ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Megan Hilty Gets Married, Lilla Crawford Loses a Tooth and Pasek and Paul Repay a Debt

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23 Dec 2013

Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

On Thursday, I had Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the score to A Christmas Story and Dogfight. Turns out, they both began as performers. Benj lived near Philly and used to take trains up to NYC with his relatives and, trickster-style, audition for shows when he was here. The first show he tried out for was A Christmas Carol by Flaherty and Ahrens, which was playing at Madison Square Garden. He got called back…and got the role of Tiny Tim! He told his mom…but she wouldn’t let him take the role. Yowtch! The story reminds me of Laura Benanti, who snuck into the city to audition for The Sound of Music when she was still in high school and got cast! But that story ends with her mom allowing her to do it and her taking over the role of Maria when she was 18. His ends with his mom not allowing him to do it. Period. However, he kept performing, and he and Justin (who grew up in Connecticut) got into Michigan as performance majors. In their sophomore year they were cast in City of Angels. Both roles were shockingly tiny and Benj’s (literally “man with camera”) got a passive/aggressive shout out from the director. On the first day of rehearsal, he told everyone that it was an ensemble show (meaning all roles were equal…PS, not true) and that every role was important. He then paused, smiled and said, “Even the man with camera.” If your role gets cited in a sentence beginning with “Even…,” then you know you have a walk-on.

Since he and Justin had so much free time (they weren’t called for many rehearsals), they decided to do something with their time and wrote a song cycle, which they performed in an on-campus theatre. They called it Edges and posted videos of it on YouTube. This was before there was a lot of musical theatre on YouTube, and suddenly students across the country were asking to do it in their schools. Stephen Schwartz came to campus and right before he left, they slipped him a CD with the old, “Hi! We’re also writers, and we’d love if you’d listen to this.” Months passed…and then suddenly they got a letter. Not only had Stephen Schwartz listened, he had written a full description for each song about what worked and what didn’t work. So helpful! As a matter of fact, both Benj and Justin said that other composer/lyricists have been incredibly supportive since the beginning of their collaboration. The best story involves Jeff Marx, who co-wrote the score to Avenue Q. He told me an amazing story about his connection with Pasek and Paul, and I asked him to write it to me in an email so I could put it in my column. Here ‘tis!

I met them both 8 years ago when they were freshmen in college. Benj emailed me through Friendster, saying he was in the same college acting program I had attended, and asked if he could be my assistant for the summer. I said sure — he worked for me that summer, and we became great friends. He never played me his songs until the end of the summer because he was afraid I wouldn't like them. They were fantastic and I told him he and his writing partner could really do this and have shows on Broadway. He didn't believe it yet (they were only 21 years old!), but I did.

He went back to school and completed his sophomore year. At the end of the school year, he wanted to come back out to NYC for the summer and I encouraged him to encourage his collaborator, Justin, to come, too, so they could write songs all summer, get better at it, and start writing a show.

Justin said he couldn't come to NY for the summer because he had to work. His deal with his parents was that they would pay for college but during the summers, he had to work and make his own spending money.

I asked him how much he would realistically earn over the summer, "seriously - give me a number," and he said he would ideally probably make $7,000.

I told him I would give him the $7,000 so he could come work with his collaborator in New York for the summer, but he didn't feel right about accepting such a gift. I said, "OK, we'll call it a loan. You can pay me back when you have your first show open on Broadway. I really believe you're going to do it and my money is safe. And just to make it interesting and give you a deadline, let's say you'll pay me back only if you have a show open on Broadway before you're 30. Otherwise, you'll just keep the money."

He accepted the loan and they continued writing.

Seven years later, their show opened on Broadway and, on opening night, he gave me a check for $7,000.

They beat the deadline by 3 years... they were only 27 years old.

Isn’t that amazing!!! And, now I’m off to my holiday schedule of Disaster! We have a Monday matinee, Friday matinees and a New Year’s Eve show! But, thankfully, no on-set tutoring. Get tix at www.DisasterMusical.com; peace out and have a great holiday!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)

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