Bright Young Things
Pasek & Paul Got the Oscar. Now Will They Win the Tony?
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, musical theater’s brightest, hottest talents, won Best Song at the Oscars. Now their musical, ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ is up for nine Tony Awards
The composers and lyricists were also on stage when that film, having just been announced as Best Picture, was just as suddenly not: Moonlight had in fact won. Cue much drama, tumult, mortification, celebration, and a thousand more think pieces. The pair talk about the moment in this interview.
We meet at Broadway theatrical haunt Sardi’s a week or so away from the Tony Awards on June 11, where the duo—known professionally as Pasek & Paul—are hoping their musical, Dear Evan Hansen, which is nominated for nine Tonys including Best Musical, will also do well but perhaps with less drama.
They themselves are nominated for the Tony for “Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre” for the musical, which focuses on the complex fallout of a teen suicide on a confused and misguided Evan, played by the Tony-nominated Ben Platt. He will soon materialize at Sardi’s this very afternoon for the unveiling of the caricature of his face, an honor bestowed on Broadway’s brightest.
Pasek and Paul are handsome, eloquent, young (31 and 32, respectively), and already being compared to other legendary, ampersand-linked composer-lyricists like Rodgers & Hammerstein and Kander & Ebb. Pasek grew up in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, the son of renowned developmental psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, while Paul, originally from Missouri, grew up from the age of 6 in Westport, Connecticut, where his father was a pastor. Pasek is gay and single; Paul is straight, married, and the father of a 14-month-old daughter.
The two became collaborators after attending the University of Michigan, where they studied musical theater and where they conceived their first piece, Edges. Their works include the multi award-winning and nominated A Christmas Story: The Musical (2010), James and the Giant Peach (2010), and Dogfight (2012). If they win for Dear Evan Hansen, it will be their first Tony Award, having been nominated for A Christmas Story in 2013. Their musical heroes include Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, and Jeff Marx.
They have contributed music to TV series Smash and The Flash, and have composed many songs for The Greatest Showman, the big-screen P.T. Barnum biopic starring Hugh Jackman, set for a Christmas Day release later this year.
Pasek & Paul spoke to The Daily Beast about their childhoods, how they met, how they work, success, fame, the pressure to attain an “EGOT,” what’s coming next… and that controversy-streaked Oscars night. This is an edited distillation of the conversation.
After the drama of the Oscars, are you ready for the Tonys?
Pasek: I think so, it’s pretty exciting.
Paul: We don’t think of the Tonys in terms of the Oscars. We’re pretty excited. This is the Super Bowl of the musical theater world. The Tonys are something we grew up watching, and there were Tony-watching parties in college. That’s what everyone lived for. I’m very excited for the honor and the show of it, all together, with this extraordinary group of theater artists we consider our family—all in a room watching performances of all the shows. If we weren’t involved, I’d beg, borrow, steal to claw myself in.
Pasek: It’s such a robust season. It’s really exciting to be part of a season of so many musicals and shows featuring new writers and new scores. It feels like a really exciting time to be working in the Broadway community right now.
The Tonys is still a competition. Do you want to win desperately? Do you care about not winning?
Paul: It’s definitely a funny thing, shows being pitted against one another. One of the things we love about the world of writers is that there is no competition.
As an actor you might feel that way: We once tried to be actors in college and it was like, “That person got that part over me.” As writers, it’s such a giving and generous community, you never feel as if you’re in competition.
I guess it’s that one time of year that people are, but it’s hard to feel that way because what everyone has done is so different and everyone has such unique voices. It’s apples and oranges. What we do is so different to Dave Malloy on The Great Comet, Irene [Sankoff] and David [Hein] on Come From Away, and Tim [Minchin for Groundhog Day].
We have such a lot of respect for the other writers. We feel like soldiers. We know what it is to be in the trenches. We know the experience of being in the rehearsal room and trying something 14 times and it not working. Or of performing out of town and wanting to crawl under a rock and hide for a year after that bad review. Everyone has had those experiences. It will be nice to get together and have the shared comfort of “I know what you went through to get that show up and I respect you so much just for that.”
Pasek: A dinner is planned for all the other nominees next week.
Paul: It will turn into war stories. Everybody is having a happy outcome just to go to the Tonys. A lot goes into making a show. Sure, it will turn into some degree of a kvetch-fest of “We tried to get this in.” “We never put in that last change.”
Pasek: There’s a good saying that musicals are never finished, they’re just abandoned. And so we all feel we have abandoned children, things that you wanted to fix or work on. It’s good to have people around who understand that.
Are either of you frustrated actors in any way?
Paul: Thankfully no. We went to school to study performance because when you’re in high school there isn’t a major in writing musicals. There also isn’t a degree in it. The closest we could get was a performance degree. At college we realized there were so many different vocations and jobs in this sphere. You get to be part of this community. You get to work with these incredible, creative people.
Pasek: Growing up, watching Broadway shows, we thought, “We just want to be in those.” “I could write those.” “I could be included in those.”
What were you like as young boys?
Pasek: I was always writing songs as a little kid, and I started to write more formally at 11, when I would come up with things I could call a song. I really liked creating a musical diary entry, especially when going through adolescence. It was a great way to capture emotion: Music has emotion built into it. However limited my skills were or are, I liked that a diary entry could capture a moment in time.
Paul: I didn’t grow up writing music. I grew up playing a lot of music. I remember when in sixth or seventh grade my parents got me The Ultimate Broadway Fake Book, which had Broadway songs across eras and generations. I listened to cast recordings, played the piano parts, learned to accompany. I always thought I could be a musician or conductor, to be in “the pit” somehow. Then we started writing songs together in college, and so I took a new path.
Did you have early or formative inspirations?
Paul: I was lucky to go to school in a system where the arts was really valued. We had great theater programs growing up. Our high school did several Sondheim shows, which required you to think of music and text in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. Being in Into the Woods, and really coming to understand what had been written and why certain characters were saying those words, showed me there was a craft I just wasn’t aware of. That got me thinking about the craft of songwriting and the intention of it. That started to resonate a bit. Later we started to write. It clicked.
Did you come to Broadway as kids?
Pasek: I grew up in Philadelphia and went to local productions. I started to come to Broadway shows when I was 12. To be in the city and to feel those limitless opportunities was amazing. There’s a musical on Broadway whether you turn left or right or flip the city upside down: They seemed to be everywhere. It was really magical to be here, to see the lights, and it’s really an overwhelming and all-encompassing experience to walk these streets. As a young kid, I thought, “Yeah, I want to be a part of that.”
Did you have more conventional ambitions than entering theater?
Paul: I thought I wanted to go to law school. In my junior year of high school, I made my parents take me on a college tour which had nothing to do with music and musical theater. I was originally brought up in Missouri and had decided for some reason to go to the South. We went to Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt. In my senior year, someone convinced me to go to music school. My parents were fine. I don’t know what sane parent, if a kid is not begging to go to music school, would say, “You should go to music school and try to be a musician,” but they knew that’s what was really in my heart. They were fully on board.
Pasek: In high school, I didn’t know what to be or do at all, but theater always provided a really great community which I felt part of, a safe, wonderful space to be in, and to be part of that community was exciting to me. Mom was a developmental psychologist, so psychology was always very interesting to me: why we think what we think, and why we act how we act. All those interests got to congeal when we got to write. I loved making songs and making theater from a young age.
So when you met, did you know immediately you should work together?
Pasek: No, we didn’t have the ambition to be songwriters. We became songwriters because we got cast in really small roles in a school musical, and we felt like to really matter at this school, we really needed to do something unique.
We had written four songs in our freshman year for fun. And that was the thing we enjoyed doing. It was a passion thing. No one was telling us to do it or pushing us. We gravitated to it naturally. When we met, we were friends fooling around, and out of that came a very natural creativity and some sort of creative spark. We enjoyed it, being in a room together coming up with lyrics.
Paul: I feel like the nature of being in a music school, being in practice rooms and class together—all those struggling actors, singers, dancers, trying to find themselves—was important. Those basements of buildings at all hours playing clarinets and organs. It was a petri dish of general creativity.
Pasek: That’s what’s great about college: When collisions happen, they can be inspirational. There’s great joy in doing it, and in being silly and making up songs.
Paul: I mean this in a loving way: We were imitating songs we were singing in class. It was like, “What if we wrote songs like the songs we were learning in class?” We had amazing singers at our disposal. All our classmates were incredibly talented. Part of the creative spark was being able to write something, then call a friend at midnight and ask them to sing it. You got to throw all this creativity into a big pot and make something together.
Pasek: That’s when the best thing happens: When people are making something they love.
Your name rolls off the tongue very pleasingly, like Rodgers & Hammerstein, who you have been compared to.
Paul: Rhythmically, it works. It feels asymmetrical if we reverse it. We don’t use it, though. Someone we collaborate with referred to us as “Pasek & Paul” and we were like ‘Whaat?’”
How do you work together? Do you row? Work quietly?
Both men laugh.
Pasek: It changes every day.
Paul: We’ve been working together 12, 13 years. You establish a routine and rhythms. On any given day, it’s both of us sitting in a room both blankly staring at our computers or notebooks with no idea of what to write or do—one feeling passionate about it, the other not. There is an argument. Or commiserating. It really runs the gamut. “There can’t be a song here. “Why?” “Do you have to write that?” Anything and everything. We don’t usually face each other. I’m at an instrument, and he’s at a computer or notebook.
Because the basic division of labor is you, Justin, do the music, and Benj the lyrics and words?
Paul: It really does vary depending on the song. We can be together in the room for most of it, or very little, just part of it. We always start and finish together, and in between we can be remotely doing things. Or on the phone hashing it out or in the room. Or grinding through something that isn’t coming easily, line by line, writing it together. It’s certainly not a science.
Pasek: Every time you are writing a song, it feels like you’re starting anew, with a blank page and a question, and the tremendous insecurity that you won’t be able to figure it out.
There are high highs and low lows in collaboration. You fight, and you have those creative conflicts, but I also think writing can be an incredibly lonely experience. We go off into our own worlds, letting inspiration strike and being conduits for that.
I think it’s really wonderful to have somebody to bounce ideas off, whose opinions you trust and whose taste at least most of the time you respect. It makes it a little less lonely to go through the hard, dark, lonely bits of this if you are with somebody else.
Paul: That’s why it’s always comforting to be in a dark theater surrounded by colleagues and collaborators. I like being out of town working on something. People always find their way to the bar or restaurant at the end of the night where you find comfort when you’re feeling so vulnerable and insecure, and that you’re creating total garbage at any given moment.
There’s security and the feeling that there are these people in the same boat as you, putting art and themselves out there—and people will judge that, but we can stand by each other, lock arms, and say, “Here we go.”
Benj, Dear Evan Hansen has such an un-Broadway-like story of teen suicide and internet madness. It was based on something that happened at your high school, Benj. Did you know it could become a show?
Pasek: It was something Justin and I would speak about in college: how our high school classmates responded to loss and tragedy.
Paul: And how they communicated their desire to process that communally.
Pasek: There was also a real sense of how we are the most connected society we have ever been, and yet with that comes real loneliness and real isolation.
Part of the reason Justin and I became friends, I think, is that we love and are interested in observing people. We had similar observations about why people do things, and why you cover up sadness or make jokes at a certain time, and in having that common ground we were struck by it. This wasn’t something we ever thought was going to be a commercial success.
Paul: No, we vowed that it wouldn’t be.
Pasek: So we could write it as truthfully as possible.
Paul: We went into it saying, “We’re not doing this for any reason other than to write it on the page.” When the show went to Arena Stage [in Washington], we felt insecure because this was a high-profile local theater. If the show went there, people would talk about it.
Still, there are many shows like that that never come to Broadway, and we were very content to think that would be the life of the show. This play, those plays, are not written to be in a commercial space. We knew the world we wanted to write about. Our only thought was, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to write about that?” We didn’t have any sense of production or success, or anything in our heads at that time.
And now, given all the success it has accrued?
Pasek: It’s amazing.
Paul: Every step has been a huge surprise, a really happy surprise. Without saying the show is “important” or super-meaningful, I will say that it’s really neat that there is a mainstream audience for a musical that tells a story like this that is not traditional in certain senses—in content or the way the story is told through lyrics, music, and dialog.
I don’t know if there are other times in history that this musical would have even gotten traction, because people back then were coming to Broadway looking for something else, so I’m really encouraged not just by our show but other shows that you wouldn’t think sound like big hits yet having really healthy audiences coming to see them.
It speaks really well of audiences and our society right now. A lot of people come to the theater looking for fun and entertainment, certainly, but also for a cathartic experience or an exercise in empathy, or being challenged in their beliefs.
Pasek: We’re finding a community of people who want to experience feeling together, and that’s really a beautiful thing.
Given the material, was this the toughest show you’ve worked on to date?
Pasek: Absolutely. We were very lucky to find Steven Levenson [who wrote the book] and Michael Greif [director], who has a lot of experience helming new shows.
Paul: This show wouldn’t have been any show without the two of them.
Pasek: Rent [which Greif directed] was a very influential show for me especially.
Paul [laughing]: He [Greif] would be a name in our tests in college. We were flies on wall watching him direct Next to Normal at Second Stage [Theatre]. Steven and Michael helped make Dear Evan Hansen more appealing and accessible in a human way.
Pasek: It was like Jenga. Every time we removed one of the pieces, which we did a lot, the show fell apart. We were constantly having to restructure, create new moments and new characters, new ends of Act I. Everything was up for grabs, everything up for conversation. We, as neurotic, relatively insecure writers, felt a little scared making decisions. Steven and Michael allowed us to build on something.
Are you both ruthless about your writing and work?
Paul: We say we are. We hope other people think we are.
Pasek: We got accused of being too ruthless.
Paul: I’m happy to be that. Some will say we’re rigorous, some ruthless.
Pasek: The nice word is “rigorous.”
Paul: Like most writers, we’ve had the experience of things falling flat. We’ve had the experience of a lot of “egg” on the stage because something isn’t working, or it’s not telling the story it needs to. We’re pretty willing to do away with whatever we’ve written. We never want to get in the way of the story.
Pasek: We definitely edit each other. We hopefully are good collaborators open to others’ ideas. We are always trying to serve characters and story. It doesn’t matter if he or I come up with the idea.
Paul: For Evan Hansen pretty much at every moment in the score there is another song that got tossed aside. When the plot shifts, that song suddenly didn’t fit.
Is composing for film different?
Paul: The writing isn’t different, the process is different. You don’t get a tryout like you do on stage. People talk in general terms of theater as a writer’s medium and film as a director’s medium. To some degree that’s true. We are serving the vision of the director and what they see in their heads. The song we see they may not, depending on how they cut it.
Pasek: The point of view is dictated by the director. But in a musical you dive into someone’s head. We approached La La Land like a stage musical, approaching songs through character and how to tell a story through song.
Did you think that particular song would win the Oscar?
Pasek: We are not conscious of that thing at all. We’re responding to what comes out of the character’s mouth, and what feels authentic and believable. We try to write the thing that is most real.
Paul: There’s no point predicting what is awards-worthy and what’s not.
Pasek: If you were to ask me what projects would have commercial success, I would never have thought Dear Evan Hansen and La La Land would. To butcher a Ryan Gosling line from La La Land: People become passionate about what you’re passionate about. If you feel passionate about something and put all your love into it, that’s the closest recipe we know to make something people enjoy.
Paul: That’s the contagious thing.
What was it like accepting the Oscar?
Pasek: I don’t remember it, it was like blacking out.
Paul: I don’t think we took a breath the whole time we were up there. It was very surreal.
How did you feel about the rest of the night, when Moonlight—not La La Land as initially announced—turned out to be Best Picture?
Paul: It was obviously a very intense moment. We were on stage when that happened. Look, at the end of the day, the voting was what it was. It was just unfortunate the way it went down. Without trying to point fingers, it was hard on our colleagues who we love very much and who had to go through this really crummy scenario. It was tough to experience. It definitely colored the night, but at the end of the day everyone involved feels very proud of what the movie was, and especially thinking of the audacity it took to make that movie and to make it the way they made it.
Pasek: In hindsight it doesn’t seem so audacious, but really when the film was being conceived, no one thought it would appeal to anyone.
Paul: I think all the awards for bravery and for pioneering go to the producers and the studio: That’s the way we think about it.
So you’re also on the EGOT path [those people who win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony]. How do you feel about that?
Paul: It’s something that we don’t think about, intentionally so. It’s not something we want to engage ourselves in, or engage in conversation in. It’s obviously not the reason to do anything or to write anything.
As artists and writers, it’s not something we pursue or think about. Someone we know who talked about it said that you can tell when artists are writing something that they think could be award-worthy. I wouldn’t begin trying to predict what that is and what it isn’t, because we’ve seen things we never thought would be award-worthy that are and things we thought would be that aren’t.
Pasek: We’ll feel like that we’ve won if we get to keep writing.
Paul: In this moment we feel grateful. We’re aware this is a time people are interested in musicals. They want to go see Broadway shows. They want to see musical films like La La Land. Will they want to see another one? We’ll find out.
We grew up in a renaissance of Disney animated films, and that felt like an “Oh my gosh, what an amazing time.” Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were writing what they wanted in their voice.
Now shows like Hamilton have blown the field open. People want to come to see musicals in any form. We feel very excited to be writing at a time like that, but know that the window might close at some point. So we do what we can do in that time.
Has fame and success affected how you work, or brought new pressures to the work you’re doing?
Both men laugh.
Pasek: One of the great things is that writers are not famous in any way.
Paul: Let’s nix the fame part. It’s that thing that you’re only as successful as your last thing. Nothing will ever change the fact that whenever you have to write a new song, you have to sit down and stare at a blank page.
Pasek: You stare at the piano…
Paul: And ask: Are we going to be able to come up with something for this?
Pasek: There’s truly a tremendous insecurity. But I felt that insecurity at 19 when we started writing. And I feel that as a 31-year-old.
Paul: Maybe more now because you’re more aware of it. You want to be “Wey-hey. Let’s just write it,” and then you think, “But we have to make sure we get the character right.” You second-guess a lot of things in a good way in trying to be more thoughtful about writing, but the process does not change. Maybe it would in other fields like going to a movie set and thinking, “OK, I’ve done this before.”
With what we do you can still sit for days and not come up with an idea. The muse does not strike you. Sitting and thinking of what to say or how something will sound does not change, and I don’t envision it changing.
We want to keep writing things we’re proud of, but we don’t feel burdened by what the world expects of us. There are things that we’re going to do that are going to fail. That’s statistically true. Looking at our writer heroes, they had shows that failed and flopped, and movies that nobody wanted to go and see.
We know how certain things depend on timing and factors that have nothing to do with the work. It can be dependent on the season or what people are hungry for at that moment. We’ve accepted that anything we do could be a total failure, and that’s fine.
Pasek: At the end of the day, we’re trying to hold each other accountable for being the best writers, best people, best creators we can be. He’ll call me out if I do a terrible job. I’ll call him out, and hopefully we’ll continue to build something we’re very proud of.
What comes next?
Paul: A Christmas Story is going to be the live Christmas special telecast on Fox. It will be fun to revisit that. We may write new songs if the story calls for it.
Pasek: We wrote that show a little while ago. It was pencils down maybe when we were 26. This is our chance to revisit it and make it as good as we can make it.
Paul: We’re in the very, very early stages of our next stage musical. I’m really excited about it and who we’re potentially collaborating with. I can’t talk about it yet, sorry.
Pasek: We love playing in the sandbox with people who inspire us creatively, and with this we feel like we’re back in the sandbox that’s very exciting to be in with people we want to be with to make something hopefully special. Beyond the subject matter, that’s the thing that’s thrilling us most at the moment.
Benj, you’re gay and single. Justin, you’re straight, married, and a Christian. What’s your dynamic like?
Pasek: We have very similar senses of what we like and taste and all that. We come from different backgrounds, and we consider that hopefully a strength.
Paul: We have different-looking lives in some ways. Hopefully that helps us cover more emotional ground.
Pasek: He’s a father of a 14-month-old. I don’t understand what it’s like to be a dad, but I might understand something else based on the experiences I’ve had.
Having friction is a very helpful thing to be your most creative self. If someone tells you that what you’re doing the first time is good, you never push yourself to see how much further you can go.
If he disagrees with me, if he comes with different angles and perspective, I go back and be more rigorous, more relentless and critical. It brings out the better writer and creative mind in me.
Paul: My favorite dinner conversations are ones with people with different points of view, little bits of argument, different backgrounds, and everyone still getting along. Hopefully my writing is more rich because of his different experiences and feelings.
Pasek [laughs]: How boring it would be if we agreed about everything all the time.
Dear Evan Hansen is at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York City. Book tickets through April 29, 2018, here.