You might not know Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s names just yet, but by year’s end you’ll likely have been captivated by any number of their songs, whether it’s their kid-friendly ditty from the animated movie Trolls (Nov. 4) or one of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s retro-tinged numbers from the dreamy film-festival darling La La Land (Dec. 9). But what will get stuck in your head and break your heart are the lush pop-rock ballads from the Broadway transfer of Dear Evan Hansen, beginning preview performances Nov. 14.
The musical revolves around lonely guy Evan (Pitch Perfect’s Ben Platt), who finds himself unexpectedly popular at school and online when a fellow outcast dies by suicide and Evan is mistakenly pegged as having been his best pal.
Pasek and Paul’s own story began in a school setting too. The collaborators met as aspiring actors at the University of Michigan’s musical theater program in 2003, delighted to find a kinship as self-described drama nerds. “We formed our bond by being the two worst dancers in ballet class and having to whisper to each other, ‘What’s a pas de chat?'” Pasek says, sitting down with EW in the duo’s Brooklyn rehearsal space, a warren of rooms where dance classes convene and muffled piano melodies drift through the air. As a group of teenage ballerinas swans out of a studio down the hall, Paul jokes, “I was getting anxiety the other day just watching them.”
During sophomore year, the pair realized that their talents were better focused elsewhere and started writing songs in late-night marathons, with Paul on piano and Pasek drafting lyrics on his MacBook. Perhaps one of the most important things they wrote in those early days was a letter to Michigan alum Jeff Marx and his Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, who agreed to let the two apprentice with them as they brought Avenue Q to Las Vegas. “We got this amazing crash course in what it actually meant to pursue a life writing for musical theater,” Pasek says. “Observing the way they would write comedy songs was really influential for us, but watching them do rewrites also taught us about the actual construction of songs.”
Paul self-deprecatingly calls their pre-Marx and Lopez songwriting “primitive.” Pasek explains: “We had come into class as actors having to perform a song, so we kind of reversed all the things we were taught about what makes a song actable.
Eventually, with diplomas in hand and their craft honed, they started filling their résumé, collaborating on well-received adaptations of the movies Dogfight and A Christmas Story for New York stages in 2012.
But three years earlier, a lunch that would change their lives had planted a slow-growing seed. Broadway producer Stacey Mindich asked if there was an idea in their notebooks, a passion project they didn’t have the resources to pursue. Paul and Pasek pitched their concept for Evan Hansen, a story they’d been developing since college. She was interested, and work began. Paul recalls, “We definitely felt like we were wandering in the wilderness a bit, like, ‘Is this even a musical?'” Mindich brought on Steven Levenson to write the musical’s book and Michael Greif (Rent) to direct.
Turns out it was a musical, one with themes both timeless (grief, loneliness) and timely (the alienating aspects of social media). As they developed the piece, they narrowed in on the human compulsion to insert ourselves into public conversations, like grieving for a celebrity (or fellow student) online. “It’s the same reason we met each other at Michigan,” Pasek says. “It’s about feeling like you’re not alone.”
Fittingly, he and Paul have plenty of hours ahead together: They’re currently in rehearsals for The Greatest Showman, a Hugh Jackman movie musical about P.T. Barnum (due December 2017) costarring Michelle Williams, who has just stopped by to share an anecdote about her daughter, Matilda. Paul says that in the presence of famous types, the impressed pair strive for an “oh, yeah, this is totally cool and normal” demeanor. Considering the path they’re on, it sounds like they’re going to get a lot of practice.
A version of this story story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1438. Pick it up on stands now or subscribe online at ew.com/allaccess.