It was freshman orientation day at the University of Michigan when Benj Pasek and Justin Paul met each other for the first time. The two ambitious high school graduates were going to be studying in the musical theater program together as actors, singers, and dancers. Nevertheless, they had no idea that they would still be continuing to work alongside each other more than a decade later, and go on to win Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Golden Globe awards, not for their performances on the stage, but for their original songs.
From their first day at the University of Michigan, Pasek and Paul quickly bonded over their love of musical theater, only to soon connect over their inability to dance. During their sophomore year, the school musical was City of Angels, and both were eager to show off the skills they acquired to their dear mothers. However, after getting casted with the most negligible roles, the pair realized that they weren’t the “song and dance men” they thought they could be.
Disappointed and filled with angst, Pasek and Paul began writing their first song cycle, also known as Edges. Almost impulsively, a venue was booked, a date was set, and fellow classmates also casted with insignificant roles were gathered to play the leads of this new musical. Edges, reflecting the duo’s 19-year-old struggles at the time, asks classic coming-of-age questions and gives an honest yet witty explanation of adulthood. It finally premiered at the Kerrytown Concert House with family, friends, and peers making up the audience. The following year, the pair became the youngest ever to win the John Larson Grant, a $20,000 prize awarded to a select group of composers, lyricists, and librettists. The song-cycle became a sensation through social media and is now performed all over the world thanks to Pasek and Paul.
The team decided to pursue song-writing full time by moving to New York. They started to post their music on Youtube and immersed themselves into the subculture of composers and songwriters in the community. But after a year of living in the city, following the same routine of writing a song and posting it online, the duo realized that there needed to be a change. They wanted to keep the live theater interest alive. With luck, producers began to reach out, seeing their potential and seizing the opportunity.
Over the next few years, Pasek and Paul went on to work on musicals such as A Christmas Story and James and The Giant Peach. Eventually, they began their collaboration with director Damian Chazelle and composer Justin Hurtwitz to write the lyrics for the music of La La Land. During this whole time, the duo was working on an original stage musical now called Dear Evan Hansen, which opened on Broadway in 2016. It is now the winner of six Tony Awards and is critically acclaimed as “One of the most remarkable shows in musical theatre history” by the Washington Post. More recently, their original music can be heard in the on-screen musical The Greatest Showman, whose soundtrack reached the top of the Billboard 200 at the start of this year.
Though they didn’t know it when they were younger, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul has influenced not only the musical theater community, but also people all over the world with their contemporary, innovative music that will inspire many more. Pasek reveals, “The very first stories that we ever saw on the screen were musicals, so we just feel lucky and fortunate that that’s returning and that we get to be a part of it in some small way.”
Rachel Kahng, Grade 10
Seoul Foreign School