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Benj Pasek and Justin Paul met at summer orientation before their freshman year at the University of Michigan, where they were both in the Theater Department.
Pasek, from Philadelphia, and Paul, who was born in St. Louis but grew up in Connecticut, became instant friends and soon enough, artistic collaborators.
To date, their credits include the scores for such diverse fare as adaptations of James and the Giant Peach, Dogfight, and A Christmas Story, the last for which they received Tony nominations. The pair also contributed original songs to the second season of NBC’s “Smash,” and are opening a wholly original new musical – Dear Evan Hansen – in NYC.
Below is an excerpt from an interview they gave in 2014 to editor Mark Lowry of TheaterJones.com, just before the Dallas premiere of Dogfight.
TheaterJones (TJ): You met at the University of Michigan. How did your friendship grow into artistic collaboration and lead to your first musical Edges?
Pasek: We became fast friends mostly because we were the worst people in our ballet class, so we’d hide behind each other to avoid being seen by our ballet instructor. We also got cast in the worst roles in our musical in our sophomore year. I was cast as “Man with Camera” and Justin was cast as an Asian back-up dancer, so we thought “this is a disaster, we need to do something for ourselves.” We had been tinkering with creating some songs in our freshman year, but when we got cast in these devastatingly small parts, we were like “we’re going to create our own show and stick it to the man” [laughs]. And we ended up writing Edges.
The first move we had to make was not to write a show, but to book a performance house and invite everybody that we knew to see our show. We assumed that if everybody purchased a ticket, then we would actually have to write a show, and that’s how it was born. We gave ourselves a deadline and we went for it.
TJ: That show is about young adults, relationships and decisions that affect us at that age. How much of the songs were about you and your friends?
Paul: It was all that. We didn’t know what else to write about. Mostly it was the struggles we had and the things going on with our friends and us.
TJ: The musical that first got you noticed, in New York at least, was Dogfight. It’s based on an obscure film. Were you looking to adapt a film?
Paul: We were working on another project with [book writer Peter Duchan] that—and he didn’t say this—we could tell he really didn’t think was a good idea. So we’d always subtly try and suggest other ideas. He kept suggesting these high-minded, intellectual ideas that we weren’t excited about, and then one day he brought in the DVD for Dogfight. We watched it and loved it immediately. We ditched the draft we were working on and started working on that instead.
Pasek: We also were trying to find a story that was about young people and that wasn’t necessarily set now but had resonance with modern times. The story is set on the eve of the JFK assassination; we were on the eve of America changing in a very big way. I feel like when we were writing this, there were many things happening in America, like with the Obama administration, that felt parallel. Thematically we were interested in the story; it felt pertinent but also otherworldly at the same time.
TJ: If you explain the premise to someone who doesn’t know the musical or the movie, and tell them it’s about Marines who have a contest to find the ugliest girl to date, they’d think it was sexist.
Paul: It’s a tough balance and fine line to find. We talk a lot about “casual cruelty” and a lot about how the emphasis is on these guys who didn’t know better, and weren’t taught better, and how one girl can open their mind when they come face to face with the humanity of it. In this case, with the character of Rose, [Eddie] sees a real person and not just an object. It’s a microcosm of a larger theme.
Pasek: Not only did these guys not know better, this was an actual tradition that happened in the Marines. In exploring it a little more, it was a way to dehumanize people. The way you make that a casual occurrence [is] if you can dehumanize a woman, you can dehumanize someone that you’re going to have to come face-to-face with and kill a month from now. It was conditioning people to shut off the empathy switch, [to stop] seeing other people as human beings. We thought that was interesting to explore, as these guys were about to become murderers in a way, and fight for their country and defend it. So they’re taught to turn off the empathy switch and see women in the same sort of way. It’s profoundly sad, but interesting.
TJ: Sadly, dehumanizing women still seems to be popular among certain political factions…
Paul: There’s still a very prevalent misogynistic presence out there, with rape culture and college universities…. This show was a chance for us to portray a character who ends up being a strong, confident woman who really makes the best of a situation, and [show] how that kind of person can change someone who is more close-minded.
Pasek: This character forces the Marine to recognize her as a human being.
TJ: There are a lot of famous composer/lyricist musical theater duos, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, and Bock and Harnick. But you two are always listed as both composer and lyricist. Are those duties evenly split with both of you?
Pasek: I do more lyrics, and he’s music, but we take collective responsibility for the songs. We’ve been working together for over 10 years, and when you hear something of ours, it’s a song. The music and lyrics are not divorced [from each other]. We try to push each other to create the best material possible. We don’t want to have somebody who is just responsible for music or just responsible for lyrics, because at the end of the day, it’s a shared effort.
Paul: The song works or it doesn’t.
Pasek: And that falls on both of our shoulders.
TJ: At this point, I’m guessing you’re each able to speak up when something isn’t working.
Pasek: We feel very free to speak candidly to each other [laughs].
Pasek: We have a shorthand and we know each other incredibly well. We anticipate what the other is going to do before the other person does it.
Paul: There’s not a lot of beating around the bush.
TJ: Who are your influences?
Paul: In theater, it runs the gamut, from Frank Loesser, and obviously Rodgers and Hammerstein. We’ve been lucky to be mentored by our contemporary songwriting heroes like [Lynn] Ahrens and [Stephen] Flaherty, Stephen Schwartz, and Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez of Avenue Q. We grew up listening to and loving their music, and they gave us notes and feedback and that has a bunch of influence.
Pasek: Ahrens and Flaherty came to the first preview of Dogfight and gave us helpful notes. Stephen Schwartz came the second week and the notes he gave totally shaped major elements of two songs, which we rewrote. Having that personal relationship is really phenomenal; it’s not just learning from listening, but learning from asking a hero of yours to give you feedback, and they respond. David Zippel, who wrote the lyrics for City of Angels, [gave us notes] when we were rewriting A Christmas Story before it went to Broadway. We were having conversations with him about the opening number and how to rewrite certain lyrics.
Because we come from a theater place, musically we like many genres but we really gravitate to songs that tell stories. I think the closest kind of music to musical theater is country, because it really is great storytelling when done well. We’ve recently become friends with a country songwriter, [Texas native] Shane McAnally, who wrote a lot of Kacey Musgrave’s album [Same Trailer Different Park]. We listen to his songs and we’re like “we want to do that too.” The more you learn about anything, the more you find elements of it in other things. The more we learn about songwriting in general, and we hear a great country song, it really has so many similar elements to a great theater song. We’re able to have a fuller appreciation for it.
TJ: Vanity Fair called you “the heirs to Rodgers and Hammerstein.” No pressure, huh?
Paul: Not at all [laughs]. We just love to write songs and music and hopefully we’re finding our place in the theater world and beyond that. We loved writing for the TV show Smash, but theater is our first love and we’ll hopefully always be doing that; but we love to keep expanding the kinds of ways we’re able to write music.
Reprinted with permission from Mark, Lowry, Co-Founder, Editor and Chief Theater Critic, TheaterJones.com, a performing arts online magazine in Dallas-Fort Worth.