Article

Buddy, You and I

Fifteen years into their partnership, the two find themselves no longer the bright, talented kids with promise, but new members of the aristocracy of success.

Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, a Broadway flop in 1981 that has gone on to become a cult classic, follows the rise to fame of a pair of musical-theater songwriters and longtime best friends—except it tells their story in reverse chronological order, taking them from disillusioned middle age to idealistic youth, ending with the duo on a New York City rooftop at dawn, looking ahead to the future, as they sing:

It’s our time, breathe it in:

Worlds to change and worlds to win.

Our turn coming through,

Me and you, man,

Me and you!

It seems fitting that when a pair of 18-year-old future musical-theater song writing partners, and soon-to-be best friends, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, met as college freshmen, one of the things they bonded over—along with an obsessive knowledge of show tunes, a gift for nimble, smart-alecky banter, and an unwarranted belief in their skills as freestyle rappers and beatboxers—was a worshipful devotion to Sondheim in general and Merrily We Roll Along in particular. Paul had starred in a high school production of it, prophetically playing the composer Franklin Shepard (you can find snippets of his heartfelt per - formance on YouTube), and both knew the lyrics to every song from the show, though “Our Time” spoke to them with special urgency. “What kid with the completely unrealistic belief that he’s going to make it on Broadway doesn’t see himself in that song?” Pasek says. “It’s that mixture of naiveté and arrogance and hope, that heady spirit of ‘Look out, world—here we come.’”

“Our Time” could serve as a kind of anthem for the moment in which Pasek and Paul, still fresh-faced and bristling with enthusiasm at 33, find themselves. With Tonys for Dear Evan Hansen and Oscars for their lyrics to the song “City of Stars” from La La Land on their mantels, the duo also has the big screen Hugh Jackman musical The Greatest Showman under their belts, a live-action Snow White film in the works for Disney, and some half dozen other theater and film projects at various stages of devel - opment. Fifteen years into their partnership, the two find themselves no longer the bright, talented kids with promise, but new members of the aristocracy of success.

Theirs is a marriage of opposites. A practicing Christian married to a journalist and a father to a 2-year-old daughter, Paul is lanky and pale with a swoosh of blond hair. (Fun fact: He met his wife, Asher, when she wrote her graduate school thesis on new musical-theater writers and interviewed the pair.) Jewish, single, and gay, Pasek is swarthy and compact. And they play off each other with the practiced timing of a vaudeville team—or a pair of songwriters who finish each other’s sentences, riff on each other’s jokes, and shoot each other glances that only they understand.

Every song begins and ends with Paul at the piano, composing the music, and Pasek on his MacBook, writing the lyrics. But the key to their partnership, they say, is how they complement each other, how their individual strengths and weaknesses dovetail to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts: not Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, but Pasek and Paul.

Since the beginning, they have shared credit for both music and lyrics. “The idea is to make the songs sound like they emerged from one mind and speak with one voice,” Paul says.

“I think if you separate things too much, you end up fighting,” Pasek adds. “I mean, we fight all the time—”

“Seriously, all the time—”

“Seriously. But not over turf. Sharing song credit allows us to not fight over individual pieces and to focus on…”

Almost simultaneously, they finish the thought: “…the song as a whole.”

Of all their achievements, there’s no question that Dear Evan Hansen remains closest to their hearts. “It’s the culmination,” Paul says, “of everything we’ve done, and everything we’ve wanted to do, since we first started writing songs together.”

Paul grew up first in St. Louis and then in Westport, Connecticut, the son of a pastor, who, along with Paul’s mother, instilled in him a love of music. He started singing with his father in church as a young boy, later picking up the piano as well, and the soaring emotionality of gospel embedded itself in his musical DNA. But after he was cast in a local production of Oliver! and got his hands on the original cast recording of Cats, his life became all about musical theater—performing in shows, playing in the orchestra pit, conducting, and in his spare time listening to cast albums and teaching himself songs on the piano from Broadway fake books.

Pasek followed a parallel trajectory in Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia. His early musical influence was his mother, a developmental psychologist, who, he recalls, “moonlit writing children’s music.” “She wrote songs that chronicled my childhood,” he says. “They were big hits on the synagogue circuit. So I was always tracking how moments from real life could be translated into songs.” Pasek’s gateway drug into musical theater, at age 11, was Rent. “I remember being so moved by it and feeling that I had found these incredible characters and a secret community of people who related to them,” he recalls. “That opened the floodgates.”

  Dear Evan Hansen, First National Tour

That’s very much how I felt at 17—waiting to like myself and wondering if other people would ever think I was worth liking.”

Pasek and Paul may not have based the hero of Dear Evan Hansen on their younger selves—neither of them was pathologically anxious or depressed—but they did mine the sense of alienation, not uncommon to kids who find their way to the performing arts, that each felt as an adolescent. “I really hate the phrase ‘fit in,’ and yet there’s a reason that we always use it,” Paul says. “I remember many of my decisions—and I was a pretty independent-minded kid—being based to a degree on wanting to fit in and feel part of some group or some clique or some bunch of people who did the same things. I found that with musical theater. When I think about Evan and myself, I identify because, at the end of the day, you just want to feel that you’re not the only one who isn’t part of something.”

Pasek also found a refuge with the theater kids at his school. But, he says, “for me, it was less about fitting in and more about finding my identity. A lot of people at that age, myself included, don’t know who they are. That’s how I identify with Evan the most. He’s given a chance to have a strong sense of self, but it’s built on a fabrication, so it’s sitting on very, very shaky ground. You want to feel that you are loved and heard and seen and valued when you don’t feel that way behind closed doors. That’s very much how I felt at 17—waiting to like myself and wondering if other people would ever think I was worth liking.”

By the time they met at their freshman orientation weekend, entering the prestigious Musical Theatre program at the University of Michigan, they had both decided to pursue careers as performers. They saw themselves as potential triple threats, but before the end of their first ballet class, Pasek says, they discovered that they were “completely inept—literally the two worst dancers in the class,” so they downgraded themselves to potential “double threats.” They didn’t get cast in either of the big school musicals their first year, and came up empty their sophomore fall when the show was A Chorus Line, for obvious reasons. Finally, when City of Angels was announced as the spring show, they felt sure their time had come, largely because it was a musical with minimal dancing. But when the cast list was posted, they learned that Pasek would be playing “Man With Camera,” while Paul would be portraying “Harlan Yamato,” a coroner and backup dancer. “It was pretty depressing,” Pasek recalls. “And we started to realize, Hmm, I think we might be getting down to zero threats.”

At a crossroads, Pasek and Paul had an idea. If no one would cast them in a musical, why not write one of their own and put it on themselves? They had taken a stab at a songwriting collaboration as freshmen and already had three songs ready to go. “When we got in the room together, we had this perfect combination of ADD and a creative spark,” Pasek says. Those earlier collaborations, though, had been pop songs. Now they decided to try their hand at theatrical songs that they could imagine in a musical, guided by the questions they had learned to ask in their acting classes: Who are you talking to? What do you want? What’s your obstacle?

When it came time to pick a subject for their first collaboration, Pasek recalls, “We kept noticing that a trope in the musical-theater canon was these songs about young people who had big dreams. So we were like, we’re going to write a song that’s going to be our ‘Corner of the Sky,’ or whatever. And we literally wrote a song called ‘Boy With Dreams.’”

“And the tag phrase,” Paul adds, “was, ‘I’m a boy with dreams.’ Zero subtext. No angle whatsoever. Just dead on the nose. But it was a start.”

Pasek and Paul had what they call their “dark night of the soul” over spring break in Florida, where they committed to writing a full show—and to each other as collaborators. Lacking the know-how, not to mention the time, to write a full book musical (a musical with a plot), they decided to create a song cycle (a group of thematically linked songs). Back at school, they booked the ninety-nine-seat Kerrytown Concert House near the Ann Arbor campus for April 5, 2005, invited everyone from their department, enlisted four fellow City of Angels rejects as performers, and, spurred by the looming performance, spent the next three weeks racing against the clock to write another eleven songs and teach them to the cast. The result was Edges, whose title is a nod to a lyric from Merrily We Roll Along’s “Our Time” (“Edges are blurring all around/ And yesterday is done.”) The one-nightonly concert was a smash, and their peers seemed to connect to their clever, tuneful songs about young people on the edge of adulthood, trying to maneuver through the challenges of romance, friendship, responsibility, and ambition. One number, “Be My Friend” (which has come to be known as “The Facebook Song”), pokes fun at the way the then-new phenomenon turns friendships into superficial transactions.

At the time, both Facebook, which was only available to college students, and YouTube were in their early days. Though Pasek and Paul may have been prescient to identify the pitfalls of social media, they were equally savvy in recognizing its potential for promoting their work. They uploaded videos of their concert to YouTube and, through Facebook, figured out which colleges had theater departments and pitched the show to those schools. Within a year, thirteen colleges had mounted Edges. Its first professional production was in 2007; it has since been performed all over the world.

Pasek and Paul received many invaluable professional and mentorship opportunities early in their careers. First came a summer internship in New York with Jeff Marx, one of the co-writers of Avenue Q, who loaned Paul $7,000 so he could continue to write rather than take a summer job to pay for school-related expenses, with the proviso that he repay him if and when Paul’s first show opened on Broadway before he turned 30. (He repaid Marx on opening night of A Christmas Story: The Musical in 2012). Then, Pasek and Paul won the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award, which is open only to college graduates, a condition they satisfied by cramming their credit requirements into the fall semester of their senior year and graduating early. By the time they moved to New York in December 2006, they’d staged a concert of their songs at Joe’s Pub and lined up a job writing songs for the Disney Channel show Johnny and the Sprites.

Living a block and a half from each other on the Upper West Side, Pasek and Paul sought out mentors in the business, among them the songwriting team behind Ragtime and Once on This Island, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. They credit Ahrens and Flaherty with teaching them that not every song has to tell a character’s entire life journey in one anthemic three-minute sitting. They also captured the attention of Stephen Schwartz, a composer who boasts, among his many credits, such groundbreaking musicals as Godspell and Wicked. Schwartz advised them to start using pure rhyme and introduced them to a particularly crucial songwriting concept.

“He was like, ‘You guys need to learn about subtext,’” Paul recalls. “‘Sometimes characters say or sing one thing…’”

Pasek jumps in: “‘…but mean another.’”

“Right. We’re like, ‘Oh, interesting. Wow.’”

By the time Pasek and Paul got the chance to write their first musical, they were ready to apply what they’d learned. They met up with Paul’s middle- and high-school friend, playwright Peter Duchan, to brainstorm projects to work on together. Duchan suggested an adaptation of Dogfight, a 1991 film about a group of Marines who organize a contest to see which of them can bring the ugliest girl to a dance. The trio developed the musical Dogfight over the next several years; it had its critically acclaimed New York premiere at Second Stage in 2012.

Around the same time as Pasek and Paul embarked on Dogfight, Ahrens introduced the two to Tim McDonald at iTheatrics, who was developing a musical version of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. The songwriters immediately clicked with McDonald and hit the ground running with the show, which premiered in 2010 at Goodspeed Opera House, and has since been produced across the country. While James was still in development, they heard that Jerry Goehring was looking to develop a musical adaptation of the beloved film A Christmas Story, and the writers convinced their agent to secure them a meeting for the job. While still in college, they had discussed the classic holiday movie as a tale that could really sing and would make a great musical. They landed the gig, which became their Broadway debut and earned them their first Tony Award nomination.

With three musicals and a Tony nomination on the books well before they’d turned 30, Pasek and Paul had established themselves among the best and brightest of the upcoming generation of musical-theater writers. By 2013, after having written a traditional Broadway score influenced by the sounds of the 1960s for Dogfight, another for the 1940-set A Christmas Story: The Musical, plus a sprightly, eclectic pastiche for James and the Giant Peach, they longed to return to the kind of contemporary sound and setting they had first explored in Edges. And, after three musicals based on existing material, they wanted to write one that was completely original.

As it happened, they already had an idea in mind, based loosely on an incident from Pasek’s high school days. Pasek had first floated the idea to Paul back at the University of Michigan, and the two of them had batted it around on and off ever since. When a producer named Stacey Mindich, a longtime fan of their songs, approached them with the hope of commissioning their next musical, Pasek and Paul knew what they wanted to write. It was, as Paul put it in an email to Mindich, “a story from our lives and from our hearts.”

Reprinted from Dear Evan Hansen: through the window (Grand Central Publishing / Melcher), written by Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul.