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Friends' Central's Benj Pasek tearing up Hollywood, Broadway

NEW YORK - In worlds where hits are never assured, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are looking at double-barrel success with possible Oscar and Tony Award nominations - even if they're too busy to think that far ahead.

"Dogfight," an Off-Broadway musical by Pasek and Paul, won a 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding musical.
"Dogfight," an Off-Broadway musical by Pasek and Paul, won a 2013 Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding musical.Read moreJOAN MARCUS

NEW YORK - In worlds where hits are never assured, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are looking at double-barrel success with possible Oscar and Tony Award nominations - even if they're too busy to think that far ahead.

On this chilly Manhattan morning, Philadelphia-born lyricist Pasek and Connecticut-raised composer Paul are at Jungle City Studios, fortified with acai-berry smoothies, anticipating the arrival of Hugh Jackman. He plays P.T. Barnum in the forthcoming musical film The Greatest Showman, for which they're writing the songs.

"Unbelievably talented and an unbelievably hard worker," Pasek says of Jackman. "So everybody has to work as hard as him."

"He makes you feel bad about yourself," Paul says, "in an inspiring way."

Without a day off in weeks, Pasek and Paul (known as "P&P" in the biz) have also been revising Dear Evan Hansen. They've nurtured the stage musical from its beginnings at Washington's Arena Stage to Off-Broadway's Second Stage, and now to Broadway's Music Box Theatre. Starring Pitch Perfect's Ben Platt, the show deals with the herd mentality of social media and has been doing sell-out business since previews began last month. "It truly resonates for the moment we live in," says veteran producer Edgar Dobie at Arena Stage. But tinkering continues: They still don't think it's as rich as it can be.

The Broadway opening is Sunday, followed by La La Land, the film musical with lyrics by the duo, opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and on Dec. 16 in Philadelphia. Already, the film has a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 97 percent from various festivals. The Off-Broadway incarnation of Dear Evan Hansen won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. Either project could unexpectedly tank - stranger things have happened - but from all appearances, these 31-year-olds are light-years beyond their wildest dreams.

Even if they're not actually feeling it. "Sometimes after we've completed a project, I think, 'How in the world will we ever do that again?' " Paul says. "You're still staring down a blank page. Maybe after a few projects you feel that you can maybe do it more easily. But I can't imagine we'll ever feel like that."

"Even if you've done it before, you still feel like you're going through new terrain," Pasek says.

The pair have written three full-length stage shows and contributed songs to movies such as Trolls. But there are few rock stars in their field. Even Stephen Sondheim is the worrywart watching in the back of the theater, not taking bows. Pasek and Paul are spirited performers of their own material, but they also treasure their relative anonymity.

"The biggest luxury is that people get to see the work we've spent a long time on," Pasek says. "It's not just our moms in the living room, which is an improvement on how it has been in the past."

Not that moms are to be minimized. Pasek's mother - Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University who has coauthored books such as Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children - often made up songs about everyday experiences. Is it any wonder they jumped at the chance to work on La La Land even though they only wrote lyrics? Filmmaker Damien Chazelle sets the opening production number not in a Hollywood soundstage, but in an all-singing, all-dancing Los Angeles traffic jam. They loved the movie's concept so much they were happy to work on it in any capacity.

Dear Evan Hansen - the story of a high school's reaction to a teenage suicide - is more their baby, enshrining commonplace emotions with Seinfeldian humor. The original story is based on what the Ardmore-raised Pasek witnessed at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood when a teen troubled by drug problems was found dead in 2000 and suddenly had far more mourners in death than friends in life.

"There was this public mourning from those who didn't know him at all," Pasek recalls. "Then 9/11 happened, and there was another moment that had a similar effect. I remember people who inserted themselves into that tragedy, claiming to know people who were involved even though they did not."

The subject is handled with a medium-weight touch and no cynicism, similar to the treatment of mental illness in the musical Next to Normal. Paul favored mainstream pop styles - "the kind of music these characters would listen to." It's also the latest in a succession of their characters coming to terms with their lack of specialness, such as the Depression-era mom in A Christmas Story (2012) and the 1960s waitress in Dogfight (2013).

No matter what period they are set it, these shows reflect Pasek's upbringing in Ardmore and the larger problem of his generation: Surviving your own childhood encouragement. "We were raised in a world where you get a gold star for turning in your homework . . . but if everybody is being told they're special, is anyone special?" he said.

Some observers have praised Dear Evan Hansen's up-to-date use of social media in key plot points. But Pasek believes the show's underlying themes "have been around forever, and social media just amplifies them. It's about . . . seeing other people's perfectly curated lives and feeling that no one hears them or cares about them."

The synergy of their partnership began when both were University of Michigan undergrads. Their song cycle titled "Edges" went viral - putting the pair on the road to bigger things. At Friends' Central, music professor/choir director Jim Davis remembers Pasek as such a promising tunesmith he's surprised to see him leaving those duties mostly to Paul. But Pasek's admiration for Paul's music seems to go beyond words: You see the admiration in his glances.

Though photos show them as a happy "buds," the relationship isn't consistently rosy. One explanation for their good work is that they challenge each other - and come from different worlds. Paul, married and with a less-than-year-old baby, is profusely articulate. Pasek, an openly gay Upper West Sider, can be caught brooding.

Paul came to music via his churchgoing family. A charismatic teenager at Friends' Central, Pasek credits much of who he has become with the exposure there to Sondheim's best shows, not to mention acting experience in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

Their more heated exchanges will never be overheard, as they take place over email and text messages. Old-time songwriters sat at an out-of-tune piano with a burning cigar, but Pasek and Paul were often seen at Arena Stage, sprawled on the theater floor, peering deep into their laptops.

The term songwriters doesn't quite fit them. Even Leonard Bernstein recycled songs from show to show. Pasek and Paul are more like musical dramatists: Everything they do is fashioned with great specificity to whatever dramatic problem is at hand. The starting point is what they call "a third collaborator" - as in the libretto or already sketched story line. From there, they zero in on what's needed and where the song's narrative starts and ends. Sometimes, they write separately.

"It's in this lumpy, claylike state as we're trying to get it into shape," Paul says. "What we're trying to approximate is what might come out of one voice." They also leave plenty of leeway within strict pop-music forms to express emotional evolution or accommodate dialogue interludes. Unlike most Broadway musicals, theirs doesn't have a splashy number to open the second act, but rather a scene in dialogue. It's an Off-Broadway musical that leaves Broadway audiences - unusually young ones - transfixed.

Through numerous workshops, Dear Evan Hansen went from a Quaker school setting to something more typical. Though the deceased Friends' Central boy "was the sweetest kid ever, and completely overwhelmed by forces he couldn't control," according to Davis, his stage counterpart is a thorny, self-alienating guy, making the posthumous affection for him seem particularly incongruous.

Ultra-shy Evan Hansen, the leading mourner, has a crush on the deceased boy's sister. But his sense of isolation could easily be that of a gay man. The emotions being dramatized, says Pasek, are "mined from the experiences that many in the LGBT community have had . . . like being an outsider or feeling that society won't accept you."

The show's most penetrating moment of self-honesty is the second act's "So Big/So Small," in which Heidi Hansen, the protagonist's mother, describes her own failures as a single parent. In past P&P shows, such crises were expressed with high-powered "money notes." But this song is accompanied mostly by acoustic guitar with devastating understatement. Then you understand what Dobie means when he talks about the duo's "wisdom."

"Theater requires you . . . to say, 'This is not my story, but I will put myself in that person's shoes,' " Paul says. "The thing we need to do in this country is to understand each other a lot better. All the yelling and screaming hasn't worked. I'm not saying that musical theater can heal the nation –."

"But maybe it can!" says Pasek. "The potential for what art can do has never felt more exciting or important than right now."