This Is Us: Pasek & Paul’s Musical Journey
By Chris Willman • May 22, 2019
On the night of May 15, 2019, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul won the ASCAP Vanguard Award at our annual Screen Music Awards — the first time the Vanguard has been bestowed upon ASCAP members who primarily write for the screen or stage. Journalist Chris Willman sent along this appreciation of their story thus far.
Pasek & Paul. Pasek & Paul. That pairing of names falls so pleasingly off the tongue —there’s musicality even to their bylines! — you’d root for them to become the most celebrated songwriting team of their generation even if they didn’t have the collective talent to back it up. There’s an even better reason to keep repeating those names, of course, and it’s in how much you can’t stop humming every musical phrase or going back over every sweet gut-punch of a lyric in your mind after seeing a show like Dear Evan Hansen or hearing a song score like The Greatest Showman. Lerner & Loewe, speaking of brilliantly alliterative Broadway teams, could be proud.
There’s another great songwriting duo that comes to mind: Ashman & Menken. Ben Pasek and Justin Paul came of age experiencing musicals first and foremost when the fairest lady was Ariel, not Eliza. As Benj has said, "We both credit the Disney renaissance of the late ’80s and early ’90s as one of the big reasons our generation is so primed to love musicals. The Little Mermaid came out when we were four years old. It was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater. Hearing characters break out into song and further the story through music was very natural to me.” Much more natural, as it turns out, than acting, which they thought they’d be pursuing when they first met up at the age of 18 at the University of Michigan. They bonded over being the worst dancers in their freshman ballet class, retreated to work on a song idea instead, and thus was born a beautiful pas de deux…figuratively speaking.
While still sophomores in Michigan, with lots of time to kill between the tiny roles they were cast in in school plays, they came up with the song cycle Edges — “song cycle” being a euphemism, of course, for “unproduced musical” (Unproduced or not, Edges has lately become popular among the Pasek and Paul fan base, which now peers into the crevices of their back catalog, looking for deep cuts). They slipped a copy of the CD to visiting campus speaker Stephen Schwartz, who, recognizing semi-raw talent, wrote back with a detailed analysis of what worked and what didn’t. Benj wrote to another hero, Jeff Marx, who wrote the score to Avenue Q, and got a summer gig as his assistant, at which point Marx, too, got to hear their fledgling songs and offer feedback. They were students of the highest order — and they just happened to be going to college, additionally.
After graduation, the pro gigs lined up. Two of their early song scores made an impact — James and the Giant Peach, based on the beloved Roald Dahl children’s tale, and Dogfight, based on a very grown-up indie film. In his review of Dogfight, Ben Brantley of the New York Times pointed out the songwriters’ notable gift for “finding melodic grace in romantic awkwardness,” and he pointed out that some of the material reminded him of a show called Saturday Night, “a 1950s musical featuring songs by an untried talent named Stephen Sondheim.” It wouldn’t be the last heady comparison they were to get. They finally made it onto Broadway with A Christmas Story, instilling jealousy in every other musical-theater songwriter who’d always dreamed of getting to write a tune called “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!” They were hired to write songs for the second season of Smash, the Broadway-themed TV drama, and one of that show’s top dogs, NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt, a noted lover of musicals, was impressed enough to come on board as a co-producer for a modestly scaled show they were working on — probably destined to go down in flames, but worth the try — called Dear Evan Hansen.
It didn’t just change their careers; you could argue that Dear Evan Hansen changed the course of Broadway. Along with Hamilton, it re-inaugurated an age in which entire families, young and old — but especially young — fell in love with smash-hit cast albums and played them to death years before they could save the money to hear those songs rendered in the flesh on Broadway. Unlike Hamilton, it spoke in a direct and unallegorical way to young people and the neuroses they believed were theirs and theirs alone. And whatever doubt you might have harbored about whether the DSM-5 manual could be set to music and become a big ole hit, Pasek and Paul erased it. At the 71st Tony Awards in 2017, Dear Evan Hansen won six of the nine Tonys it was up for, including best musical and best score. As songwriters go, Pasek and Paul were the new kings of Broadway. Unlike most previous Broadway songwriting royals — no offense, Rodgers & Hammerstein! — they were adorable.
Hollywood beckoned, as it will. Even before Evan Hansen became a sensation, they’d been lured west, not to have their standards set any lower, but for dream projects. Where Ashman & Menken had been able to revive the movie musical in its animated form, and others had recently fared okay with adaptations of Broadway shows, Pasek & Paul were drawn into a new movement of original live-action movie musicals. Both of the smashes with which they became involved caused them to stretch a little. With La La Land, they were writing just the lyrics to Justin Horwitz’s music, creating a hybrid of contemporary pop, jazz, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley that didn’t quite sound like anything you’d heard before. It generated not one but two best song Oscar nominations, with “City of Stars” coming in for the win.
The Greatest Showman was an altogether different animal. There, they returned to writing both words and music, but with strict marching orders from the director that they later confessed felt counterintuitive at first. As Justin recalled later, “He talked about wanting to tell this period story with contemporary music. We didn’t understand that concept at all. We didn’t say we didn’t understand. We just said, ‘That sounds amazing.’” And they made it so. The Greatest Showman had a modest opening in theaters, hard as that is to recall now. But the soundtrack caught on among fans who hadn’t even seen the movie yet, in much the same way that Evan Hansen had a huge life among fans who only had aspirations of actually seeing it live — and album and film snowballed around each other. Released in late 2017, the soundtrack became the bestselling album of 2018 in any genre.
In contrast to the anxiety-laden songs of Evan Hansen and the bittersweetness of La La Land, here was pure, hard-fought celebration — particularly in “This Is Me,” the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning song that was picked up for social causes and rallies and adopted as an empowerment anthem for the misunderstood everywhere. It even became a theme for the Olympics — which might make you wonder, do international athletic champions really feel that systematically suppressed, too? But “This Is Me” had the power to make even the world’s greatest overachievers want to feel like underdogs. For that period of time when it was ubiquitous in shining light on the different and downtrodden, we were all bearded ladies.
And now they’ve come full circle and are back where they started…if we can consider them to have started at age 4, when their minds were being formed by Ariel and Flounder. When Disney’s live-action film version of Aladdin called for some new songs to be co-written by the author of the original music, Alan Menken, finding a lyricist — or lyricists — who wouldn’t bring shame to the sweet and poetically comic legacy of Howard Ashman was a tall order. As the link between those old and new songs, Menken was proud to be teamed with a duo he knew could bring a whole new world to Aladdin’s 27-year-old universe. Menken has said that when he would present Pasek & Paul with fresh ideas in writing sessions, they would fall over with laughter and delight — and in that, they reminded him of other great young writers like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bobby Lopez, where the line between fan and master is erased, and the best audiences become the best writers.
Despite the wonderful alliteration in their names, Pasek & Paul are two very different people. As the press has pointed out, one is a gay, Jewish man, the other a churchgoing WASP. Justin describes himself as more of “a type A” and Benj is, by his own reckoning, some more relaxed letter of the alphabet than that. Yet they’re simpatico in a way even most of the great, complementary songwriting teams haven’t been: They actually like spending time together — or if they don’t, they’re doing a great job of faking it, even with each other; they recently told an interviewer they spend about 350 days of the year together. But who wouldn’t want to spend as much of the year as possible in the company of these beautiful and always burgeoning songs, their writers included? Maybe it’s not too late to write a reprise of what has become their signature song and amend it from “This Is Me” to “This Is Us.” May the ampersand that binds them live long and prosper.