Podcast Episode 62 Transcript – Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Ken: Hey, everybody, Ken Davenport here. Before we get to this week’s podcast, if you’re listening to this on iTunes, do me a favor – give us a big five star rating, will ya? Let’s spread the word about theatre and all of these awesome guests. Thanks so much!
Ken: Hello, Producer’s Perspective Podcast listeners. Welcome back. I am Ken Davenport. We’ve got another first here on the podcast today – the first time we’ve ever had two guests for the price of one. I’m proud to welcome to the podcast the Tony and Emmy nominated songwriter team of Pasek and Paul. Welcome, guys!
Pasek: Hey, thank you!
Ken: I’ve been lucky enough to have some incredible musical theatre legends on this podcast – Tim Rice, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Schwartz – and I thought it was time to get some new blood up in here. Benj and Justin have been called the next generation of musical theatre songwriting superstars by just about every publication out there, but it’s hard to think of them as rookies considering they already have a Tony nomination on the wall for A Christmas Story. They’ve written for Smash they had Dogfight off Broadway at Second Stage and this year they’re going back to Second Stage with the highly anticipated Dear Evan Hansen. So, guys, I’m going to start with the big question – when Time Out New York says, “You will shape the future of the theatre’ or Vanity Fair says you’re ‘the heirs of Rogers and Hammerstein.”
Pasek: It gives my mom a lot of anguish.
Paul: And we text Lin-Manuel and say, “It’s on you, bro!”
Ken: So seriously, what does it feel like when you read this stuff? Is it a lot of pressure, does it make you feel good?
Paul: I don’t know, I think we try to not think about it because I think if we do think about it, it definitely is a lot of pressure. Obviously it’s so nice that at least a couple of people with pens believe that but I think that we are excited – you talked about some of the other people who have been on this podcast and I think that we feel very honored to part of the generation of writers that we’re in and to be in this history of writers, some of whom you mentioned – Lynn Ahrens, for instance, was one of our mentors and so I think we feel very tiny in this world of great writers and so that’s how I feel, I don’t know.
Pasek: Yeah, we had a professor, we went to the University of Michigan, that’s where we met, and we had a professor there who told us “If you believe anything good about you, you have to believe everything bad about you too.”
Paul: That’s right.
Pasek: And there have been lots of things that people have said that have been terrible about us. I remember I used to read things online, like someone called Pa-suck and A-Paul-ing. I was like “Oh, that’s going to stick!”
Paul: Creative! Very creative.
Pasek: Pretty creative, a lyricist must have come up with that one. So I think we kind of adopted the philosophy that it’s really nice if people like what we do and other people hate what we do and, you know, we just have to figure out for ourselves whether we like it or not and that’s really the barometer and we try to hold to that.
Ken: Okay, now we’ll go back to the easy questions.
Pasek: Yeah, I know – at the beginning, Ken said, “I’m going to give you some nice, easy questions to start with,” and then you just really threw a fast curve ball there.
Ken: I’m like Borat or Ali G. So you mentioned where you met – tell the story of how you guys found each other.
Pasek: We went to the University of Michigan and we went as musical theatre majors so we were aspiring Broadway performers when we started college and we became really good friends because we were the two worst members of the University of Michigan, certainly in the musical theatre department and dance classes in particular. We are really not very coordinated guys and we didn’t really know that we should have taken any kind of dance classes before we got there.
Paul: Yeah, we were the two people that didn’t realize. I just didn’t know that dance classes, that there were a lot of guys that took dance class growing up, but we got to school and there were all of these amazing dudes leaping across the floor and we were like “Wait a second…”
Pasek: Well they all showed up the first day in tights and we’re in sweats.
Paul: That’s right, we were like “Uh…”
Pasek: “This is a problem…” yeah. We became friends because we would hide behind each other when we had to do the across the floors and we couldn’t remember any of the terms, like the saut de chat, that’s the cat one, so we would know when to leap by whispering to each other while hiding behind each other and then just jump and fly into the air and hope that we were going to catch each other when we fell. That’s how it started.
Paul: So yeah, we were in the musical theatre program there and we became friends that way and we just started messing around writing, not really intending to do anything.
Pasek: Our freshman year.
Paul: Yeah, our freshman year. There’s all the practice rooms at college and so we would sometimes do a sing-along with all of the musical theatre majors.
Pasek: A lot of “Seasons Above” happening, a lot of riffs.
Paul: “Seasons Above” happening just on repeat, a lot of unnecessary riffing happening, but we sort of started writing by accident, just a couple of things together, and then, our sophomore year, second semester, it’s like “We’re going to start getting some roles, we’re going to start becoming the performers that we’re meant to be,” and the second semester of our sophomore year the show was City of Angels, the high school show, and we were like “Okay, we’re working on it, let’s see what happens,” and we both got cast as terrible roles.
Pasek: I got cast as the Man with Camera, that was my actual role, so I came on stage and took a photograph and I left and Justin was cast as Harlan Yamato, the Asian backup dancer/coroner, and our moms were flying out…
Paul: For all of you who are listening, which is everyone.
Pasek: Justin looks like – I say this as a nice Jewish boy – he looks like an Aryan and it’s sometimes very scary so he should not be playing an Asian backup dancer/coroner.
Paul: It was a different age.
Ken: Michigan so white now.
Paul: Watch out!
Pasek: Exactly, so at that moment we were like “Okay, let’s maybe reevaluate some things here,” and we decided to write a show because we thought that’s something we could do and maybe we’ll be better at it, maybe not, but we’ll give it a try.
Paul: Certainly no dancing.
Pasek: Yeah, certainly no dancing. So we wrote a song cycle because that was the thing to do at that time, because every revered composer had written a song cycle, so we were like “We’ll write our song cycle,” so we wrote a show called Edges in college and everything started from there.
Ken: So you sit down and you write a song cycle? It’s that easy.
Pasek: Most of the songs in that show, in that revue, are all thematically linked to really general things like “Who am I? Who do I want to be?” It’s like all of the very overly dramatic things you’re grappling with at the time as 19 or 20 year olds, which is what kind of person I’m like, everyone breaking up, having relationship woes.
Paul: We’re just looking at our friends and basically putting them in song. But I think the way we approached it was because we were studying as actors and this is the way that we got into it. We were taking classes about what makes a song theatrical so we were learning the basics of what an actor needs to use to approach material, so the basics of “Who am I talking to in the song? What do I want? What are the different tactics that I’m going to employ?” and so we thought “Okay, well if we were to bring a song that we wrote into our acting class…”
Pasek: Our acting teaching would ask us those things.
Paul: So how do we do it in reverse? How do we put those things into the song when we start and make it really easy for actors to approach it? So I think our acting training and particularly our acting through song at Michigan…
Pasek: Those were sort of our access points.
Paul: Yeah, it’s how we sort of began writing.
Ken: What was the first song that you wrote together, do you remember?
Paul: Well the first one is this random song called “Classical Prose” which is like a pop song.
Pasek: It’s nothing.
Paul: It’s crazy. But the first song that we ever wrote that was theatrical was almost as a joke, the lyric, initially, because all of these songs that young guys at auditions sing, it’s all just about boys with dreams. We should write a song about a boy with dreams, so we called the song “Boy with Dreams.”
Pasek: The template title of that sort of song, we just literally wrote a song called that.
Paul: So it’s about a boy…
Pasek: Working in a rural town at a Pizza Hut.
Paul: At Pizza Hut, who wants to be an inventor.
Pasek: And that was the first song…
Paul: That we wrote that was theatrically minded.
Ken: So tell me a little bit about the process, whether it’s then or now. “Okay, I’ve come up with an idea – ‘Boy with Dreams.’” Who does what first? Do you do it all together?
Pasek: I think a big part of our process – it does evolve and it keeps evolving and it has evolved.
Paul: Or devolved.
Pasek: Or devolved or whatever, has changed in some way, but we start by talking a lot, it’s really a big discussion about what the song wants to be, what the song has to accomplish, what the character is saying, and often a musical impulse or style, an energy or rhythm, will come out of that, but a lot of it is the discussion of what the moment wants to be and what the big theme is. Is there a hook phrase? Is there a hook idea that can take us through the whole journey of the song?
Paul: We think of it a lot almost like a five paragraph essay that you had to write in high school – like what is your thesis statement? Because that’s what your chorus has to come back to, to support this one idea that makes it something that sticks in your head, so you find what is the phrase or what is the thesis statement that can be a unique enough angle that we can keep coming back to again and again and approach from different angles.
Pasek: Right, then from there maybe I’ll start working on a musical idea, a way to musicalize that. Sometimes we’ll just start with a chorus idea and get that and then work backwards or the only way in is just to go chronologically through the song and start at where it wants to start and write it as we go.
Paul: Sometimes we write songs together in a room and sometimes we divvy up and I’ll work on a lyric separately and I’ll send it to him to work on music separately but we try to be as intertwined as possible so that it feels as much like one voice as possible
Pasek: What we’re doing, there’s a lot of strings to being in a team, but ultimately we’re trying to do one person’s job, really, which is conceive a song, because it’s not music and lyrics, it’s a song. So we’re trying to get as close to one creative impulse as possible, which is that music and lyrics happen together, they’re of the same voice so that’s what we’re trying to work towards.
Paul: And a lot of great songwriters talk about, particularly Sondheim, you can’t have a lyric without music, it’s not just that you’re reading it independently, so much of what we would write is dependent on what the musical impulse is going to be, or so much of the musical impulse is going to depend on what the lyric would say, so it really is a fine marriage in a way that we both have to support each other and, yeah, we really try to write it with one voice.
Ken: So you write this song cycle and I remember hearing about it myself, even here, thousands of miles away, or whatever miles away, from Michigan – how did you get the attention for it that you did? So you finish it and you’re like “Hey, we wrote a song cycle.” Then what?
Paul: We were really lucky in that it’s sort of like the Malcolm Gladwell Outliers book where he talks about how timing is everything for certain things to have nice lives and, for us, this Edges show, for our careers, we were very lucky because we wrote this in 2005 when we were sophomores in college and that was a year after Facebook had come out and the year that YouTube had come out so we were able to have this material that was about being a 19 or 20 year old at the time and we were able to connect with other 19, 20, 21 year olds who were still in college and, for the first time, without needing to have a production anywhere else in the world, you could immediately have access to or see material right away, digitally. So I wouldn’t need to necessarily put on a show in New York and wait for a cast album to be created and then, a few months or years later, it gets disseminated – I can write a song right away and have a 19 year old hear that song at Carnegie Melon or Boston Observatory.
Pasek: Right, the way it happened initially is people at other schools that we were connected to through friends – we recorded a CD, that was the important thing, we got a little bit of money donated from some supporters at the musical theatre program there and recorded a CD with our cast at school and that got around to a few other schools and they said “Hey, can we do the show at our school?” But we were like “Whoa, that’s a crazy concept.”
Paul: But part of that also was because at the time you could look at other musical theatre majors – you could see college majors on Facebook, so we would look up who’s a musical theatre major at Carnegie Melon.
Pasek: I think that’s where it came from first. A few other schools said, “We would love to do this,” and then we were like “Oh, so maybe other musical theatre schools would be interested in this,” so then we were able to reach out on Facebook.
Paul: We would literally just write people at Boston Observatory, whoever it was, and say, “Hey, we have a song cycle, would you be interested in doing this thing?”
Pasek: Or vice versa, people could reach out to us, because they heard from their friend at Baldwin Wallace that they did something and they want to do something in Cincinnati.
Paul: This new wild west of social connectivity allowed us to connect with the people who might appreciate what we’re doing without any of the lag time of having to have a full production to be able to have it heard for the first time. So within a year of us creating this I think we already had something like 20 productions at different colleges by the time that we were juniors and that helped.
Pasek: And somehow word of that got to New York and we had someone produce a cabaret of our songs at Joe’s Pub, that whole track of doing something at Joe’s Pub and Ars Nova and through connections at Michigan – we had Gavin Creel come and sing songs for us, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Dan Riker came, a lot of Michigan people, and they’d bring their friends, so it was sort of this concurrence of events that led to us seeming like we had done more than we actually had done. It was a very interesting time for all of these thing converging – being able to reach out through Facebook, chat boards happening, all of that stuff happening at the same time, and so we were able to, I think, get a little kick start in New York before coming to live there.
Ken: Did you realize you were acting as incredible marketing directors for yourself and for your show? Were you like “I’m going to sit down and develop a marketing plan. I’m going to write to all of these people?”
Pasek: I think that we just thought “Well these people will enjoy it and we want the show produced.” We weren’t really thinking “How do we market?” There wasn’t that much strategy.
Paul: But also at the same time our friends – Andrew Keenan-Bolger was one of our classmates and he and another one of our classmates, Jake Wilson, they were creating online video content and they were putting ideas of their dance workshop at school online – this was a foreign idea, kids putting musical theatre stuff on YouTube and then developing a web series from it. They were all doing the same sort of thing, so wherever that idea came from, it sort of caught around our friends and so everybody started putting their stuff online.
Pasek: YouTube was invented in 2005 and we were doing it in 2005 so it was really this very natural, organic way to put the material that we were writing out into the world and naturally other people saw it and it…
Paul: Disseminated, yeah.
Ken: Do you think it’s as easy for college sophomores today to do the same thing?
Paul: I think it’s not as easy at all because there’s a lot more content now. Like now that’s a standard thing.
Pasek: At that point it was very novel. Now it’s like everybody has their songs on YouTube, everybody has their sheet music up for sale. That was…
Paul: New at the time.
Pasek: That was very new at the time so it was like “Whoa…” Now, I mean blessedly, I think, musical theatre, like a wildfire, it just exists. At that time it felt like the remnants of people who had survived, like the old members of the church who held on and they’re like “We’re here! Yes, we’re out here. Or you’re putting stuff online? Yes, we want that. We want that.” Now it’s like, awesomely, everyone around the country has access to it and ever since then there’s been Glee, there’s been all the live musicals, now it’s a mainstream thing, which is great. It probably makes it harder for someone to emerge from all of that because there’s a lot more content but it’s good for all of us.
Paul: But I will say, compared to what I imagine living in New York or trying to emerge here would have been 15 years, there’s more a democratization in that I don’t necessarily need a producer to approve and give me a production here in New York to get my material heard, so really I think that writers have a right, if you want that production, but ultimately I think that writers can view themselves more as entrepreneurs than they ever were able to before, and they almost have to, to be able to launch themselves, because they’re competing with other people that are acting as entrepreneurs and that’s the way that you initially will launch, so thinking in that way, I think, has been very beneficial and now sort of necessary, I think, as new musical writers.
Pasek: It’s a very Ken Davenport conversation.
Ken: That’s why I asked the question. It’s obviously true – it’s one of the reasons I wanted you guys on the show. I’m a big believer that artists need to think like entrepreneurs now, whether they know they’re thinking like entrepreneurs or not. You two are a very unique group because you have it naturally, within you. That’s why I asked that question – you didn’t know that you were marketing but that’s exactly what you were doing, you were acting as the CMO of a writing partnership, which is really incredible. So you get here, you’ve made a name for yourselves before you get here, you get here and then what was the first show? Was it James and the Giant Peach that you did first, was it A Christmas Carol that you were attached to first?
Paul: Those were sort of back to back.
Pasek: When we first got here we thought, because we had already written a song cycle, that people were going to hire us for jobs and so we thought we would have these meetings, we had an agent.
Paul: He was awesome.
Pasek: We had an agent, we came to the city and we were like “The path is clear!” and we would go into these meetings with people who wanted to have a general meeting, “Nice to meet you,” and they were like “Okay, so what show are you doing?” And we were like, “We have one, it’s this song cycle, and are you going to hire us to write your next one?” And they were like “No… that’s not how it works,” and so I think we were waiting a long time. Even though we had sort of been entrepreneurial early on, when we first got here we were waiting for people to give us opportunities and that sort of yielded very little for us and so we had to, I think, then begin to initiate and achieve things again.
Paul: And as soon as we then started to write things, then other things did come to us, but it took us being “We need to create a project ourselves,” and that was when we started writing Dogfight but the first thing that happened, I think the chronology was James and the Giant Peach was the first thing that we ever did.
Pasek: That was produced first.
Paul: It was produced first and that was back to back in the fall with that and then A Christmas Story.
Pasek: This was in 2010. Really we had started Dogfight in 2008.
Paul: Yeah, but James and the Giant Peach happened at Goodspeed Opera House and it was a total disaster.
Pasek: It was our first time ever having a professional show and we did not know what we were doing and it reflected onstage.
Paul: It was a good, hard first lesson to learn, that everyone has to be making the same show and to have all of those conversations beforehand. It was a lot of crazy, whacky events that led to it just not having the success we hoped it would have. Thankfully we were able to jump right from there to A Christmas Story which was happening in Seattle at the Fifth Avenue and that was sort of the first step on that show’s path.
Pasek: And since then, James and the Giant Peach, we have gone back and retooled it and refocused it and we’re really happy with it now, but the first production of it left more to be desired.
Ken: And what do you think, if you could say one thing you would do differently about James and the Giant Peach, what’s the one thing that you think you needed?
Pasek: I think we needed more time in development before we put it up in front of an audience. We didn’t really realize how difficult it would be to change things once a show has already been teched. Even if it’s in a preview process, once it’s already onstage it’s very, very difficult to cut half of a song out. There can be entire transitions where you’re like “Oh, well this character should enter, oh well that character can’t because they’re already getting ready for the tap number in Act II so they have to put tap shoes on during that time.” If you think that out further in advance you’re able to make those changes.
Paul: It’s just like really careful planning beforehand, and I think also with James and the Giant Peach…
Pasek: There were a bunch of amazing ingredients that were going into it that all sounded amazing but I don’t think we ever stopped to think about how did they all agree and were they all speaking the same language so I think it was a good lesson in just because something sounds like it’s going to be amazing you have to really think about “Are all these working in tandem and working together to create the same show?”
Paul: And I also think it was actually a fantastic experience – we worked with Pilobolus on James and the Giant Peach. It was an amazing group of people, and Tim McDonald, a great playwright, but I think that sometimes we would sort of excuse not thinking through what should be dramatically happening in the moment because we thought “Well, Pilobolus is magical, they’ll make that moment magical,” without being like “How are we going to tell them to do that?”
Pasek: What are we doing magical?
Paul: I think we would rely on other people’s abilities sometimes and not give ourselves enough responsibility in storytelling.
Pasek: Which, in truth, we didn’t know what we were doing.
Paul: But thank God we went through that experience because we learned a lot.
Pasek: Right, exactly.
Ken: It’s very honest for you to admit that. So you obviously learned a lot from that and you take it to A Christmas Story. Was A Christmas Story originally designed to go to Broadway?
Ken: So what was that like? When you get that call, “Hey guys, we’re going to go to Broadway this year.”
Pasek: It was amazing. We did A Christmas Story in Seattle in 2010 and we had the great fortune of it going on a national tour in 2011 and we thought that that would be it, it would play these amazing theatres, like the Fifth Avenue theatre we studied at the University of Michigan, we knew about the seat capacity, we were like “Oh my God, we’re at the Fifth Avenue Theatre!” That was a big enough deal and then it went to the Chicago Theatre and that was a huge deal and then we found out that it was going to go to Broadway and it was kind of inconceivable for us.
Paul: Yeah, and no one ever thought that would happen; it was never designed to do that. It was actually pretty much designed for licensing, it was never intended to go to Broadway, so it was huge. I know a lot of it depended on how things went in Chicago and things went well in Chicago.
Pasek: Chris Jones, the theatre critic, I will love him for the rest of my life because I really do credit him with that. He had a huge impact.
Paul: It’s true, how critics and audiences responded in Chicago was really the thing, because, look, it’s a huge risk to come to Broadway and, with A Christmas Story for instance, it’s nearly impossible for it to make back its money or anything like that so it was really a show of faith and an investment in the future of the property for the producers to bring it, because playing on Broadway for weeks you can never recoup anything, it’s just basically to cement the property. We never thought it would go to Broadway, we certainly never thought that, with our Christmas show that played for eight weeks, we would be going to the Tony awards that year because of that. The journey from how we started, if you had met us, if you had seen what we were doing when we first found out about that job and started writing it and then flash forward to the Tonys, it’s pretty hilarious.
Pasek: We were in a production of Edges at Shorter University in Georgia at the time and we were like “Oh, they’re doing our show!” And, embarrassing – I say this as a gay man – we were eating at a Chick-fil-A at the time when we got the call.
Paul: That’s right.
Pasek: That they had hired us for A Christmas Story and I think it was because we were foolish enough to do it but we ended up having to write the entire show by that Christmas. We got this call in March.
Paul: So we start rehearsals at the end of September, “We were like ‘Cool, okay!”
Pasek: We’re doing it!
Ken: You put down the chicken sandwich.
Paul: And we said “Let’s get to work!”
Pasek: Exactly. My first protest at Chick-fil-A was at that moment, “Get out of here!”
Ken: So you write James and the Giant Peach, A Christmas Story and in the midst of all of this you write Dogfight, which is something you’ve been working on, and now Evan Hansen, both of which are more difficult and challenging subject matters.
Paul: Oh, really, Ken?
Ken: So what attracts you to something? Dear Evan Hansen is an original story and Dogfight was obviously based on a movie but what gets you attracted to a story and says “This one. This one has to sing. This is one we want to do.”
Pasek: It’s hard to figure it out because there are different things about each one. I’m not sure I can find a theme. With Dogfight and Dear Evan Hansen it’s sort of against our better judgment in a way. I don’t know why we’re drawn to these. I think that they’re dark in different ways – with Dear Evan Hansen there’s a lot of hope and redemption and comedy in the show as well, Dogfight is just sort of dark.
Ken: Tell everyone what Dear Evan Hansen is about.
Paul: It’s a little difficult to describe without spoilers but it’s basically about a kid who is, I don’t really know how to describe it.
Pasek: It’s about a kid who is in a high school and is very lonely and very isolated – it’s a very common thing, I think a lot of people will recognize a lot of truth to this kid, in his character.
Paul: In an overly-connected digital world where he feels more isolated than ever.
Pasek: And maybe everyone in the play feels more isolated than ever, although very connected, and something happens, sort of a tragedy happens in the school, and there’s an opportunity for him to seem connected to the person who’s suffered this tragedy in a way that he wasn’t really and there is a lot of great healing benefit for everyone involved for him to seem connected and so he seems connected.
Paul: He perpetuates a lie that allows a bunch of healing and allows him to become the person that he’s always thought that he wanted to be.
Pasek: And, in a way, the person that we want him to be, we just don’t want him to be it in that way but we so want him to become that person, and I think by the end of the show he does become that person in a truthful, honest way, but I think it’s a real examination of a couple of things, obviously our incredible isolation and loneliness as a culture right now, especially in a digital age, and it’s an examination of our need to feel connected to things, particularly tragedies.
Paul: We were both very inspired for the story because in high school, when the 9/11 attacks happened, we remember a lot of people fabricating their own involvement or knowing people who were involved in this great tragedy – I knew friends that made up that they had an uncle that was in the tower, crazy things, and it was so interesting to both of us – why was our generation needing to be a part of something? And we examined, as we become more isolated than ever before, this excuse to come together as a community by any means necessary is really real.
Pasek: It’s the same with celebrity deaths, people sharing their stories.
Paul: We’re all claiming to be Robin Williams’ biggest fan. Were you really Robin Williams’ biggest fan before he passed away or is this a moment that you can be noticed and seen?
Pasek: And both sides are authentic, both sides are real. It’s beautiful to share a tribute about someone and say, “This is my moment,” but it’s also a little selfish, but the selfish act comes from a genuine need, a genuine hole somewhere inside of us that needs to be filled, so I think that makes it sound very, very heavy.
Paul: There’s lots of comedy too, Ken!
Pasek: Look, we have fun with it in the show, it’s not just dark, and our playwright, Steven Levenson, is fantastic and it’s a very contemporary, humorous book, it feels very indie filmic in a way and I hope people come see it and I hope people enjoy it. I’m excited about it.
Paul: I’ve been thinking about why we wrote the story. For me, at least, I think so much of Dogfight but particularly Evan Hansen is about asking a question and trying to get to the answer of that question through the creation of something artistic. So I don’t really know if I have the answer in myself but I see a lot of myself in a lot of these characters and so much of the plot and the songs have to do with me wrestling with my own identity or who I want to be as a human being or why I do the things that are a little dark, and weird, and scary, even in my own head, and getting to explore that in a theatrical way is exciting.
Ken: You mentioned working with Steven, so how do you guys work with book writers? What’s the process there? You guys are a very right team, obviously.
Pasek: Well we do all the work. No, actually it’s the opposite, Steven does all of the work and then we just steal his ideas. Every great songwriter does this, right?
Paul: Don’t tell the truth!
Pasek: We love Steven and our sensibilities, our artistic sensibilities, are very aligned, our sense of humor are very aligned and we work pretty collaboratively.
Paul: Because this is our first original story, our first original musical ever, we spent a very, very long time just developing the idea.
Pasek: Yeah, our outline and just the narrative structure was a very, very long process. It was an idea that we had that we brought to Steven but now he owns it, it’s really like he took the good parts of what we were suggesting and made them beautiful and discarded the crappy parts and really created an exciting, I think, and compelling narrative. But we work really back and forth pretty fluidly, we’re on the phone to him saying “Hey, we feel like we need this moment, can you choose a monologue for what this character’s doing?” or “Here’s our monologue, does it seem right for what we might musicalize?” and it’s pretty back and forth. He’s incredible because he’s never written a book for a musical before.
Paul: But then this is, I think, a really, really great book, particularly for a musical, and I think that anyone who sees it will see that. He really, I think, shines more than we do.
Pasek: He wrote the show, he pretty much did a pass early on, once we had done our development as a play, and we read it and were like “This is really beautiful, I don’t want to mess this up with songs.”
Paul: We were almost like “Should this be a musical? Because this is a really good play.”
Pasek: Then we were like “Okay, our job is to just seamlessly take this from scene into song and back into scene again,” and I think, hopefully, if we’ve achieved something, that’s what I’m proud of. We’ll see how it ends up but our goal was to match his tone, really, to get inside those scenes and take them into song and take them out of song and make it feel like we never stopped to sing, like “Oh, now they’re turning on their musical theatre voices and they’re doing that, and now we’re back in the scene.” It’s like he’s capturing a very contemporary and relevant tone and we sort of felt it was our job to meet him at that was.
Paul: In the way that we talk about writing songs with one voice – he’s a third collaborator and we’re trying to write the show as one voice, so there’s really hopefully a seamlessness between song and scene and it really feels like it all could have come from one mind.
Pasek: We’re saying a lot of “hopefully,” “we hope,” “if,” there’s a lot of that, because we’re in the middle of rehearsals right now.
Paul: Yeah, we’re hopeful right now, but wait until tech, Ken! It’s a good job you didn’t interview us in three weeks. I would be on Klonopin.
Ken: Okay, one at a time – greatest musical theatre songwriting team of all time. Justin.
Paul: Oh my gosh.
Ken: Don’t look at each other, you can’t consult.
Paul: I don’t even want to do it. I was going to ask if we could do not living.
Ken: Yes of course, of all time, throughout history. You could do Plato, for all I care.
Paul: A songwriting team, though? The grandfathers, right? I would say Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Pasek: I’ll say, this is not not-living but I’ll say Bach and Hoenig.
Ken: Very nice. Very different choices from the two of you. So I’ve been in New York City long enough now where I’ve lived through a couple of “This is the new generation of musical theatre.”
Pasek: We’re trying to white knuckle that title as long as possible.
Paul: Ken’s like “So are you really?”
Ken: Jason Robert Brown was my vocal coach when I was at NYU.
Paul: Oh my gosh.
Ken: He handed me a song to sing, “You should sing this song,” and it was by Andrew Lippa, so I’ve been around that crew. So who are your peers? Who is your group now?
Pasek: It’s funny…
Paul: Bach and Hoenig. Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Pasek: He’s the coolest.
Paul: Are you kidding?
Pasek: He’s so cool.
Paul: Actually we’re part of the song writing space.
Pasek: Sort of a collective.
Paul: Called SongSpace, that this wonderful woman, Kara Unterberg, helped create and so there’s a lot of great writers in that. But I would say Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen are writers that we really love.
Pasek: Yeah, I feel like the first people I think of are people that we all share workspace together and those are people like Miller and Tysen, it’s Adam Gwon, it’s Georgia Stitt.
Paul: Brian Lowdermilk.
Pasek: Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan, it’s Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, it’s Marcy and Zina, it’s Jeff and Hunter, Kooman and Dimond.
Paul: We love Joe Iconis’s work.
Ken: You share a workspace?
Ken: That’s the coolest thing ever.
Pasek: It’s really, really cool.
Paul: And we have a Google calendar where there’s different rooms you can rent and it’s great, so it’s a nice thing. It’s really great because it’s fostered a sense of community between all of us. I think we used to look at each other across the room at weird events and be like “Oh, it’s those guys,” but now when we get frustrated we sit in a room and complain together about we can’t find something that rhymes with orange.
Ken: So 20 years from now – finish this statement – “I know I will have had a successful career in musical theatre if…”
Paul: Ken Davenport interviews me again.
Ken: Oh, God.
Pasek: Do it for real. Was that for real?
Paul: That could have been for real. I’ll give another answer though. I guess if we get to – this sounds corny and I’m just thinking of it, this is not a planned answer because I didn’t know you were going to ask this, but I guess if we write stories that feel like they’re only things that we could have written. I mean what I’m really proud of about Dear Evan Hansen and Dogfight and things that we’re at least trying to put out to the world is that they’re things where I don’t feel like we’re trying to imitate someone else’s style and we’re trying to create things that only our weird, demented little minds would have come up with and if we can find things that feel authentic to us, and because they feel really authentic to us that permeates other people’s hearts and feels true to them, then I guess that’s really my goal, that we’re creating things that feel relevant and that move people, especially in our generation, but that feel new and are authentically ours.
Pasek: I would agree with that and I would echo that and I would also say, in a practical sense, it takes so much work – not just for the writers, for everyone – work and confluence of events and people and artists to create a show that plays on Broadway and runs on Broadway. It’s like it’s magic in a way, it’s lightning in a bottle, I feel like, and it so rarely happens, a show that works in all those ways, a show that all 120 people or 270 people or however many it is, in the orchestra, on stage, in the crew, all of the designers, all speaking the same language at the same time or enough times throughout two and a half hours that a show just works and runs and the audience comes and sees it and comes and sees it again and tells their friends to come and see it. I think having a show that actually runs for a year.
Paul: More than seven weeks?
Pasek: More than seven weeks! They’re the shows that can get out there and be there for a few years and it’s like “Okay, there’s a big accomplishment there.” You can criticize them or you can say “Oh, it’s because of this, that and the other reason,” but the fact is there’s a story being told with songs that people are going to see, they’re coming to see it again and they’re telling other people to come and see it so that is a huge accomplishment and I would love, in 20 years, to be able to say “Me and a bunch of other people did that and made that and we pulled it off and it was magic.”
Ken: Okay, last question, my James Lipton question, are you ready?
Paul: Oh yeah.
Ken: I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to your SongSpace, knocks on the door and says, “Listen, you guys have done an amazing job already, you’re such self-starters, you developed this song cycle yourself, you got it here and you’ve made such contributions already to the musical theatre. I want to thank you by granting you one wish, but just one.” What drives you crazy about Broadway? What gets you angry, what keeps you up at night, what gets you so upset that you want this genie to wish it away or change it with the snap of a finger?
Pasek: That’s a good question.
Paul: It’s a great question.
Pasek: I don’t know, there’s nothing to, I mean the thing that I always hear people complain about is that it’s just too expensive to go to Broadway and so the only audiences that can see it are privileged audiences and we’re not bringing in new audiences to see shows. The flipside of that is it is so expensive to produce a show on Broadway that the only way, often, to be able to pull it off is to charge those prices because people are willing to pay them and you need to charge those prices not to make money but to just be able to stay open, to keep the ship afloat. I couldn’t wish for something because I don’t know what the magic solution is.
Paul: I don’t know what the solution is. I would echo that as well but I think it starts with even people who have access to musical theatre have the privilege to be able to go to school to study musical theatre. It’s a very privileged world to be a part of and I think that we both acknowledge that we’ve been very privileged to be a part of that world and to be able to get a BFA in musical theatre at the University of Michigan, even at 18, already allows us to think “How could I be a musical theatre writer?” in ways that I think other people don’t have the opportunity to. So I think it’s about, for me, I wish that so many other kinds of stories and kinds of minds that are different from mine were represented and were able to have access.
Pasek: To see shows, to write shows.
Paul: Yeah, then we would get wildly different perspectives and I think that’s one of the reasons, one of the many reasons, why Hamilton is so exciting, because it’s a different perspective for Broadway. We have a friend, Lemon Andersen, who is a poet and has done shows at the Public and I know he’s talked about how some of his own family and friends can’t come to see his shows and that’s crazy. He has such a different experience – he grew up in Brooklyn in the late ’80s and not enough people have that perspective. I want to hear that story but there are not enough Lemons who are able to create shows so, I don’t know, I would wave a magic wand…
Pasek: And make it affordable for everyone. The problem is people just complain about the price of tickets – you have to understand, it is so expensive to do this, it’s such a crazy risk, and nine times out of ten – more than nine times out of ten – you’re not going to make your money back anyway so, yes, it’s lovely to make it affordable for people but they have to charge those ticket prices to people to make money to keep it afloat.
Paul: As much as we started writing Edges, the song cycle, and people responded to it, the kinds of problems that we were identifying in Edges as 19 year old kids are like really privileged problems.
Pasek: Like “I want to realize my dreams,” not like “I want to get through to tomorrow, I want to survive the next week.”
Paul: I just think that so many of the people who end up writing and who end up in this industry do come from a leave of privilege and I wish that, in the same way that the internet has allowed for democratization of upstarts, I wish that there was a sort of democratization of who’s able to create new material to be represented on Broadway.
Ken: It’s interesting you talk about the BFA and musical theatre in general being a privileged opportunity.
Paul: It is.
Ken: I’d love to see the ratio of sports scholarships to musical theatre scholarships.
Paul: Yeah, right, really.
Ken: That’s a great answer. Thank you so much guys for doing this. Everyone out there, go and see Dear Evan Hansen at Second Stage – it starts performances on March 26th, which means you guys got to get the F back to rehearsal right now.
Paul: See you later, Ken!
Ken: Check out their website, PasekAndPaul.com and we’ll see you on the next podcast – Tony award winning choreographer Chris Gatelli.
Paul: He did Dogfight!
Ken: Yes he did. Thanks so much, guys, and we’ll see you next time, everybody!
Ken: Don’t forget, if you’re listening to this on iTunes, make sure you give the show a big, fat five-star rating and throw in a comment or two as well. Let’s get the word out about these great artists that give their time all for you. Thanks so much.
It used to be that a Broadway Producer’s #1 concern…
Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.