The Dear Evan Hansen movie was screenwriter Steven Levneson’s opportunity to revisit material he had begun working on almost a decade ago. He had the security of familiar source material (having won a Tony in 2017 for penning the musical’s book), which presented both an asset and a challenge: Where is the line between honoring the show’s success and rehauling it?
“You know it backwards and forwards,” Levenson says, “but what I discovered in the first few weeks was that I had to forget it. I had to learn to look at it totally fresh.”
Two unfortunate circumstances that ultimately aided in this: the stage show being on hiatus during much of development and production (filming took place under COVID protocols last fall), and a sharper sociopolitical backdrop. When the show—about a high schooler’s lie that spirals out of control on social media—opened on Broadway, Trump had not been sworn in (or impeached for weaponizing lies on social media).
Reevaluating the magnitude of Evan’s actions led to a decision to flesh out the story’s final act, in an attempt to underline the character’s responsibility to make amends. On stage, audiences don’t see Evan make a public admission, nor do they see the steps he takes before receiving some closure. Though audiences and critics alike have made these points since the show premiered, Levenson doesn’t credit such responses as a factor in the film’s shift so much as he does the wider, societal conversations about accountability and their impact on him: “As artists, we change and grow hopefully, and I’ve come to feel Evan deserves to own up to what he did in a public way.”
Translating the show for the screen came with more technical challenges too, from scrapping some moments (certain songs, Levenson and composing partners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul conceded, only worked on stage) to constructing new ones (see above). In addition to his familiar collaborators, new ones helped bring the story to life, including director Stephen Chbosky and cinematographer Brandon Trost. Whereas a musical’s libretto can be used and interpreted to create countless different stagings, Levenson’s screenplay needed to communicate directly to his fellow creatives to paint a definitive picture—one decidedly less objective than what proscenium might frame.
“It’s much more of a guided experience,” he explains. “You’re really trying to guide the director, the department heads, and actors through what we are actually seeing on the screen in that moment.”
In the annotated pages from the Dear Evan Hansen screenplay below, Levenson sheds more light on his screenwriting process, diving deeper into the challenges of writing for a closer gaze, expanding the world of the characters, and reworking the source material’s structure.
Dear Evan Hansen arrives in movie theatres September 24. The Broadway production of the musical will resume performances December 11.