To say that Tony nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have been having quite a year would be a catastrophic understatement. The songwriting duo (who met as freshmen in the University of Michigan’s musical theater program) enjoyed their first off-Broadway production (2012’s Dogfight), their first Broadway show (A Christmas Story) and to top it all off, their first Tony nomination (for the aforementioned holiday crowdpleaser). Now the pair is celebrating another first as they prepare to make their Feinstein’s concert debut in San Francisco, where they’ll be performing on July 19 and 20. Broadway.com caught up with the rising composers to talk about their set list, their Tony experience and what songs you'll never hear from them.
Lately you seem to have been hitting the road more frequently.
Justin: We do enjoy performing our own stuff, but with Dogfight's album and sheet music all happening recently, we are sort of on a mission to spread our music where we can, especially if there are people who are interested who may not know it because it wasn’t a high-profile Broadway show. We’ll never perform our material up to the standards of Lindsay Mendez or Derek Klena or Erin Dilly or other people who have been in our show, but I think it is a fun experience to get to hear us try. We can also tell some of the stories behind the music.
Are people ever surprised that you guys are accomplished singers?
Benj: People go into concerts just expecting writers to be relatively tone-deaf. If you’re not totally tone-deaf and you can kind of approximate pitch, they give you a lot more praise.
What material is on the set list at Feinstein’s?
Benj: We’ve got a little Dogfight, a little Christmas Story, a little [from their song cycle] Edges…we’ve got songs from James and the Giant Peach, which we’re reworking right now to be at Seattle Children’s Theatre this Christmas. And maybe some new stuff, maybe some stuff from Smash that we wrote…
Justin: It’s going to run the gamut.
Benj: It’s our favorite songs, slash songs that are not girls’ songs that we can actually sing. And then [on July 20] we’re really excited because we have Alex Newell, who plays Unique on Glee, and Anneliese van der Pol from That’s So Raven and Beauty and the Beast, who are going to join us in concert. They get to save us on our two-night engagement so that we’ll have real vocalists.
What can we expect from your long-in-the-works James and the Giant Peach?
Justin: The show has changed a lot [since a 2010 developmental production]. I think it is geared for a family audience, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a children’s show. They’re going to do some really incredible things with it at Seattle Children's Theatre. The show is always going to need some sort of fantastical physical elements to it because it’s a crazy story and it’s a Roald Dahl story, so this production is going to have all of that.
How would you sum up your experience as first-time Tony nominees this year?
Justin: It’s honestly so surreal. I feel like it was just a dream, but it actually happened. It did sort of feel very fairy tale, very magical.
Benj: The whole thing was such a whirlwind, and getting to meet these heroes of ours was insane. During the nominee luncheon, they give you these little pins, and it’s sort of like being verified on Twitter, you know? Like, people just had to talk to you, so we would run up to people that would otherwise never, ever, ever talk to us and we would be pointing to our little pins as an excuse to talk.
What was the best thing anyone said to you?
Benj: Two things. One, Harvey Fierstein said that A Christmas Story should play all year round, and he was like, “I have a new slogan for you: ‘Everybody needs a little f**kin’ Christmas.’” And then Judith Light…everybody speaks about her being this angelic, wonderful woman, and she is. She would take us through all these events and tell us how to not make gaffes and what to wear. She was kind of like our tour guide of the Tonys.
Are there any musicals you thought of writing but didn't?
Justin: There’s a song we’ll be performing at Feinstein’s called, "Do You Remember?". Maybe five or six years ago, we had the inclination to write a really contemporary, interesting, dark Peter Pan adaptation, but right after we started writing the show, it was like, "And now announced: Michael Korie and Scott Frankel are writing Finding Neverland! Rick Elice is writing Peter and the Starcatcher! Fly at Dallas Theater Center!" We were like, oh my God, everyone’s doing Peter Pan. But we still love the song!
Benj: A joke that we tell is that some people have cut songs from musicals, but we just have a song and a cut musical.
What was the worst idea you’ve ever had?
Benj: When we were in college, we said, "What about CSI: The Musical?"
Justin: Or Law & Order: The Musical.
Benj: And we entertained it for five minutes and then we were like, we’ve hit a new low.
Would you like to see Dogfight make a Broadway transfer?
Justin: I’ll say this: We are so happy with the path that Dogfight took. We never wanted it to be anything more than what it was, it being the off-Broadway musical that was intimate and that people felt connected to. A lot of the shows that we loved and admired so much in high school and college—like Violet or Floyd Collins—are the shows that almost felt like they were ours because we "discovered" them. If people can feel that way about Dogfight, that would be amazing.