Thank goodness Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were horrible at ballet. When the songwriting duo (Pasek on lyrics, Paul on music) behind Broadway's monster hit Dear Evan Hansen, met in 2003, their freshman year as musical theatre majors at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, they bonded over being the worst two students in a compulsory ballet class and soon realized all they wanted to do was write music together.
“We were really, really, really bad dancers but fast friends,” Pasek said recently. What began as writing songs for fun in the bowels of the university's music building has since produced a handful of musicals, songs for television’s Smash and most recently, an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "City of Stars” (along with composer Justin Hurwitz) from La La Land. On Sunday, at the Tony Awards, they're nominated for Best Original Score (one of the show's nine total) and they are strong contenders to win, putting them solidly into Act 1of a career that promises to turn them into the most exciting songwriting duo on Broadway since Kander & Ebb, and plenty of more hits to come.
In a season that suffered from a mild case of Hamilton hangover, Dear Evan Hansen was an immediate smash with critics and fans alike when it debuted at the Music Box Theatre in November, after stints in Washington D.C and off Broadway last spring. The story of a woefully anxious high school senior, Hansen, who becomes entangled in a web of lies and viral videos after the suicide of a classmate is a gripping and gut-wrenching depiction of what can happen when you look outside of yourself to feel whole. (What 17 yr old doesn’t?)
Ben Platt’s performance as the title character is also one for the ages and is all but assured the Tony this Sunday—the pure physicality and raw-nerve sensitivity he conjures eight times a week has placed him as one of the brightest stars in Broadway’s young firmament. But it's Pasek & Paul’s music and story that lead the audience through the miasma of tragedy, shame and feeding the online beast in such a way as to strike the resounding chord it has. Living a life online and through projections of oneself is rich territory for the theatre and one they mine to startling effect.
"I think that social media, and this is something that our book writer Steven Levenson talks a lot about, can make high schoolers of us all. We see where everyone sits in the cafeteria and all of the parties we’re not invited to," Pasek said. "The byproduct of that is it can create a real sense of loneliness or a sense that you’re not part of something. I think that that’s something definitely true for me.”
But how were they in their own high school days?
“There was a term called the Four Building Freaks. I wasn’t called that to my face, but maybe behind my back, which referred to the building where all of the arts classes were,” Paul said of his formative years in Westport, Connecticut. “It wasn’t the coolest thing in the world to do theatre, but you were at least accepted in that small group. So I found my group of people in the arts.”
For Pasek, whose own experience with a death at his high school was the initial inspiration for Dear Evan Hansen, it's no surprise that the theatre was a lifeline.
“I think a lot of the time with drama class or being in the play can be like the island of misfit toys, it can be a refuge for people who don’t feel like they fit in," he said."I definitely felt like that in high school.”
Now closely-watched freshman members of the theatre establishment, the two approach the Tony Awards with the same awe they had watching the show as kids; mostly just gawking at the legends on the red carpet, which will include no less than Sally Field, Bette Midler, Cate Blanchett and Kevin Kline, among others, this Sunday, and hoping they can put together their tuxes properly.
“We still feel like we shouldn’t be let on the red carpet but somehow we are!” Pasek said bashfully. They are unfazed by the gauntlet of red carpet fashion, though Paul admits to a personal first when he attended the Oscars last February; a bit of foundation. “I knew people were going to be taking photos so I shouldn’t have my usually shiny, terrible forehead so…”
The Tony Awards will also be a chance for them to catch up with other artists who do what they do, rare given the mostly sequestered way in which writers and lyricists work. It’s a moment to share stories and commiserate with colleagues, to Pasek & Paul a vital part of keeping the theatre alive.“
When you’re in a room with other writers you can tell that just below the surface we are all aching to share war stories with each other,” Paul said.
“I think everyone is wanting musicals and musical theatre as an art form to survive, so there is a real generosity of spirit,” Pasek added, explaining the mentorships they’ve cultivated over the years with Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell, Pippin), Jeff Marx (Avenue Q) as well as an early, and pivotal, grant from the Jonathan Larson Foundation (Rent) they won as undergrads that set them on the course they now find themselves charting.
Though Pasek & Paul are slightly passed salad-day-newcomer status, the image of that first doomed ballet class would make for the perfect opening scene to their own Merrily We Roll Along-esque bio-musical someday. And as the many accolades and star studded projects come their way (The Greatest Showman, a biopic about P.T. Barnum with Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron opens Christmas; a new live-action Snow White is in the works) they are just as humbled and eager as the two college freshman they were once.
Which is perhaps exactly what makes their ability to translate the every-day traumas and joys of young-adulthood so uncanny; to so fully feel the beat of what it means to be young, and frightened, and hopeful and create a character so compelling and tragic as Evan.
A note on that name, by the way, that is now pouring out of Spotify and iTunes playlists in high schools across the world.
“[The name] felt like he could be unique and also be like everyone else at the same time,” Pasek said. The two came up with “Evan” while librettist Steven Larson added the “Hansen.” “It just had a nice rhythm to it.”
A rhythm that could very well lead them to their first Tony win.
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