How fitting that when a pair of 18-year-old future musical theatre songwriting 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 beat-boxers—was a particular affinity for shared idol Stephen Sondheim’s flop-turned-cult-classic Merrily We Roll Along, which chronicles the ascent of a Broadway songwriting duo, backwards from world-weary cynicism to bright-eyed optimism.
Both knew the lyrics to every song from the show, but “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” is indeed an apt anthem for the moment in which Pasek and Paul—still fresh-faced and bristling with enthusiasm at 33—find themselves: Tonys for Dear Evan Hansen and Oscars for their lyrics to the song “City of Stars” from La La Land on their mantels; their big-screen musical The Greatest Showman both a box office marvel and bona fide pop culture phenomenon; a live-action Snow White film in the works for Disney; and still more theatre and film projects at various stages of development. Fourteen years into their partnership, the two are no longer 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, Paul is lanky and pale with a swoosh of blond hair. Jewish 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 composing the music at the piano and Pasek writing the lyrics on his MacBook. But the key to their partnership, they say, is how their individual strengths and weaknesses dovetail to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. 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.
Paul grew up first in St. Louis and then Westport, Connecticut, and his parents instilled in him a love of music. He started singing with his father, a pastor, in church as a young boy, and the soaring emotionality of gospel embedded itself in his musical DNA. Cast in a local production of Oliver! and soon armed with the original cast recording of Cats, his life became all about musical theatre.
Pasek followed a parallel trajectory in Ardmore, a suburb of Philadelphia. His early musical influence was his mother, a developmental psychologist who moonlit writing children’s music. “So I was always tracking how moments from real life could be translated into songs,” he says. Pasek’s gateway drug into musical theatre, 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 that related to them.”
By the time the two met during freshman orientation at the University of Michigan’s prestigious Musical Theatre program, both had decided to pursue careers as performers—potential triple threats, they imagined! 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.” But by the spring of their sophomore year, significant roles in the big school musicals continued to elude them. “It was pretty depressing,” Pasek recalls. “And we started to realize, ‘Hmm, I think we might be getting down to zero threats.’”
If no one would cast them in a musical, Pasek and Paul mused, 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, we had this perfect combination of ADD and a creative spark together,” Pasek says. Crafting theatrical songs that they could imagine in a musical, they were 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?
“We kept noticing that a trope in the musical theatre canon was these songs about young people who had big dreams,” Pasek recalls. “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.’”
During what they call their “dark night of the soul” over their 2005 spring break in Florida, 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 with a plot, they decided to create a thematically linked song cycle. Back at school, they booked Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House that April, invited everyone from their department, enlisted four fellow school musical rejects as performers and, spurred by the looming performance, spent the next three weeks racing against the clock to write another 11 songs and teach them to the cast.
The let’s-put-on-a-show result was Edges, whose title is a nod, appropriately, to a lyric from Merrily We Roll Along’s “Our Time.” The one-night-only concert was a smash, propelled by clever, tuneful songs about young people on the edge of adulthood, trying to maneuver the challenges of romance, friendship, responsibility, and ambition.
They uploaded videos of their concert to YouTube and, through Facebook, figured out which colleges had theatre departments and pitched the show to those schools. Within a year, 13 colleges had mounted Edges. After its first professional production in 2007, it has since been performed all over the world.
“When we got in the room, we had this perfect combination of ADD and a creative spark together.”
Well before they’d turned 30, Pasek and Paul had established themselves among the best and the brightest of the upcoming generation of musical theatre writers. By 2013, after the era- and setting-specific songs they’d just crafted, they longed to return to the kind of contemporary sound and setting they had first explored with 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, an idea he’d batted around with Paul since their time at university. Approached by admiring producer Stacey Mindich hoping to commission their next musical, Pasek and Paul knew they wanted to write, as Paul put it in an email to Mindich, “a story from our lives and from our hearts.”
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 theatre. When I think about Evan and think about 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 theatre kids at his school. “For me, it was less about fitting in and more about finding my identity,” he says. “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.”
Of all their achievements—including their subsequent, splashy storming of Hollywood—there’s no question that Dear Evan Hansen remains closest to their hearts. “It’s the culmination of everything we’ve done, and everything we’ve wanted to do, since we first started writing songs together,” Paul says.
Dear Evan Hansen, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Oct. 17-Nov. 25. Tickets at centertheatergroup.org.