He moved to Los Angeles in 2012 and is currently a writer, editor and co-producer on the Showtime series “Masters of Sex.” The show is an Emmy and Golden Globe nominee and its third season just finished airing.
He’s also written for several other TV series - “The Playboy Club,” “Vegas,” and “Wayward Pines,” a 10-episode series on Fox starring Matt Dillon that concluded in July.
Levenson found his passion early. He was in sixth grade -- his first year at St. Andrew’s -- when he played Ed Sullivan in “Bye Bye Birdie,” his first acting gig, which was directed by Roy Barber, an early influence.
Barber, the former SAES theater director, had the opportunity to see “Dear Evan Hansen” during its D.C. run, which concluded in August. “I was fortunate enough that he came to see it and get to reconnect with him a bit, which was really lovely and gratifying,” Levenson said.
“I could recognize his ‘voice’ and his humor in [“Dear Evan Hansen”] - as well as his understanding of adolescent loneliness and being misunderstood,” Barber said.
The musical, which earned positive reviews from The New York Times and The Washington Post, and has been called “charming” and “witty,” is about a high school student, played by “Pitch Perfect” actor Ben Platt, whose social media profile goes viral after a tragedy. It will land in New York, off Broadway in spring 2016 at Second Stage Theater.
Levenson is only 31, but he’s already racked up an impressive list of playwriting credits.
His other plays include “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin,” which is about a man who tries to get back into his family’s life after serving a prison sentence for financial fraud and “The Language of Trees,” which he wrote at 21 and follows a family grappling with life at home while the father serves as a translator in the early days of the Iraq War.
Theater was an important aspect of his life at St. Andrew’s, and he threw himself into it wholeheartedly, participating in performing arts throughout his time at the school, appearing in “The Crucible,” “Henry V,” and “You Can’t Take it With You,” among others.
“That was my journey at St. Andrew’s,” he said. “I did a lot of performing. I did everything I could in terms of theater, and I really fell in love with acting; I also did a bit of writing at St. Andrew’s.”
He also dabbled in poetry, encouraged by an English teacher he had in sixth and eighth grades – the late Barbara Thompson. “She was an incredible teacher, and she really inspired us to write. I started writing poetry a little bit in middle school and I’d share it with her, and she was incredibly encouraging,” he said.
There were several other teachers who also helped guide him on his path.
“In high school I got really interested in literature, and I had some great teachers - (Mike) Davila and Dresden Koons, who was my AP English teacher and was incredibly inspiring. Those teachers really helped me fall in love with words and with language.Mr. (David) Brandt was one of my American history teachers whom I think back on very fondly.”
“Beyond being a good student, Steven was genuinely curious,” Brandt said. “He was seriously intrigued by popular culture, theatre, literature, and writing. He brought those interests to the classroom where he was a class leader in discussion. Not only did he show his great analytical chops in class discussion, but he was also very good humored.”
Davila recalled Levenson as being “incredibly creative” and willing to throw himself into whatever he was passionate about.
“You could tell in middle school that Steven was destined for a life in the performing arts,” Davila said. “His talent, enthusiasm, focus, and hard work have always been apparent, and to see him reach a much wider audience is simply fantastic.”
Levenson looks back on his time at St. Andrew’s with fondness.
“I really felt like I learned to love the process of learning, which sounds corny, but I do feel like that was something that was instilled in me, and I never felt like I was banging my head against a textbook and cramming for tests. I really did feel like learning was an adventure and was something to be savored and enjoyed. And I feel like that was hugely helpful for me and gave me a love of all of that,” he said.
After St. Andrew’s, Levenson continued acting while at Brown University, from which he graduated in 2006. During that time he began to move from acting toward writing.
“I had some great teachers there who pushed me in that direction, and I discovered that it was more satisfying and more creatively stimulating to be writing rather than performing,” Levenson said.
Barber was thrilled to hear that Levenson was writing at Brown. “I knew he would bring a rare sensitivity to his development of story and character. Steven could have done many things with his gifts, but I was somewhat selfishly happy that he was bringing his gifts full time to the theater.”
After graduating college, Levenson headed to New York to pursue writing plays.
“I was lucky enough to get a job with an off-Broadway Theater called ‘Playwrights Horizons,’ and I worked in the literary department there for two years reading plays and writing reports on them.” He also helped plan the schedule and was writing on the side. It was experience he said was invaluable.
After “The Language of Trees” run, he started writing full time. He spent several years in New York writing for theater and surviving on commissions from theater companies; he eventually decided to try writing for television and headed to L.A.
Besides helping pay the rent, working in TV offers a change of pace and a collaborative environment. “You write on a staff of writers, which is a nice break from the solitary life of the playwright. And play writing is a nice break from being in a writers’ room all day.”
His hope is to keep working in both worlds. “It’s such a great time to be writing for TV. There’s such great material and so many great stories. It’s a real pleasure and an honor to take part in that.”
As Levenson keeps doing what he loves, he encourages students to do the same.
“Something that I took seriously from St. Andrew’s is really following what you love and leaning into your interests even if they seem impractical or just seem like extracurriculars, really taking seriously your own passion,” he said.