Benj Pasek & Justin Paul: A Rare Partnership
- OnStage New York Columnist
On a typical weeknight, just after 6 p.m., I can be found walking down 8th Avenue on my way to Penn Station to head home after a day's work. This also just happens to be the ideal time to stroll through the New York theatre district and take stock of all the luminescent marquees that light up Broadway's most historic houses. It's also prime time to run into Broadway personalities of every ilk in the business; actors, designers, producers, etc. Thus, my latest Broadway "run-in": the very up-and-coming songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. A brief conversation ensued in which I slightly fan-girled (not gonna lie) over my favorite show of their career thus far: the wildly successful Off Broadway run of Dogfight (starring Lindsay Mendez and Tony Award-winner Annaleigh Ashford) that premiered at Second Stage Theatre. I happened to sneak from the administrative offices of Second Stage and walk two doors down to the lobby stairs of the theater to hear the finale song of Act One. I had no idea what I was hearing but knew one fact for sure: this was a new and exciting sound in the musical theatre that I had never heard before. I was intrigued. I was excited. We're talking literal goosebumps all over folks.
I should note that the term "up-and-coming" should be used very lightly when referring to Pasek and Paul. The two have been around for quite a while at this point and already have one incredibly successful Broadway show under their belt (2012's A Christmas Story: The Musical). I'm still waiting for that one to make a triumphant holiday return. However for those that may not be as familiar with this dynamic duo as of yet, fear not. You will be in the next few months as they prepare to take their wildly successful Off-Broadway hit original musical, Dear Evan Hansen, to the Belasco Theater on Broadway this season.
After speaking with the boys last night, I fell down the rabbit hole, as if often the case when I'm introduced to a new and exciting team of musical theatre writers, of Googling all of their previous projects. This led to endless YouTube videos of songs that I've been in love with for years. Up to this point, I was also familiar with Pasek and Paul from two other instances. The first being several highly addictive songs they wrote for a song cycle that they premiered in 2005 while the two were still undergraduates (Yes, undergrads. Don't you feel a little lazy now...?) at the University of Michigan as musical theatre majors. The piece was called "Edges" and dealt with the hardships of becoming adults. The second instance of course, being the world premiere recording of the touring cast of their Broadway musical A Christmas Story: The Musical, based off of the iconic film of the same name. The show debuted on Broadway to glowing reviews during the holiday season of 2012.
So what sets Pasek and Paul apart? They represent that very rare breed in the world of contemporary musical theatre writing and that is of the symbiotic composer/lyricist. There are several strong musical theatre composers. Conversely, there are several gifted lyricists. Some artists even manage to be both entities in the body of one person (Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, Lin Manuel-Miranda just to name a few). However, it is somewhat rare to find such a strong partnership in contemporary musical theatre of the Generation Xers. It's a slightly different sound. A more driving, pulsating sound. Pasek and Paul have mastered that fine line of combining the classic musical theatre and this new sound in their works. They also are so in sync, they finish each other's sentences in interviews and discussions about their work. Their passion for their work and the craft itself shines through and they become positively giddy with glee whenever discussing their writing process. So it is no wonder their work feels so cohesive.
We've had successful writing partnerships in the past in the musical theatre: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Bock and Harnick. Lerner and Lowe. Kander and Ebb. However in later years, most composers "date around" when it comes to finding the perfect collaborator and vice versa. Why? Put simply: it's really difficult. Think of the composer/lyricist relationship as that of a long marriage.
There will be fights. There will be make ups. There must be compromise. And just like in any marriage, the right idea always wins; or at least that's the general gist of it. We have several other incredibly gifted contemporary musical theatre writing teams: Marcy Heisler/Zina Goldrich, Kerrigan/Lowdermilk, Kitt/Yorkey, etc. But I think what sets Benj and Justin apart is their unique style and voice that has one foot in classic musical theatre and one foot in a driving contemporary sound. The result is something fresh, innovative, and satisfying for a MT nerd like myself who thrives
Their latest venture, Dear Evan Hansen, will be their first fully original musical to date. All of their previous works have been based on either movies or books. The show premiered at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. last summer and was already receiving rumors of a Broadway transfer. Both the D.C., Off-Broadway, and Broadway production are being directed by legendary director, Michael Greif (Rent, If/Then, Next to Normal, Grey Gardens). Buzz for the Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen already has people whispering "Tony." Time will tell and awards already adorn their walls and shelves but one thing is for sure: these two deserve a major award.