I knew there would be more than one Westport connection to last night’s Grammy Awards.
In addition to Daniel Tashian’s part in Kasey Musgraves’ Album of the Year, Staples High School grad Justin Paul picked up his 2nd Grammy. He and his songwriting partner Benj Pasek were honored for “The Greatest Showman” — named Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media.
Pasek and Paul are great showmen — and songwriters — for sure. They will pick up many more Grammys (and other honors) for years to come.
When Justin Paul was a Staples High School student, he played piano for the Westport Library’s signature Booked for the Evening fundraiser.
The Class of 2003 graduate returns to the event this year.
This time though, he’s not the entertainment.
He’s the honoree.
Paul — the Oscar, Grammy, Tony and Golden Globe Award-winning songwriter whose collaboration with Benj Pasek includes “Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman,” “A Christmas Story,” “Dogfight” and “James and the Giant Peach” — joins the likes of Tom Brokaw, E.L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Martin Scorsese, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Halberstam, Patti Smith, Alan Alda and fellow Westporters Nile Rodgers and Lynsey Addario as “Booked” recipients.
Not bad for a 33-year-old.
Paul admits that he doesn’t have the “life experiences” of honorees. But he’s got plenty of riveting acccomplishments.
And he knows the Westport Library well.
“Growing up, it was a constant in my life,” Paul says. “I went there to research school projects, to find new books to read, and everything else. It’s a cornerstone of Westport.”
In middle school, going downtown by himself to the library made him feel “very adult, very cool.”
The CD and DVD collections helped him on his career path. “I think they subtly encouraged my exploration of music, movies and plays,” he says.
Another library — the music one at the University of Michigan — played an important role in Paul’s life too.
“I spent a healthy percentage of time there,” he recalls. “They had scores of every classical piece, and every Broadway musical. It completely fed my hunger and curiosity.”
Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, at January’s Golden Globe Awards. (Photo/Paul Drinkwater NBC)
When Paul and Pasek began their songwriting careers, librarians would request official copies of their work.
“We always said yes,” Paul notes. “As 23-year-0lds, hearing from a librarian made us feel very grown up.”
A lot has happened in the decade since. And it’s been only a decade and a half since Paul went from playing piano at Booked for the Evening, to the main event.
What will he talk about on June 11?
“I could fill an hour just listing all the Westport influences on my life,” he jokes.
“But the library is all about story-telling. That’s what Benj and I do. So it will probably have something to do with stories.”
(“Booked for the Evening” is set for Monday, June 11, 7 p.m. at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton. For tickets and sponsorship information, click here.)
It’s possible that they could complete entertainment’s holy grail later this year if nominated for their work on Fox’s A Christmas Story Live!, which they wrote just as they did the original Broadway production it was based on. Say they don’t do it then? No matter: They can just ask their good friend Damien Chazelle to let them do the music for his new TV projects, or, really, just put their golden touch on anything televised.
Then again, Pasek and Paul might invent their own category: EGOTGG.
Earlier this month they earned a Golden Globe for “Best original song, motion picture” for “This Is Me,” from “The Greatest Showman.”
Move over, PT Barnum. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek may well be the greatest showmen ever.
The 2003 Staples High School grad and his music writing partner, Benj Pasek, won an Oscar for “La La Land”‘s lyrics, and a Tony for “Dear Evan Hansen.”
The year is almost over. But the insanely talented duo have an ace up their sleeve:
Pasek and Paul contributed 11 original songs to “The Greatest Showman.” The 20th Century Fox film premieres December 20.
The Hollywood Reporter says they’ll be Oscar contenders — along with the likes of “Beauty and the Beast” (by Alan Menken and Tim Rice) and Sara Bareilles’ “Battle of the Sexes.”
Justin Paul at the Oscars.
The other day, Pasek and Paul took time out from rehearsals of Fox TV’s live musical “A Christmas Story” (December 17, with Maya Rudolph and Matthew Broderick — no, they never stop working) to talk to the Reporter.
Asked about “pushing the limits” with Hugh Jackman, Paul said:
We were, of course, intimidated because he’s such a master of musical theater, especially onscreen. But we were also inspired to write for a lead character that will be portrayed by Hugh, with all of his abilities and his vocal range and everything. It gives a songwriter such clear parameters of the playground, and with Hugh, it’s a really big one.
As for lessons learned from “La La Land,” he noted:
We view this as a window of time. Maybe it lasts for a while and maybe it doesn’t. The winds seem to shift sometimes, and we’ve obviously seen periods where people have really embraced musicals and periods where it’s really fallen out. But there are people who aren’t necessarily Broadway fanatics like we are, who still want to see a musical on Christmas with their families.
The former Staples Player and Orphenian star is no longer on stage. He explained:
As for all the [awards season] events, we definitely feel funny getting dressed up for something because we’re intentionally behind the scenes. There’s such a humbling neurosis that goes along with writing because no matter what you’ve done, the next time you go to write a song, you’re standing at a piano and there’s a high probability that you’ve struck out the first time you try, no matter what. That will never change.
(Click here to read the entire Hollywood Reporter interview.)
Last night was another big milestone for Justin Paul.
The 2003 Staples High School graduate and his writing partner Benj Pasek won a Tony Award for Best Original Score (“Dear Evan Hansen”). They shared another later in the evening, as the show was named Best Musical.
Before the ceremony, NY1 caught up with the white-hot duo on the red carpet. During the brief interview, Paul named David Roth (Staples High School), Ben Frimmer (Coleytown Middle School) and Kevin Connors (Music Theatre of Connecticut) as important influences while growing up.
Here’s the video:
Meanwhile, retired media teacher Jim Honeycutt unearthed this video of Paul as a senior, when he performed in Roth’s Staples Players production of “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Here’s his solo of “Growing Up.”
He certainly has!
Benj Pasek (left) and Justin Paul (3rd from left) celebrate at the Tonys last night with Paul’s wife Asher and Coleytown Middle School director Ben Frimmer.
Saturday’s University of Michigan graduation ceremonies — coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the institution — caused a bit of controversy. Some students were disappointed there was no keynote speaker.
But everyone loved the entertainment.
Justin Paul — the Staples Class of 2003 alum — joined with songwriting partner (and fellow Michigan Bicentennial Alumni Award winner) Benj Pasek in a special musical performance.
The Oscar and Golden Globe Award winners — accompanied by UM School of Music Theater & Dance seniors — entertained the 10,758 graduates and many more family and friends with “Amaizing Blue Medley.” It included songs from the duo’s “La La Land” movie and “Dear Evan Hansen” Broadway smash, along with original references to UM.
(Earlier today, Pasek and Paul earned a Best Original Score Tony nomination, for “Hansen.”)
Click below for a video of the cold and windy but energetic event (which unfortunately omits the “Amaizing” pun in the graphics). Justin and Benj begin at the 2:30 mark.
Congrats to the UM graduates from Westport: Siri Andrews, Perri Cohen, Jonny Denowitz, Jen Dimitrief, Anna Fiolek, Louisa Freeman, Jason Hoving, Julia Kaner, DJ Petta, Rusty Schindler, Lily Seo and Bailey Valente.
(Hat tip: Westport 2nd selectman Avi Kaner — proud parent of 2017 University of Michigan grad Julia Kaner)
The view from the stage of the 109,000-seat stadium.
Justin Paul and his songwriting partner, Benj Pasek, won Oscars tonight for “City of Stars,” the signature song from “La La Land.” The lyricists were honored for another song — “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” — from the same film. So they had 40% of the category locked down.
The 2003 Staples High School graduate used part of his acceptance speech to give a shout-out to the importance of the arts for young people.
“I was educated in public schools, where arts and culture are valued,” Paul — a product of the Westport school system — said. At a time of pressure from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) state requirements, as well as the possible elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts, Paul made sure to thank all the teachers who helped nurture him.
He did not mention them by name, but former Staples High School choral director Alice Lipson and current Staples Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long were enormous influences. So were Coleytown Middle School director Ben Frimmer, and Kevin Connors of Music Theatre of Connecticut.
Justin Paul at the Oscars.
Paul and Pasek’s Oscar is the latest in a string of awards for the young duo. Earlier this year, “City of Stars” earned a Golden Globe.
And that comes on the heels of the success of Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen,” for which they wrote the music and lyrics.
Congratulations Justin, from all your fans in Westport — this “town of stars.”
“06880” has covered the career of Justin Paul extensively. All of us in Westport are intensely proud of the Broadway songwriter, who — with his musical partner Benj Pasek — has been called the next Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Now the New York Times has taken note too.
A long — loooong — cover story in this coming Sunday’s Theater section by Michael Paulson is headlined “What It’s Like to Make It in Showbiz With Your Best Friend.”
Justin Paul (right) and Benj Pasek.
They met at 18, the worst dancers in a college ballet class, and sought refuge in a basement practice room, taking a first stab at songwriting with a tune about adolescents playing hooky and footsie at a suburban diner.
They went viral before going viral was a thing — their undergraduate years coincided with the birth of Facebook, and the first song cycle Benj Pasek and Justin Paul wrote, called “Edges,” was discovered, shared and performed by musical theater majors around the country.
Now, at the age of 31, after a decade of being touted as promising, up-and-coming, and ones-to-watch, Pasek and Paul have arrived.
Ben Pasek (left) and Justin Paul a few years ago, deep into their “24-Hour Musical.” (Photo by Kerry Long)
There are ample shoutouts to Westport:
They are, on the surface, quite different from each other. Mr. Paul, who lives in Harlem, is a churchgoing Christian from Westport, Conn.; straight; married; and the father of a 7-month-old daughter. Mr. Pasek, who grew up in Ardmore, Pa., and now lives on the Upper West Side, is gay, Jewish and single.
But they both began as little boys who loved to sing.
Mr. Paul, a talented pianist, started early. At age 3, he was singing gospel music with his father, a pastor, in church. Later, he sang and danced at senior centers with Music Theater of Connecticut; and then, at Staples High School, he performed in “Into the Woods,” conducted the orchestra in “Hello, Dolly!” and spent his free time poring over Broadway “fake books,” which help pianists master melodies.
There’s much more, of course. For the full story — and photos — click here.
Growing up in Westport, he saw plenty of shows on the Great White Way — and dreamed of getting there one day himself.
In 2012, he and his writing partner Benj Pasek made their Broadway debut with “A Christmas Story.”
Next month, the 2003 Staples grad is back. “Dear Evan Hansen” — the darkly funny show he and Pasek wrote that earned Obie, Outer Critics Circle and Helen Hayes Awards during its run at the Second Stage Theater — moves to the Music Box Theatre on 45th Street.
Previews begin on November 14. The official opening night is December 4.
Justin Paul (right) and Benj Pasek.
It’s another feather in the cap of the young Westporter. It’s also a ton of work.
The move from a 299-seat theater to one seating 860 demands physical changes — tweaking and adjusting the set, staging and lighting.
It also forces the songwriters to look at ways to make the show “fuller, deeper and richer,” Paul says.
They’re adapting some lyrics, rearranging some music and honing the characters. Paul calls the changes “surgical.” It’s all part of the creative process.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is not your typical Broadway show. With the tagline “a new musical for the outsider in us all,” it focuses on a teenager who becomes involved in another teen’s tragedy. Pasek and Paul tell an important story, one nothing like the adventures of a lion or witches.
Though they’re 2 of the hottest young songwriters in the country, the duo did not set out to write “Dear Evan Hansen” as a Broadway show. They thought the subject matter would appeal to a non-profit company.
But they wanted the play to speak to more than their own generation of millennials. Director Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”) and their producer encouraged them to widen their lens.
The show is based in part on an incident at Pasek’s high school in Philadelphia. But Paul — who met his writing partner at the University of Michigan — also recalled another tragedy: 9/11.
He was a junior at Staples, and remembers the many raw emotions unleashed by that event in his school so close to New York City.
Now “Dear Evan Hansen” has transcended its small-house origins. It’s rare for an original show — not a book or movie adaption — to make the leap to Broadway.
But Westporters know that Justin Paul is a rare songwriter.
Soon, all of Broadway will know it too.
(For more information on “Dear Evan Hansen” — and tickets — click here. BONUS NEWS: Carol King reports that Pasek and Paul are writing the music for Disney’s upcoming remake of “Snow White.”)
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