Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are both just 30 years old, but the songwriting duo has long been touted as the future of the American musical. Specifically, “the heirs to Rodgers and Hammerstein,” as Vanity Fair put it in 2012. That was after Pasek and Paul made a splash Off-Broadway with the musical Dogfight, based on the 1991 cult film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.
The following year, the pair earned Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Original Score for their Broadway debut with an adaptation of A Christmas Story, The Musical. Pasek and Paul have since branched out into film and television, composing songs for NBC’s Smash and films, including the forthcoming La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.
Right now, the duo are generating significant buzz in Washington. Arena Stage is debuting Pasek and Paul’s newest work Dear Evan Hansen, featuring a book by Steven Levenson, in a world premiere production. “It’s a show that has come completely from our own heads,” Pasek explains, “and so it’s riskier than other things that we’ve tried in the past.”
The work is informed by the different lives and experiences of its creators — the gay, Jewish Pasek from Philadelphia, and the straight, Christian Paul from Connecticut. Paul is the more musical of the two — “He is a musical genius, I would proclaim to the world,” Pasek says — while Pasek is more lyrical, focused on words, concepts and characters. “We develop these songs and develop these characters and we do it as a really joint effort,” Pasek says. “We view it very much as a collaboration.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with when you became a songwriting duo. You met in college, right?
BENJ PASEK: We both went to the University of Michigan for musical theater. We went there to be actors. For a lot of people who love the theater, when you’re young, acting is your way in. But halfway through school we realized maybe we’re not cut out to be performers. It was not exactly working out for us. After many failed attempts to get good roles in our school shows, we saw the writing on the wall and thought, “Why don’t we write our own show, and see what we can make of that?”
MW: Was there a moment when you realized you were on to something by working together?
PASEK: We just started doing it for fun. We were freshmen in college when we began tinkering. We were in a practice room at the School of Music, and we just began to write songs together. It was fun to develop songs thinking from characters’ perspectives. We decided to string some of these songs together and make a song cycle our sophomore year. People were receptive. I think before we even knew what was happening we had begun a collaboration.
MW: Did either of you write songs growing up?
JUSTIN PAUL: I didn’t, no. But in addition to being a performer, I always wanted to be in the pit orchestra, playing piano or percussion. I always saw myself being involved on the musical side of things in musical theater, I just always figured it would be interpreting and teaching and working out other peoples’ music. I hadn’t really planned on it being my own music.
MW: Were your families musically oriented?
PAUL: I grew up in a pretty musical household. Neither of my parents are professional musicians, but they’re very, very musical. My dad and my mom both would sit down and play the piano. I grew up playing a lot of music in church, and singing with my parents. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven. So they were always very encouraging and they knew that I had a love for it and a knack for it.
PASEK: My mom created a bunch of kids’ albums where she would document whatever we were doing growing up and she would turn those moments into songs. She had a children’s music group in our local area in Philadelphia. So I grew up just witnessing my mom — who’s a psychologist, not a professional musician — turning life moments into song. That’s essentially what we do every day, when we try to create theater. Watching her interpret things that were happening in the world, or in my world as a kid, and setting them to music — I think that really sparked an interest in writing and creating and interpreting life moments into song lyrics.
MW: How would you say the gay/straight dynamic of your partnership impacts your work?
PASEK: Beyond just being gay and straight, I think that we come from very different family environments and different ways of growing up. I think that that’s been hugely advantageous for us as a collaborative partnership. We approach the world from really different perspectives — on what we see and how we view lots of situations. I think that we’re able to explore human behavior in a way that sparks a debate and where we question things, and we talk internally about why would somebody do something, or what would be the motivation behind that. We end up having really interesting discussions about the world, about human behavior. And I think it leads to hopefully a more interesting result in what we choose to write about and how we choose to write about different topics.
MW: Justin, you mentioned you grew up singing in church. Did you come from a very religious or conservative background?
PAUL: I don’t know if I would say conservative background, but my father is a minister and I come from a long line of folks with a church background — my father, my father’s father, my mom’s father.
MW: Which denomination?
PAUL: It’s Christian, but it’s non-denominational. The churches that I grew up in were more urban environments. A lot of gospel music, that sort of thing. It was always a very fun and vibrant experience.
MW: Do you remember the first person in your life you knew as gay?
PAUL: I think it was probably in middle school and high school, the theater teacher of mine. I grew up in a fairly progressive town in Connecticut, so it was not really a big deal or big reveal in any certain way. And then, being in theater your whole life, you’re sort of accustomed to that and you find yourself in that world very early on, so it’s a very natural, very ordinary part of life. The wonderful thing about being in theater is that you’re exposed to so many different types of people.
MW: Benj, was coming out difficult for you?
PASEK: I grew up in a pretty liberal environment on the East Coast, with a very liberal Jewish family. So it wasn’t as big of a deal as I imagine it would be for other people who grew up in different circumstances. I do think, though, that the world has changed in a huge way since I was in high school. I remember feeling like I was the only gay kid in my school. I definitely didn’t feel like I could be completely out and proud. And I see kids now who are part of the Gay-Straight Alliances at their schools — it is very, very different from when I was a kid, and my experience is very, very different from I think a generation older than me. It’s been pretty amazing to see it continue and progress. Being gay and being open about your sexuality is less and less of an issue. That’s pretty phenomenal.
MW: Have you ever written a gay character?
PASEK: I don’t think we have. I do think that the feeling of being an outsider, or feeling like you aren’t a part of a norm, is a thread throughout a lot of our work. Especially with Dogfight, a musical about a girl who is perceived not to be attractive. And about a guy who asks her out as a joke. One of the reasons it relates to a lot of women but also a lot of gay men is because that’s how a lot of gay men feel — a sense of worthlessness. Or a sense that they aren’t enough. In Dear Evan Hansen, the character is not gay but the sense of being lonely, the sense of feeling like an outsider, or feeling like you’re not a part of the world, or that the world doesn’t want you to be a part of it, is a theme that, being a gay writer, I relate to.
MW: The premise of Dear Evan Hansen could serve as an elaborate metaphor for coming out.
PASEK: In a way it is. Our character is not written to be gay, but I do think that the struggle of coming out is the same as a lot of struggles that human beings have, which is exposing truths, being truthful. And we all are on a journey. I think gay men have it harder than a lot of other people because the world tells you that you aren’t good enough. I think a lot of minorities have this. There’s the bit in the show about Evan feeling on the outside, always looking in. And anyone who feels that way, and feels that they are not part of the world, it seems to resonate, because I think a lot of us feel that way — that we are outsiders.
MW: I understand the idea for Dear Evan Hansen originates from an experience of yours in high school.
PASEK: There was a student who was sort of anonymous. He died of a drug overdose, and it was sort of unclear whether it was intentional or not. After he passed away the student body became very, very close to him. Everybody sort of claimed him as their best friend after he died, and began to write their college essays about him, and began to talk about how amazing he was and how important he was in their lives.
When Justin and I met in college, and we began to write musicals, this moment from my high school days continued to be fascinating. We talked about exploring it in a musical. Since then, we’ve brought up a lot of other themes that we wanted to talk about — there’s a sort of need to connect, the need to be a part of a community, the need to be a part of something larger than yourself, especially in this digital, isolated age that we now find ourselves in. We began to explore how we could take those themes and turn it into a musical. And that’s when the amazing Steven Levenson came into the picture and helped us churn our ideas into an actual plot.
MW: The character of Evan Hansen is a risky, unusual protagonist.
PAUL: It’s definitely an unusual one in that he’s riddled with issues and anxieties, and with lots of self-esteem issues and a lot of other things. But I think that’s what makes him very accessible and identifiable and relatable. Hopefully everyone can go and see the show and see a little bit of Evan in themselves, and feel like they can connect with him, or at least connect with the situations that he finds himself in — he doesn’t know the right thing to say to people, or how to fit into a conversation, or how to be himself and not try to create or embellish a story about himself that is better than what he thinks his real life is. It’s a different sort of character and maybe not your typical musical theater leading man, but that’s definitely what we were hoping to write — a contemporary and relevant and accessible character.
PASEK: Traditionally, in Musical Theater 101, you learn to try to write a protagonist that people like, and that you go and you root for them to achieve whatever they want on their journey. That’s the thing you’re always looking for in a musical. With both Dear Evan Hansen and with Dogfight, we have protagonists who do things that are really morally questionable. It’s our jobs as writers to try to get the audience to identify with them and to support why they’re doing what they’re doing. We wanted to try to create characters that were more complex — and more nuanced — than maybe more traditional musical theater characters. With both of those shows, we view them as experiments, and we’ll let critics and audiences be the judge of whether or not we have succeeded or failed. But it’s definitely been an exciting challenge to produce characters that are more complicated.
MW: How did Ben Platt come into the picture?
PASEK: Ben Platt actually auditioned for Dogfight back in 2011 or 2012. He would have been I guess 17 at that time. And we saw this insanely talented kid come in and blow us away with his acting, blow us away with his singing. He was a little bit too young for the role that he was auditioning for, but he stuck in our minds. And when we were developing Dear Evan Hansen, when we were beginning to think about who could accurately portray this character, Ben was somebody who kept coming up for us. We were lucky enough to see him in The Book of Mormon right at the time when we were beginning to cast our first reading, so we invited him to be our first Evan Hansen, the very first time that we heard any of the material out loud. And within half an hour of that first day, we kind of looked at each other — we couldn’t even believe how fantastic he was and how much he brought to the role. The nuances in the performance that he was already creating within a half hour of seeing the material for the first time. We knew that we had found the guy to be Evan Hansen.
MW: Dear Evan Hansen may have been spurred from personal experience, but the work isn’t based in reality, right?
PASEK: I don’t think that any art is 100-percent factual, you know? I think that everything that you create, especially with something that’s not a documentary or an autobiography, it doesn’t really matter what the facts are. It matters what the truth is. I don’t know that the actual events that will ever take place in the real world will fit into a two-and-a-half hour story with songs. It’s our job just to identify what it is from the real world that people can connect to and to translate that into an art form. Something we’re proud of with Dear Evan Hansen is that people seem to be leaving the theater every night moved, seeing elements of themselves on stage. And we definitely hear lots of sniffles in the audience during the last 15 minutes of the show.
MW: The show really does pack an emotional punch in its last 15 minutes.
PASEK: [Laughs.] It’s not that we want to make everybody cry. But I get emotional when I watch the show still. And it was emotional to write those things. It gets to that emotional truth, even in me, that are hard to acknowledge, that sometimes I can feel alone or sometimes I can feel like I’m not worthy. I think that that’s a huge part of the psychology of growing up gay, that you question your own sense of self-worth. And whether or not you are worthy of love and whether or not anyone will really love you for who you really are.
MW: What are your thoughts on the state of musical theater and its future?
PASEK: The state of the American musical is in pretty great shape. I mean the new musical Hamilton is being received enormously, incredibly well right now on Broadway. And I think that it, along with shows like Next to Normal and Spring Awakening — shows that have pushed the sort of boundaries of what musicals could be — all contribute to audiences being receptive and open to new kinds of stories being told through musical theater, and the musical theater form. We hope that Dear Evan Hansen can be a part of that and we’re excited to continue to create works that sort of challenge and push boundaries and represent different types of characters on stage, and different types of stories. We view ourselves very much as a part of a generation that is trying to do that.
MW: Dear Evan Hansen could become your second show to make it to Broadway. You managed to snag a Tony nomination your first time around, with A Christmas Story, The Musical. What brought you to that production?
PASEK: We found out that they were looking for writers on that, so we basically auditioned to get the part — we wrote some songs on spec and submitted them. And our songs were chosen. They said, “Here’s the deal: Right now it’s March, and we have a production that goes into rehearsal at the end of September. So we need you guys to write the show now and fast.” And we thought, oh my gosh, what did we get ourselves into? Maybe the reason that we were chosen is because we were the only ones foolish enough to actually take on the assignment. I think when we signed on, we knew it had a production in Seattle at the 5th Avenue Theatre. We just thought, wow, to have a show in a theater of that size and that prestigious, that’s huge and that’s everything. And that was the endgame on that.
I don’t want to say A Christmas Story is the little show that could, because it’s based on a huge property and it’s a big show in terms of its scope and size, but it did continue to keep surprising us. We never imagined it would take us beyond 5th Avenue to be on tour, and then into New York and onto Broadway and then to the Tony Awards.
It was definitely a surprise on that April morning when we were watching in our bathrobes and saw that we were going to get to go to the Tony Awards that year for a show that had long closed on Broadway. It closed at the end of December, because it couldn’t really run past the holiday season.
MW: And it continues to have legs, with productions every season around the country.
PASEK: Yeah, it was on tour last year, it’ll be on tour again this year, probably the next couple of years. And also it has productions — everything from big, original theaters, to schools and community theaters throughout the country. And that is a really special gift — to know the thing that we wrote has now gone out to the world and is having a life of its own and being produced around the country. And with any luck, it’ll be produced in perpetuity.
MW: Do you consider Rodgers and Hammerstein to be inspirations on your work?
PASEK: Definitely Rodgers and Hammerstein, but also more contemporary musical composers like Stephen Schwartz, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez. Those are more like direct mentors. Obviously Stephen Sondheim has been a huge influence on us. We’re firm believers of looking in the past to solve the problems of the future. Sometimes when we don’t know what lyrics to write, or what a good song might be, you don’t just look at contemporary musical theater. The Sherman Brothers, who did a lot of the Disney films, Mary Poppins and all that, were such fantastic creative writers. Sometimes the solution to a problem exists in one of their songs that was written in 1960, you know? Frank Loesser — just a ton of people throughout musical theater history. And I think we’re very, very influenced by modern writers as well. I think we’re as influenced by Stephen Sondheim as we are by Taylor Swift and John Mayer and Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel and Elton John. A lot of these writers who are in more of the pop vein tend to be people who care about the story, and care about narrative. I think there’s a spectrum of pop writers, and those who are more in the sort of narrative vein are people that we really look to to try to blend modern music with storytelling. And all of those folks have been really influential to us.
We’re really trying to write things that feel like they’re moving the story forward but that they’re also accessible and that they feel like, they’re a mix between what you would hear on the radio and what you would hear on a traditional Broadway stage. And just trying to meet in the middle.
Dear Evan Hansen runs to Aug. 23 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $40 to $90. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.
Dogfight opens Saturday, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m., at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $35 to $45. Call 703-892-0202 or visit keegantheatre.com.
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