How Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz and Avenue Q’s Jeff Marx Helped 2017 Become the Year of Pasek and Paul

Seth Rudetsky   How Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz and Avenue Q’s Jeff Marx Helped 2017 Become the Year of Pasek and Paul
How two Tony winners guided two future Tony winners.

This is the year of songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won an Oscar for La La Land as well as a Tony for the score to Dear Evan Hansen.

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Performance majors at University of Michigan, during their sophomore year the pair were cast in tiny roles in City of Angels. Since they weren’t called upon for many rehearsals, they put their downtime to good use and wrote a song cycle called Edges, which became a viral sensation. Stephen Schwartz came to campus and, just before he left, Justin slipped him a CD with the old, “Hi! We’re also writers, and we’d love if you’d listen to this.” It was a long shot, and months passed in deafening silence, but they eventually did receive a letter from Schwartz in which he provided a full analysis of each song and what worked and what didn’t.

As a matter of fact, both Benj and Justin say that other composers and lyricists were very supportive of their burgeoning career as a songwriting duo and composing team. My favorite story involves Jeff Marx, who co-wrote the score to Avenue Q with Robert Lopez, and who shared with me his connection:

“I met them both when they were freshmen in college. Benj emailed me, 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 have shows on Broadway. He didn’t believe it yet (they were only 21 years old!), but I did.

“At the end of the next school year, he wanted to come back out to New York City and I encouraged him to bring Justin so they could write songs all summer, get better at it, and start writing a show.

“Justin said he couldn’t come to New York City because his deal with his parents was that they would pay for college, but during the summers he had to work. I asked him how much he would realistically earn, and he said ideally probably $7,000.

“I told him I would give him $7,000 so he could come work 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. 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 A Christmas Story opened on Broadway and, on opening night, he gave me a check for $7,000.

“They beat the deadline by three years—they were only 27 years old.”

Isn’t that fantastic? Let it be known that established Broadway supports Broadway newcomers. Why not apply it to your life and see who you can encourage in your own field?


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