Songwriting duo comes to Wilton
I’m only working at this Pizza Hut to pay my way through college.
Selling chicken wings and bread sticks to a fat ass clientele.
Its not as if I plan on working here forever.
Cause one day, it’s goin’ to be
These ideas are goin’ to sell.
These words were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and, boy, have their ideas ever sold.
The two young men were college students when they wrote the lyrics to the song Boy with Dreams for their song cycle Edges, and ever since they have been on an upward trajectory in the world of musical theater.
They will come to Wilton on Sunday, April 7, to present a concert of songs and stories at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, 36 New Canaan Road, beginning at 4.
It will be a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Paul, who grew up next door in Westport and graduated from Staples High School.
“We haven’t done a concert in Connecticut in a while,” said Mr. Paul, who now lives in Manhattan. “We’ll be performing a broad variety of our songs, some from Dogfight, A Christmas Story, a song or two from Smash, as well as some of our older favorites. It will be an afternoon of us telling stories we’ve collected thus far in our brief career and stories behind some songs,” he said.
Joining Mr. Paul and Mr. Pasek at St. Matthew’s will be Carrie Manolakos, whom Mr. Paul described as “an incredible Broadway actress.” She has appeared on Broadway in Mamma Mia! and on the national tour of Wicked. “She’s one of our favorites,” Mr. Paul said.
Mr. Paul and Mr. Pasek met as students at the University of Michigan, where they were both musical theater majors focusing on performance. As their college careers progressed, it started to become apparent that their performance careers might not. After receiving bit parts in a college production they turned their hands to writing.
“It was never ‘I’ve got to be a performer or I’ll die,’” Mr. Paul said. “I think in college, halfway through, things started to shift to another angle. There was never one moment. It was a gradual shift and we started to focus more on writing.”
From the time he was at Staples, Mr. Paul was on both sides of the footlights, acting and playing music and conducting. “I’ve loved being on both sides of it,” he said.
Growing up, Mr. Paul studied piano in Norwalk with Dorothy Grimm and in Weston with Chris Coogan.
In college, “the writing started to take off and we got opportunities,” Mr. Paul said. “The performing just fell aside a little bit, and that was probably for the best for everyone,” he added, laughing. “Although it’s fun, at events like this one, one thing we do still love is getting to perform our own material.”
While in college, the duo wrote Edges, a four-person song cycle about coming of age that has been performed worldwide. One of its signature songs is Be My Friend, known as the Facebook song.
Rodney Ayers, music director at St. Matthew’s, saw a production of Edges in Westport and “thought it was tremendous,” he said. “The musical quality, the lyrics were really incredible. I was totally wowed.
“They are widely celebrated as the up-and-coming writing team in the theater world,” he added. “I think we’ll see a long and distinguished career as a writing team.”
The two young men graduated with bachelor’s degrees in fine arts in 2007, and shortly thereafter received a Jonathan Larson Award from the American Theatre Wing, which gives out the Tony Awards, and the 2007-2008 Dramatists Guild Fellowship.
Since then they have also brought their musical Dogfight to Off Broadway and in November made their Broadway debut with A Christmas Story: The Musical, based on the popular film. Both have been widely praised.
Their songs are also featured on the NBC musical show Smash, Sesame Street, Disney’s cable-TV series Johnny & the Sprites, and Theatreworks USA (Duck for President and If You Give a Pig a Pancake). Performances of their songs have been featured on ABC-TV’s The View and Good Morning America, CBS Sunday Morning, VH1 Morning Buzz, The Rosie Show, and Fox & Friends.
As is evident from the varied scope of their projects, the duo works in a variety of genres. “Hopefully people recognize we’re trying to be diverse,” Mr. Paul said. “Some of the writers we respect most are those who are able to write in different styles. We’ve been chasing after every opportunity giving us a chance to flex our muscles.
“When Christmas Story came up, it was a more old-fashioned style, classic Broadway, early 40s. We said, ‘Give us a shot, give us a try.’”
Dogfight is more contemporary, he said, “written through the filter of 60s folk and pop music of that era.”
Smash is also more contemporary, with a theatrical pop sound.
“We try our hand, and that’s something we want to continue to do and continue to develop,” Mr. Paul said.
In the way they share the work, Mr. Paul said, “we’re pretty collaborative as partnerships go. I write the music and Benj writes the lyrics, but we present ourselves as a unified team. Just because at the end of the day, hopefully, people are judging the song. What is the song accomplishing? Hopefully, with a good song, it’s not easy to separate the music and lyrics.”
Mr. Paul said that early on, “I didn’t have any idea where I would be. I had not written music growing up or in high school. I had never gravitated that way. It was a new thing doing it in college. I never thought I’d end up with the opportunities I’d end up with.”
Those opportunities resulted in the duo being named to Dramatist Magazine’s “50 to Watch” in contemporary theater.
“It seems like dumb luck that it’s fallen into place like it has,” he said. “We’ve been in the right place at the right time.”
For those who would like to see Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, the time to be at St. Matthew’s is 4 p.m. Tickets are $40/patrons, $20/adults and $10/students and may be purchased online at stmatthewswilton.org or at the door.