Before a shower of Academy Awards rain down upon all those associated with “La La Land” on Sunday, let’s take a moment to remember that two of the film’s nominees are also responsible for the biggest musical theater hit of the year.
Years before Mia and Sebastian danced among the stars, composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were already being hailed as the heirs to Rodgers and Hammerstein. With the debut of their celebrated new musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” currently playing at the Music Box Theatre in New York City, Pasek and Paul are poised to become the premier songwriting team working today.
The two first met during their freshman year at the University of Michigan where they were both studying musical theater. Bonding over the shared embarrassment of being the two worst dancers in a ballet class, Pasek and Paul soon turned their attention to writing songs. After a transformative apprenticeship with “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez, the duo began developing an impressive resume filled with musical adaptations of movies like “Dogfight” and “A Christmas Story.”
But it was “Dear Evan Hansen” that catapulted Pasek and Paul into the upper echelon of the musical theater community. Starring Ben Platt of “Pitch Perfect” as the anxious teenage depressive boy next door, “Dear Evan Hansen” has all the trappings of a hit modern musical. After a classmate he barely knew commits suicide, high schooler Evan (Platt) inserts himself into the lives of the deceased’s family, as he struggles with his own demons and self-confidence. The irresistibly catchy ballads pair well with the story of a teenager grappling with his place in the world, as big themes of love and loss are boiled down to a fiercely relatable level.
As the “Dear Evan Hansen” team was preparing for the show’s Broadway debut, the two already had their eye on another project: Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” In a pitch to the director, Pasek and Paul wrote the proposed lyrics for the song “City of Stars,” which garnered the duo a Golden Globe award earlier this year and is nominated for an Academy Award. Chazelle was immediately impressed, describing the duo as a “goldmine,” and the rest is award show history.
Although “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen” have little in common thematically ― one is consumed by nostalgia, while the other is decidedly forward-thinking ― in Pasek and Paul’s eyes, the two productions do share a connection.
Speaking with The New York Times in November, Pasek said, “I think we’re attracted to material that’s hopeful and messy, and in that mess, there’s an attempt at getting at truth.”
Get to know Pasek and Paul a little better in the interview below.