The ones who dream

The ones who dream. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Photo: Justin Paul and Benj Pasek at their 2016 International Thespian Festival cabaret, where they presented songs and insights into the process of bringing their shows to life.

BY GREGORY BOSSLER

The past 12 months have been a dream for songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Their first original musical, Dear Evan Hansen, opened Off-Broadway and won them an Obie Award last May. The show then transferred to Broadway in December, mere days before La La Land opened in wide release. In January, the team received Oscar nominations for two songs from that film, winning an Academy Award for the movie’s signature number, “City of Stars.”

Amid the whirlwind of the past year, the pair also participated in the 2017 Junior Theater Festival West with EdTA’s Junior Thespians this February and in the 2016 International Thespian Festival last June, when Dramatics caught up with the busy duo.

Neither man was born into a family with theatrical roots, but each did grow up in a household filled with music. At age 7, Pasek made a guest appearance on one of his mother’s several children’s albums, and Paul sang gospel in his dad’s church.

Pasek also performed with the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Chorale, but he credits his drama teacher at Friends Central School for his interest in theatre. “The school was very experimental,” he said. “We did selections from A Little Night Music in seventh grade. We did a Suzan-Lori Parks drama.”

Paul caught the theatre bug during the Music Theatre of Connecticut School of Performing Arts production of Oliver! However, he credits his drama teacher at Staples High School in Westport for helping him think deeper about drama. “We were rehearsing Into the Woods,” he said. “Rehearsal was usually just blocking or learning notes, but one day our teacher had us read the lyrics of ‘No One Is Alone.’ When we got to ‘People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers,’ he asked, ‘Why does the Baker say, “Fathers”? Of all the people onstage who could sing “Fathers,” why is it the Baker?’ It was the first time I understood subtext. It’s not a coincidence that this character says this word at this moment.”

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land, which brought Pasek and Paul an Oscar for their song “City of Stars.” Photo: Summit Entertainment/Photofest In 2003, Pasek and Paul each headed to the University of Michigan as musical theatre majors and met before classes had even started, bonding during freshman orientation weekend over their shared love of Merrily We Roll Along (the show they pay homage to in their song cycle Edges). “We became instant friends,” Pasek said.

Sophomore year, the two were cast in the ensemble of City of Angels, Pasek as Clapper Boy/Man with Camera, Paul as Cinematographer/Coroner. “Our moms were going to come to Ann Arbor and see our ‘crowning achievement.’ We were embarrassed,” Pasek said, “so we thought, ‘Let’s write our own show.’”

Since freshman year, they had been meeting in a basement practice room to work on music. “Our first efforts were just audition songs — simple, clear,” says Paul. “‘Here’s who you’re talking to. Here’s what you want.’ They weren’t complex. They weren’t nuanced. There wasn’t a lot of subtext, but they were good for actors.”

Now, they began digging deeper. “The phrase I always think about whenever writing theatre songs,” Pasek said, “is that pop songs are adjectives and musical theatre songs are verbs. The adjective is how you feel. It’s the emotion. But the verb is what you’re doing — the objective, what has to change.”

The team booked Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House and began writing. “We figured, if we invited everyone we knew, that would be our motivation to write the show. We didn’t want to embarrass ourselves further,” Pasek explained. The result was Edges, a collection of songs about coming of age in the new millennium and the struggles of college kids figuring out how to become adults.

Soon after they posted the songs on YouTube, their work started to go viral among the college circuit. “With digital access, college and high school students started to get into writers like us in a way that they were only into actors before,” Pasek said. Paul added, “It was wonderful for us to be able to write songs about our generation and have them be consumed instantaneously by our generation.”

Emboldened by the show’s popularity, they reached out to several writers they admired to ask for internships. Michigan alum Jeff Marx responded with an offer for both Pasek and Paul to shadow him and Robert Lopez as they prepared their show Avenue Q for its Las Vegas premiere. “We were in the room with them all summer, soaking up everything,” Pasek said. “It was an incredible experience.”

They then asked Marx to listen to Edges. He was impressed enough not only to give it to his agent, who agreed to represent the new songwriters, but also to bet on them. The agent’s first deal was to license Edges with MTI; Marx’s bet was a $7,000 down payment toward the team’s future, to be repaid only if they made it to Broadway within the next decade.

The summer after their Vegas internship, they made their New York debut with Become, a benefit concert of their songs in May 2006, performed by fellow Michigan alums Gavin Creel, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and others at the Public Theater’s cabaret venue, Joe’s Pub.

When they graduated with their musical theatre degrees that December, the pair had the royalties from Edges and Marx’s contribution to help them make a more permanent move to New York. “We thought it was so important that we finish all our credits quickly and graduate college early,” Pasek said, “because we had gotten a job writing for Johnny and the Sprites,” a Disney series that Avenue Q actor John Tartaglia created, produced, and starred in.

“We thought, ‘We’re professionals now! Jobs will come flooding in,’” Paul said. But the flood was more like a trickle, with the TV show only asking for one song from them every three months or so. “We thought that, having written one show, people would hire us to write other shows,” Pasek added. “But no one knew who we were. That was a good wakeup call that we had to keep writing.”

Their writing led to a Dramatists Guild fellowship, mentored by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and to songs for Theatreworks/USA and others, but the young writers found it necessary to supplement their income with various odd jobs. In addition to playing for a church and for children’s music classes, Paul conducted. Meanwhile, Pasek babysat kids at a gym while their parents worked out on elliptical machines.

When Tim McDonald of iTheatrics was looking for collaborators to work on the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, he got a call from Lynn Ahrens, then one from Freddie Gershon at MTI, then one from Michael Kerker at ASCAP — each suggesting Pasek and Paul. “I thought, ‘These guys are either the second coming of Sondheim, or they were owed favors by a lot of people,’” said McDonald. Less than a week after meeting the songwriters, McDonald knew he had found the perfect collaborators. James and the Giant Peach had a workshop production in 2010 at Goodspeed Musicals and its world premiere in 2013 at Seattle Children’s Theatre.

Ben Platt (center) in the title role of Pasek and Paul’s current Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Through the multiyear development of that show, the two men kept begging their agent for more work. Then A Christmas Story came up. As they had for James and the Giant Peach, the men wrote a few songs on spec, which landed them the job. The show had begun at Kansas City Rep in 2009, and Pasek and Paul joined the production in Seattle at the start of its national tour in 2010, which ended in New York for a limited engagement in November 2012. The show received three Tony Award nominations, including one for the score by the songwriting team, who had made their Broadway debut ahead of Jeff Marx’s prediction. At the show’s opening night party, Paul handed Marx a check that repaid the loan.

As they were beginning work on A Christmas Story, Peter Duchan brought them the idea for Dogfight. The duo’s first stop was Ira Weitzman, a musical theatre producer at Lincoln Center, who was interested enough to offer them a commission. They also submitted an early draft of the show for the Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters — and won, which helped finance its production at Second Stage.

Ahrens and Flaherty came to the first preview of Dogfight and offered notes to the young writing team. Stephen Schwartz came the second week and likewise offered notes. Paul said, “There’s an intrinsic desire for writers to pass along the art form and to mentor new people, to take them under their wing.” Pasek added, “You want other shows to succeed. Frozen and Hamilton only make people want to see more musicals.” The songwriters successfully synthesized the advice they received, and Dogfight garnered a Lortel Award as best Off-Broadway musical of the 2012-13 season.

One bit of useful advice they got early in their career was “Don’t write anything until you have the rights,” Paul said. “It is still good advice.” However, Pasek added, “We also got advice to wait for a million-dollar idea, because musicals take a long time. That was terrible advice! If we had listened to that, we would never have written Dogfight — which wasn’t necessarily a smart thing to write, but it established our voices.”

Pasek continued, “You should always follow your passion. I feel most encouraged when we write what no one else could write. When that happens, it’s the most rewarding of experiences. What is unique to you makes you a real artist.”

They took their own advice to heart with Dear Evan Hansen, which grew from an idea Pasek had in high school. In 2000, one of his classmates died and Pasek was struck not only by the tributes but also by the number of people claiming to be a dear friend. In 2009, when he and Paul met producer Stacey Mindich, whose funding had helped commission Dogfight at Lincoln Center, he mentioned the idea. Mindich not only introduced them to librettist Steven Levenson to help develop the show, but she also helped finance the work.

Dear Evan Hansen is a favorite to pick up a few Tony Awards next month, but whether or not it does, Pasek and Paul remain happy. As Paul recently told the New York Times, “Our goal was always, if we could just write songs and tell stories, and get to do that every day, that’s our dream.” And it seems likely they will continue to live their dream for quite a while.

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