During its first 19 years, the Westport Library’s “Booked for the Evening” fundraising event has included many A-list names.
Tom Brokaw, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Alan Alda imparted wisdom to sold-out crowds.
Patti Smith and Nile Rodgers entertained them.
But “Booked” has never seen — or heard — anyone quite like the 20th honoree.
Justin Paul — the Oscar, Grammy and Tony Award-winning, white-hot songwriting star and proud Westport native — kicked the Library’s signature evening into the stratosphere last night.
The 2003 Staples High School graduate thrilled, inspired and paid homage to a crowd of 500 at Rolling Hills Country Club. (The library was unavailable, due to its ongoing Transformation project.)
Weaving together 2 themes — the importance of libraries (especially Westport’s), and his hometown’s longtime embrace of arts education — Paul was visibly moved by his “Booked” honor.
The Westport Library, he said, “nurtured my love of learning, and enhanced my understanding of the world. It’s a hopeful and beautiful place.”
Teachers like Ben Frimmer showed the “left out” middle schooler who he could really be. At Staples, Alice Lipson, David Roth and others helped him find his voice, and his life’s work.
He also cited influences from Long Lots Elementary School, Music Theatre of Connecticut, and Chris Coogan.
Of course, he’s still quite young. After videos of his life, and tributes from the likes of Hugh Jackman filled the screen, Paul joked about watching “the retrospective of a 33-year-old. Not a lot of people have their grandmother at their lifetime achievement award.”
Paul acknowledged that not everyone grows up in a town like Westport. He urged the audience to pay attention — and provide resources — to youngsters in the many places that do not provide the opportunities, and access to the arts, that his hometown does.
He then launched into 3 of his best-loved, and most meaningful, compositions: “For Forever” from “Dear Evan Hansen,” “City of Stars” (“La La Land”), and “This Is Me” (“The Greatest Showman”).
Paul — who, with his songwriting partner Benj Pasek writes beautiful, hopeful music for stage and screen — is admired by countless fans, young and old, around the globe.
But he’s a special hero to Staples students. Two generations — recent college graduates and current performing stars Mia Gentile, Tyler Jent and Michelle Pauker, along with today’s Orphenians — joined Paul on stage.
The mood was joyful. But the “Booked for the Evening” star wore the biggest smile of all.
BONUS REEL: Mark Platt, the producer of “La La Land,” was one of the many big names appearing on video. He made a special announcement: He’s funding a new recording studio, now under construction at the Westport Library.
It will be named for Justin Paul.