A Song Coming On: Meet Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Next Generation of American Musical Writers

By Michael Gioia
06 Aug 2012

Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a couple of 27-year-old songwriters who met at the University of Michigan, are making their mark on the New York theatre scene this season.

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Following their Manhattan debut with the current intimate Off-Broadway Dogfight, the duo will take on Broadway when mischievous youngster Ralphie and his gang tell A Christmas Story this fall.

Pasek and Paul, as they are commonly known, began their songwriting relationship in college, where Pasek, an aspiring pop-rock artist, was writing tunes supported only by piano chords. Pasek sought the help of Paul, his musically-inclined classmate.



"We started playing, and he totally neglected my terrible pop songs," Pasek said with a laugh. "Then we just started writing our own songs — randomly and organically — and it kind of flowed from there."

From there, the contemporary songwriting team wrote Edges, a popular coming-of-age song cycle that has been produced and performed throughout the United States and overseas. New projects and opportunities resulted. They developed a musical adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's novel, "James and the Giant Peach," and penned a stage version of the cult-classic film "A Christmas Story" for regional theatres and a tour. Dogfight made it to New York first.

"Our [Dogfight] book writer, Peter Duchan, originally brought the idea to us," said Paul, explaining why the 1991 widely-unknown film of the same name would receive the musical treatment. "He brought us the DVD of 'Dogfight,' and we read the back of the DVD case and were immediately compelled and taken by the story. It's a tough story, and it's a tough premise, but it's really interesting and emotional, and so we said right away, 'That sounds exciting. We'll do it.'

"We watched the movie and saw these two really interesting characters — both of whom go on a journey, and both of whom go through some really emotional, complicated moments... We said, 'That could be something that can be musicalized.' We saw a lot of potential."

Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena in Dogfight.
photo by Joan Marcus

Dogfight tells the unlikely love story of Vietnam-bound soldier Eddie Birdlace (played by Carrie's Derek Klena) and chubby and clumsy — yet charming — waitress Rose Fenny (touchingly created by rising Broadway star Lindsay Mendez). Pasek and Paul crafted the 1963-set musical so that the tunes would have a "contemporary relevance" and "incorporate elements of that era" while steering clear of a pastiche 1960s score.

"We didn't want to make it live in 1963," said Paul. "We wanted a score that sounds like us, but that is influenced by sounds of the '60s." Pasek added that Dogfight's music was simply "dictated by character."

The varied characters lead Dogfight to an eclectic mix of styles. Paul explained that "Some Kinda Time," the Four Seasons-esque opening of the first act, has "a really jangle-y — like early '60s — bluesy acoustic guitar that's driving the number"; Rose's music is inspired by '60s acoustic folk; and haunting numbers like Annaleigh Ashford's "Dogfight" and Klena's "Come Back" live in a "dissonant, orchestral sort of world."

Paul acknowledged that they didn't hesitate to embrace the darker moments of Dogfight, but softer songs such as "First Date, Last Night," the second-act struggle between Rose and Eddie — "a reflection of these two people's inability to connect with each other" — also shine.

Pasek explained, "It's funny, the 'bum, bum, bum' [recurring melody in 'First Date, Last Night'] actually came because there's a line in the movie where Rose says, 'I'm really glad I decided to come.' We thought that was such a sweet, sort of naïve moment. We [thought], 'How can we express this awkward energy and also still drive to the word come?'" Paul added, "It's like [Rose and Eddie] don't have the skills to communicate... They keep trying, and they keep missing. That was important, too — to keep the tension throughout the acts."

 Continued...