Q&A: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

The songwriting duo behind Dogfight, opening at WaterTower Theatre, talk about their musicals, collaboration and working with students around the country.

published Sunday, July 27, 2014

Photo: Robert Hart
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul work with recent Carroll High School graduate Ellie van Amerongen at Ohlook Performing Arts Center

Grapevine — On a warm Wednesday in mid-June, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul spent the day working with teenage musical theater students at Ohlook Performing Arts Center, a tiny space in a Grapevine strip mall that has become popular for its daring late-night musical series and a range of other programs.

The students took turns singing a theater song for the duo—adored by younger musical theater fans for shows like Edges, Dogfight and A Christmas Story, not to mention their original songs for the now-gone TV series Smash—as Paul accompanied on piano and Pasek critiqued, with Paul chiming in with the occasional witticism.

Jill Blalock Lord, who runs Ohlook, met Pasek and Paul at a competition for community theater (at which they won), and had been a fan since she discovered the songs for Edges before they were published. Her students sang them as early as 2008.

For the last hour that I witnessed, the students chose songs such as “The Story Goes On” from Baby and “The Mad Hatter” from Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland. The lessons learned from Pasek and Paul stuck. Questions like “who is your character?” “what’s her story?” and “what is he/she really trying to say here?”—all essential to character work and song interpretation—changed how each student approached and performed the tunes. Each performer walked away with more confidence, a greater understanding of motivation, and the smile that comes with having survived being critiqued in front of their peers.

Later that night, Pasek and Paul performed for a nearly sold out—and quite young and excited—audience at Grapevine’s Palace Arts Center, doing songs from their aforementioned musicals, as well as their musical of James and the Giant Peach, plus some “cut” songs. All the while, they connected to the audience with their knack for telling engaging stories through their lyrics and personal anecdotes. One of the latter was about meeting an idol of theirs, Cyndi Lauper, at several Tony Award events the year they were nominated in the category (Best Music and Lyrics) that she won. (They were nominated for A Christmas Story; her for Kinky Boots.)

She may not have known who they were then, but she probably does now.

Photo: Robert Hart
From left: Justin Paul and Benj Pasek

It’s no wonder this duo, now in their early 30s, are so popular with younger generations of musical theater fans. Smash and YouTube—on which teenagers with cameras perform their songs all over the globe—have much to do with that.

But Pasek and Paul have made waves in the wider theater world, too. Dogfight, which is currently in previews and opens on Monday, July 28, at WaterTower Theatre, won the 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical. They also won the 2007 Jonathan Larson Award, the 2011 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2011 Sundance Institute Fellowship, the 2011 ASCAP Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award, the 2011 ASCAP Songwriters Fellowship Award, and a 2007-2008 Dramatists Guild Fellowship.

Dogfight, which the New York Times called an “intimate, carefully tended new musical,” is based on the 1991 indie film of the same name with River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. It takes place on the eve of the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 21, 1963 (the night he stayed in Fort Worth), telling the story of a newly inducted Marine and what happens when he and his friends wager on which one can find the ugliest girl to bring on a date. Eddie’s selection proves to be quite the match, though, and changes his attitude toward women.

The WaterTower production, directed by Terry Martin, is the first professional production of the show outside of its off-Broadway debut at Second Stage Theater in 2012. (There is a pay-what-you-can preview on Sunday, July 27; and there's a ticket giveaway at the bottom of this story.) It seems North Texas is catching up with the duo: the song cycle Edges was given a lovely staging at Plano’s PFamily Arts in 2013, and the national tour of A Christmas Story comes to Dallas Summer Musicals in December.

Pasek and Paul met at summer orientation before their freshman year of University of Michigan, where they were both in the theater department. Pasek, from Philadelphia, and Paul, who was born in St. Louis but grew up in Connecticut, became instant friends and soon enough, artistic collaborators.

We chatted outside of Ohlook after their afternoon teaching session, with the backdrop of students singing in rehearsal for an upcoming production—and Pasek and Paul delighting in the students’ performances.


TheaterJones: How often do you conduct musical theater workshops with students?

Justin Paul: When we first started having our work out there, we were contacted by some theater groups and colleges to come work with students, and we found it to be really rewarding and educational for us. For one, it exposes our music to a wider audience, and it helps us as writers as we discover more about how to perform these songs; it continues to contribute to our education. There are so many passionate musical theater fans all around the country, and it’s neat to meet them face-to-face, it gives a whole other context to it. You can almost never believe that people in Denmark, or Dallas, are doing our songs.

Benj Pasek: The world obviously changed with the advent of the Internet, but it really changed our field in a very profound way. When we wrote our first show, Edges, in college in 2005, that was one year after Facebook had started and after YouTube had started, and although we’ve never had a professional production of Edges in New York City, people [were singing] our songs. They were the ones who were using YouTube and Facebook. I think that it became something that was written for 19- or 20-something-year-old people by 19- or 20-something-year-old people, so people wanted to do it. Then they would contact us to come to the schools to work on the show, and from that it was a natural transition to working with students on our material and continuing to do that as we learn and do more and more.


You guys really had a connection with these Ohlook kids.

Paul: Thanks. I think we had fantastic professors in college, and great [secondary] teachers ourselves. We have no idea what we’re doing, but we’re mimicking our teachers [laughs]. We feel like we learned how to work with actors and performers from the mentors we had. As actors, being on the receiving end of it really helped us to be on the giving end of it. We aren’t just writers, we were trained as performers.


You met at the University of Michigan. How did your friendship grow into artistic collaboration and lead to Edges?

Pasek: We became fast friends mostly because we were the worst people in our ballet class, so we’d hide behind each other to avoid being seen by our ballet instructor. We also got cast in the worst roles in our musical in our sophomore year. I was cast as “Man with Camera” and Justin was cast as an Asian back-up dancer, so we thought “this is a disaster, we need to do something for ourselves.” We had been tinkering with creating some songs in our freshman year, but when we got cast in these devastatingly small parts, we were like “we’re going to create our own show and stick it to the man” [laughs]. And we ended up writing Edges. The first move we had to make was not to write a show, but to book a performance house and invite everybody that we knew to see our show. We assumed that if everybody purchased a ticket then we would actually have to write a show, and that’s how it was born. We gave ourselves a deadline and we went for it.

So then people began to hear about this thing we created online, and it spread in this new way. Before, a show had to be seen and heard in New York City, and the cast album would be passed around physically. But now, the same second you put something on YouTube, someone from New York and someone from Singapore can see it at the same time. It’s this democratization of who has access to it, and we were the beneficiaries of that.


That show is about young adults, relationships and decisions that affect us at the age. How much of the songs are about you and your friends?

Paul: It was all that, we didn’t know what else to write about. Mostly it was the struggles we had and the things going on with our friends and us.


The musical that first got you noticed, in New York at least, was Dogfight. It’s based on an obscure film. Were you looking to adapt a film?

Paul: We were working on another project with [book writer Peter Duchan] that—and he didn’t say this—we could tell he really didn’t think was a good idea. So we’d always subtly try and suggest other ideas. He kept suggesting these high-minded, intellectual ideas that we weren’t excited about, and then one day he brought in the DVD for Dogfight. We watched it and loved it immediately. We ditched the draft we were working on and started working on that instead.

Pasek: We also were trying to find a story that was about young people and that wasn’t necessarily set now but had resonance with modern times. The story is set on the eve of the JFK assassination; we were on the eve of America changing in a very big way. I feel like when we were writing this there were many things happening in America, like with the Obama administration that felt parallel. Thematically we were interested in the story, it felt pertinent but also otherworldly at the same time.

Photo: Karen Almond
Juliette Talley as Rose in WaterTower Theatre's production of Dogfight

If you explain the premise to someone who doesn’t know the musical or the movie, and tell them it’s about Marines who have a contest to find the ugliest girl to date, they’d think it was sexist.

Paul: It’s a tough balance and fine line to find. We talk a lot about “casual cruelty” and a lot about how the emphasis is on these guys who didn’t know better, and weren’t taught better, and how one girl can open their mind when they come face to face with the humanity of it. In this case, with the character of Rose, [Eddie] sees a real person and not just an object. It’s a microcosm of a larger theme.

Pasek: Not only did these guys not know better, this was an actual tradition that happened in the Marines. In exploring it a little more, it was a way to dehumanize people. The way you make that a casual occurrence [is] if you can dehumanize a woman, you can dehumanize someone that you’re going to have to come face-to-face with and kill a month from now. It was conditioning people to shut off the empathy switch, [to stop] seeing other people as human beings. We thought that was interesting to explore, as these guys were about to become murderers in a way, and fight for their country and defend it. So they’re taught to turn off the empathy switch and see women in the same sort of way. It’s profoundly sad, but interesting.


Sadly, dehumanizing women still seems to be popular among certain political factions, like when you have a Todd Akin saying something stupid about “legitimate rape,” or the case that’s pending with Hobby Lobby. [At the time of this interview, the Supreme Court decision hadn’t been made yet.]

Paul: There’s still a very prevalent misogynistic presence out there, with rape culture and college universities.

Pasek: Look at what happened a few weeks ago in Santa Barbara. [The killing spree by Elliot Rodger, who admitted he hated women.]

Paul: It was a need for us to get to portray a character who ends up being a strong, confident woman who really makes the best of a situation, and how that kind of person can change someone who is more close-minded.

Pasek: This character forces the Marine to recognize her as a human being.


There are a lot of famous composer/lyricist musical theater duos, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, and Bock and Harnick. But you two are always listed as both composer and lyricist. Are those duties evenly split with both of you?

Pasek: I do more lyrics, and he’s music, but we take collective responsibility for the songs. We’ve been working together for over 10 years, and when you hear something of ours, it’s a song. The music and lyrics are not divorced [from each other]. We try to push each other to create the best material possible. We don’t want to have somebody who is just responsible for music or just responsible for lyrics, because at the end of the day, it’s a shared effort.

Paul: The song works or it doesn’t.

Pasek: And that falls on both of our shoulders.


At this point, I’m guessing you’re each able to speak up when something isn’t working.

Pasek: We feel very free to speak candidly to each other [laughs].

Pasek: We have a shorthand and we know each other incredibly well. We anticipate what the other is going to do before the other person does it.

Paul: There’s not a lot of beating around the bush.


Who are your influences?

Paul: In theater, it runs the gamut, from Frank Loesser, and obviously Rodgers and Hammerstein. We’ve been lucky to be mentored by our contemporary songwriting heroes like [Lynn] Ahrens and [Stephen] Flaherty, Stephen Schwartz, Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez of Avenue Q. We grew up listening to and loving their music and they gave us notes and feedback and that has a bunch of influence.

Pasek: Ahrens and Flaherty came to the first preview of Dogfight and gave us helpful notes. Stephen Schwartz came the second week and the notes he gave totally shaped major elements of two songs, which we rewrote. Having that personal relationship is really phenomenal; it’s not just learning from listening, but learning from asking a hero of yours to give you feedback, and they respond. David Zippel, who wrote the lyrics for City of Angels, [gave us notes] when we were rewriting A Christmas Story before it went to Broadway. We were having conversations with him about the opening number and how to rewrite certain lyrics.

Because we come from a theater place, musically we like many genres but we really gravitate to songs that tell stories. I think the closest kind of music to musical theater is country, because it really is great storytelling when done well. We’ve recently become friends a country songwriter, [Texas native] Shane McAnally, who wrote a lot of Kacey Musgrave’s album [Same Trailer Different Park]. We listen to his songs and we’re like “we want to do that too.” The more you learn about anything, the more you find elements of it in other things. The more we learn about songwriting in general, and we hear a great country song, it really has so many similar elements to a great theater song. We’re able to have a fuller appreciation for it.


Let’s move on to A Christmas Story. You had done Dogfight, adapted from an admired but not widely known film. So you get A Christmas Story, adapted from an exceptionally well-known and beloved movie. But you weren’t the first team on the project. How did it end up being you two? And you earned a Tony nomination for it.

Paul: Someone else wrote [the musical first], it was done in Kansas City and they were going to Seattle and were looking for new songwriters. We heard about it through our agent and we submitted songs for it and were selected. We felt very lucky.

Pasek: It wasn’t something I grew up watching as a kid. I was a Jewish kid in northeast Philadelphia, and when they go to the Chinese restaurant at the end of the film, I could relate to that. But I knew it was in the zeitgeist of American popular culture. We had actually talked about turning it into a musical before, because the concepts and the themes were so resonant, relating to family and the nostalgia of a better era.

Paul: I only saw it because it aired 24 hours a day on TV at Christmas; I remember I was a fan of the underscoring. It’s quite good, so I was intimidated when we got this job.


What’s next for you?

Pasek: We’re working on an original musical, not based on anything [previously existing], with the director of Rent, Michael Greif [who directed Giant in Dallas]. Then a stage musical for Disney that’s based on a documentary [2010's Make Believe, about a competition for teenage magicians] with the playwright Rick Elice [of Peter and the Starcatcher], and we’re writing songs for a movie which is really exciting.


Vanity Fair called you “the heirs to Rodgers and Hammerstein.” No pressure, huh?

Paul: Not at all [laughs]. We just love to write songs and music and hopefully we’re finding our place in the theater world and beyond that. We loved writing for the TV show Smash, but theater is our first love and we’ll hopefully always be doing that; but we love to keep expanding the kinds of ways we’re able to write music.

» Here's a video of Pasek and Paul talking about and singing songs from Dogfight:

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Q&A: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
The songwriting duo behind Dogfight, opening at WaterTower Theatre, talk about their musicals, collaboration and working with students around the country.
by Mark Lowry

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