Oscar-winning composer Justin Hurwitz has not seen Hamilton. He’s not even seen Dear Evan Hansen, the musical written by his writing partners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. In fact, he’s only seen one Broadway musical, the revival of Cabaret starring another of his collaborators, Emma Stone. Yet, his La La Land, a magical musical film reminiscent of MGM classics, has received critical acclaim and the most Academy Award nominations since All About Eve and Titanic—tying with the two at 14.
“One of the first experiences with stage was when I was in the sixth grade,” Hurwitz explains by phone, just days before he heads to the Academy Awards. “It was mandatory at our elementary school that all sixth graders act in the sixth grade play, and my year it was Peter Pan. I’m very introverted and uncomfortable being onstage. I had never been onstage before, and I didn’t feel like I could be onstage, so I think I was the first sixth grader ever at my school who was given a pass to not be in the production—or at least not be onstage. What I did instead was [be] the pianist for the production.”
He was always musical that way—learning how to play piano at age six and composing by age ten, when his parents bought him a Brother MIDI Sequencer, with which he was able to layer tracks.
“It was my very first foray into not just composing but arranging as well, and I just loved it,” he explains. “Piano was the kind of thing where I went through phases—I loved practicing, and then…I absolutely hated practicing, and my parents had to force me to practice. But composing was really different because I find it completely addictive. The hours would just fly by, and my bedtime would come and go, and my parents would say, ‘You were supposed to go to bed three hours ago,’ and I think that was a really good sign—the fact that I was so consumed by it.”
Consumed, he was. Hurwitz, who met La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle in college at Harvard (the two were part of a band before rooming together sophomore year), composed the entirety of their Oscar-nominated feature before handing it off to a pair of Tony-nominated lyricists who happen to be taking Broadway by storm with this season’s Dear Evan Hansen.
The success of Hurwitz and Chazelle’s 2014 film-with-music Whiplash paved the way for La La Land, and as production began, the duo sought out a lyricist (or two) to put words to the melodies.
“We got a list of a lot of the go-to lyricists who were songwriters—a lot of Broadway people, some pop people as well—and we had either conference calls or meetings with as many as wanted to talk to us. We had a call with Benj and Justin, and we really liked them, but we were still on the hunt. As part of that process of finding a lyricist, people were writing a sample lyric to one of my piano demos.”
Pasek and Paul did more than offer a sample. They flew to Los Angeles. “They had dinner with me and Damien, and then the next morning, we had it scheduled that they would come over to my apartment and sit around and show us the lyrics that they had written, so they came over in the morning, and they sang their lyric, which was ‘City of stars, are you shining just for me?’—almost exactly what’s in the movie. We changed a few words later in the process, as we decided where to put the song in the movie and who would sing it, but the lyrics they came in [with] to win the job was ‘City of Stars.’”
(Updated February 27, 2017)