What It’s Like to Make It in Showbiz With Your Best Friend - The New York Times
New York Times
11th June 2017
They met at 18, the worst dancers in a college ballet class, and sought refuge in a basement practice room, taking a first stab at songwriting with a tune about adolescents playing hooky and footsie at a suburban diner. They went viral before going viral was a thing — their undergraduate years coincided with the birth of Facebook, and the first song cycle Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote, called “Edges,” was discovered, shared and performed by musical theater majors around the country. Now, at the age of 31, after a decade of being touted as promising, and Pasek and Paul have arrived.
Their first original musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” a daringly show that explores the charged interplay between collective grief and social media after a misconstrued high school suicide, begins previews Monday, Nov. 14 and is generating prize chatter even before it opens on Broadway Dec. 4.
Five days later, their first Hollywood movie, “La La Land,” a romantic Ryan Stone musical fantasia for which they wrote the lyrics, opens that film was the hit of this year’s festival circuit. But that’s not all. In an era in which the film and television industries are showing a renewed interest in musicals, they have written all the songs for a movie starring Hugh Jackman — a P.
T. Barnum biopic called “The Greatest Showman” — which is now in rehearsal and scheduled for release late next year by 20th Century Fox. Disney has hired them to write new songs for a remake of “Snow White.
” Oh, and they even have a song in “Trolls,” the DreamWorks Animation comedy that opened early this month. “I love them,” said Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, who hired the pair to write three songs for the television show “Smash,” and became so enamored that he is now a on “Dear Evan Hansen. ” “To me, they’re the future of the musical, on stage or screen.
” Musical theater history is peopled by pairings. And even before they graduated from the University of Michigan, Pasek and Paul — that’s the branding they fell into as their surnames in alphabetical order — have been prospectively placed in the pantheon. “Rodgers Hart.
Lerner Loewe. Pasek Paul? It has a nice ring to it,” said a university publication in 2006. They are handsome and charming, and exuberant, observant, obsessive, and, of course, neurotic.
Mr. Pasek writes words, and Mr. Paul writes music, but they have opted, right from the beginning, to share credit for both elements of their songs.
They estimate that they spend 350 days a year together, for six to 12 hours at a stretch, sending texts and video clips back and forth when they are not in the same room, and even sometimes when they are. “Everything that we’ve studied and loved has all built to get to be in a moment like this,” Mr. Paul said during a joint interview at Sardi’s, surrounded by caricatures of the industry’s greatest talents.
“Our goal was always, if we could just write songs and tell stories, and get to do that every day, that’s our dream. ” [A Pasek and Paul primer: six videos to watch] Although their sensibility is contemporary, they are deeply rooted in the musical theater tradition, and their sound is somewhere on the border between show tunes and pop — they are not part of the revolution on Broadway. They have proven especially deft at musicalizing emotional yearning: The 11 o’clock number in “Dear Evan Hansen” is a poignant effort by an apologetic single mother (Rachel Bay Jones) to comfort her disconsolate son (Ben Platt).
In “La La Land,” the climactic song is a stirring recollection by an aspiring actress (Ms. Stone) reflecting on inspiration at a casting call. “I think we’re attracted to material that’s hopeful and messy, and in that mess, there’s an attempt at getting at truth,” Mr.
Pasek said. They are, on the surface, quite different from each other. Mr.
Paul, who lives in Harlem, is a churchgoing Christian from Westport, Conn. straight married and the father of a daughter. Mr.
Pasek, who grew up in Ardmore, Pa. and now lives on the Upper West Side, is gay, Jewish and single. But they both began as little boys who loved to sing.
Mr. Paul, a talented pianist, started early. At age 3, he was singing gospel music with his father, a pastor, in church.
Later, he sang and danced at senior centers with Music Theater of Connecticut and then, at Staples High School, he performed in “Into the Woods,” conducted the orchestra in “Hello, Dolly!” and spent his free time poring over Broadway “fake books,” which help pianists master melodies. Mr. Pasek also sang with a parent: His mother is a developmental psychologist and professor with a propensity for bursting into song.
(“She’s like a musical theater character, in the best possible way,” he said.) She wrote and performed songs from a child’s point of view (“They were a big hit on the synagogue circuit,” he said) and he remembers guest starring with her at about age 7. Mr.
Pasek sang and traveled with the Philadelphia Boys Choir Chorale, and then, as a student at Friends Central School, performed in musicals including “Bye Bye Birdie” and “42nd Street. ” They compare themselves to brothers, who bicker and bond, knowing their relationship will endure. A recent fight, over whose bad habits were to blame for their difficulty replacing the final first act song in “Dear Evan Hansen,” sent Mr.
Pasek stalking out of their Columbus Circle studio into the street, but then, 10 minutes later, calling Mr. Paul for a lengthy that prompted the pair to ditch the disputed number and start over. Mr.
Pasek and Mr. Paul met the summer before college, at a freshman orientation weekend, and connected over a shared sense of humor, a passion for the work of Jason Robert Brown and an obsession with “Merrily We Roll Along. ” (The title “Edges” alludes to a “Merrily” lyric.
) Mr. Pasek wanted to record some songs he had written as a high school senior, and he recruited Mr. Paul as an arranger and accompanist with that, their collaboration began.
They mined their own experiences, and those of their friends, for material, acting out songs as they wrote. “I kept watching them observe the social experiment of college and find ways to articulate it,” said Nick Blaemire, a fellow Michigan student who is now an actor in New York, recalling a night when he told Mr. Pasek about his difficulty expressing love to a girlfriend, and seeing that become “I Hmm You.
” Raised in the digital age, and aware of the role social media played in fueling their popularity, they have demonstrated an ease promoting their work — at first with CDs and a homespun tour of “Edges,” and more recently with producers, performers and journalists — that has served them well. “They’re salesmen, and always have been — they know how to explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” Mr. Blaemire said.
Michael Gracey, the director of “The Greatest Showman,” had imagined asking a number of songwriters to contribute songs to his film, but, as he talked with Mr. Pasek and Mr. Paul about the movie, abandoned that plan to give them all the work.
He even videotaped their songwriting sessions, convinced that they would be of significance for posterity. “I can’t even begin to describe the enormous impact those two have had on this film,” he said. The director of “La La Land,” Damien Chazelle, had a similar experience: He was looking for seasoned lyricists who could write words for songs composed by Justin Hurwitz when Mr.
Pasek and Mr. Paul, seeking the gig, gave him proposed lyrics for a song called “City of Stars. ” That became a signature number.
“It was screamingly obvious that we had stumbled onto a gold mine with these guys, and we brought them on right away,” Mr. Chazelle said. Their promise was evident as soon as they started writing together.
Brent Wagner, the emeritus chairman of the musical theater program at the University of Michigan, still remembers the night in 2005 when Mr. Blaemire, then a junior, persuaded him to stop by the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor to see “Edges. ” “It was a youthful work, and it wasn’t completely advanced — there wasn’t even music written down — but it was marvelous, and at that moment, you knew you were in the midst of real talent and real understanding of theater craft,” Mr.
Wagner said. “By the time they left school,” he said, “we knew it would just be a matter of time. ” Jeff Marx, the Tony of “Avenue Q,” was equally convinced — so sure that he placed a bet on them.
A Michigan alumnus, he had taken on Mr. Pasek as an assistant in the summer of 2005. (“I looked at his Friendster profile and he seemed like a nice kid.
”) The next year, when Mr. Pasek asked to return, Mr. Marx told him he needed to stop interning and focus on writing shows with Mr.
Paul. Mr. Paul couldn’t afford to write full time — he needed to earn money for school — but Mr.
Marx was so intent that he offered to give Mr. Paul money in lieu of what he would have earned from a summer job. Then, when Mr.
Paul said he was unwilling to accept charity, Mr. Marx repositioned his offer as a wager, staking him $7, 000, to be repaid only if Mr. Pasek and Mr.
Paul made it to Broadway within the next decade. It happened, but in an unexpected way. They had a frustrating experience adapting the Roald Dahl children’s book “James and the Giant Peach,” which was mounted at Goodspeed Musicals in 2010, and has been revised since.
They remain proud of their songs, and the show is still being produced at small theaters, but the Dahl estate has decided to restrict professional productions to make room for a different adaptation. Their musical version of the 1991 film “Dogfight” was presented at Second Stage, Off Broadway, in 2012, and was generally admired, but not well enough to make the leap to Broadway. But after the initial songwriter for the adaptation of the 1983 family film “A Christmas Story” was let go, they were brought in — and nominated for a Tony Award — when the show, which was developed to tour, ended up transferring to Broadway in 2012.
Six years after Mr. Marx’s bet, Mr. Paul handed him a check at the opening night party.
“My money was safe,” Mr. Marx said. Other mentors have stepped in, too.
Stephen Schwartz, the writer of “Pippin” and “Wicked,” has been advising them since Mr. Paul met him as an undergraduate. Mr.
Schwartz recommended them to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime”) who admitted them to a Dramatists Guild fellowship. Ms. Ahrens and Mr.
Flaherty assigned them to observe the development of “Next to Normal,” where they met the director Michael Greif (best known for “Rent”) who is now directing “Dear Evan Hansen. ” The new show was borne from an observation Mr. Pasek had about how his own high school community reacted when a former student died unexpectedly he noted the desire of many, including himself, to be counted among the bereaved for someone they did not know well.
Mr. Pasek and Mr. Paul had talked about the idea for years when a producer, Stacey Mindich, who had helped commission “Dogfight,” offered to finance their dream project.
She introduced them to the work of a playwright, Steven Levenson, who became the “Dear Evan Hansen” book writer, turning their musings into a narrative. The show, developed through productions last year at Arena Stage in Washington and this year Off Broadway at Second Stage, features a performance by the Mr. Platt (“Pitch Perfect”).
As a high school student he had discovered Pasek and Paul via YouTube, and sang one of the “Edges” songs at a senior concert. (Mr. Platt is not the only Pasek and Paul fan in his family — his father, Marc Platt, is the producer of “La La Land” and “Snow White.
”) The duo’s work demonstrates an understanding of the contemporary lives of teenagers, but several of their collaborators have also been struck by their empathy for parents. “The insight they seem to have into the heart of a mother has been there as long as I’ve known them,” said Ms. Jones, who has played Pasek and Paul mothers in “A Christmas Story” and “Dear Evan Hansen.
” “They use these tiny moments to describe enormous feelings that have no words — a lyric about a Ninja Turtle or glow stars on the ceiling,” she said, referring to a song that was used during the early stages of “Dear Evan Hansen. ” Both Ms. Jones and Mr.
Platt distinctly remember the day Mr. Pasek and Mr. Paul brought in a new song, “So Small,” in which her character describes the impact of the breakup of her marriage on his character’s childhood.
“It makes you die inside because it’s so real,” she said. Mr. Platt agreed.
“Everybody was a big wreck. ” As they now prepare for the openings of the musical and movie, Mr. Pasek and Mr.
Paul describe what looks like sudden success as largely a coincidence. They have been working on “Dear Evan Hansen” for six years, they finished writing songs for “Trolls” and “La La Land” more than a year ago, and they haven’t yet begun work on “Snow White. ” But still — on one particularly busy recent day, they started in Dumbo, Brooklyn, at 8:30 a.
m. for a “Greatest Showman” script meeting traveled to Midtown to tweak “Dear Evan Hansen” arrangements with their orchestrator, Alex Lacamoire split up so Mr. Paul could go to a Chelsea studio to record tracks for “Showman” while Mr.
Pasek sat in on auditions for Mr. Platt’s understudy went to MoMA for a screening of “La La Land” hosted by Jennifer Lawrence and then to an at the Rainbow Room’s Bar SixtyFive. Most days aren’t nearly that varied or that glamorous.
And at the start of each project, it is still the two of them, trying to figure out how to tell a story through music. “Nothing changes — the next time we have to write a song we’re going to sit down at a piano and bang our heads against it for a long time and talk ourselves blue in the face about what it should be,” Mr. Paul said.
Mr. Pasek jumped in, finishing the thought: “Facing the blank page doesn’t get any easier. ”.
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