A Song Coming On: Meet Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Next Generation of American Musical Writers
By Michael Gioia
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.
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."
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."
On a less tense and lighter (musical) note, Pasek and Paul will make their Broadway debut this holiday season when A Christmas Story, The Musical! opens at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in November.
"Not so different from Dogfight, [we thought], 'Okay, we're not going to write a [pastiche] 1940s score,'" said Paul. "There's so many kids in this show, so we really went to work writing an exciting, impassioned, youthful, spritely, magical [score]." Pasek added that they were "so excited to have debuts in New York with very different shows — to be able to flex as many muscles as we can."
As for Broadway, the pair admitted to being "excited and scared." "Something possessed us to just start walking to Times Square, and we stood outside of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for like 35 minutes just looking at it," said Pasek. "It had this mystical quality. We feel so lucky that we're going to experience something that we've dreamed about forever. We feel everything about it."
While movie adaptations are what consume Pasek and Paul at the moment, they shared the scoop on an entirely original project that they're developing. "There's a show that we've been working on since college," said Paul. "[We're] working with a great playwright named Steven Levenson on the show. It's very contemporary. It'll be a different sound, hopefully, than we've done so far. It's very...rock and pop-driven and a very contemporary story with very relevant themes. It's more about our generation... We'll see!"
While hard at work on their new musical and facing rewrites of the Broadway-bound Christmas Story, Pasek and Paul are simply soaking in the love and support from the New York theatre community. Having their material performed in New York, "we found that our writing community is insanely giving," said Pasek.
He added, "It's been really, really cool to have [Dogfight] be in New York and have the community be able to see something that we're really proud of. That's an amazing experience."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Pasek and Paul share their Dogfight song "Some Kinda Time" with Playbill Video.
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