EXCLUSIVE: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul Give Their Generation a Voice on Stage and TV

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Not long ago, you would have been forgiven for thinking Pasek and Paul was the name of a law firm. But as any self-respecting fan of theater or film musicals now knows, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are actually songwriting partners, and they’re having an extremely good year.

In a span of less than five months, the former University of Michigan classmates, both 32, have won a Tony Award for Dear Evan Hansen -- a musical that was conceived while Pasek and Paul were still in college and that blossomed into one of the most celebrated shows of Broadway’s post-Hamilton season -- and shared an Oscar win for their lyrics for “City of Stars,” a song featured in Damien Chazelle’s cinematic smash La La Land starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

Now Pasek and Paul -- primarily a lyricist and composer, respectively, though they prefer to share credit for both music and lyrics -- are poised to add an Emmy to their growing trophy collection. Though nominations won’t be announced till July, “Runnin’ Home to You,” a rhapsodic ballad crafted for a March musical episode of The CW series The Flash, is generating awards buzz. With the DearEvan Hansen cast recording all but certain to earn a GRAMMY nod later this year, the pair are on track to score the quickest entry into the tiny, elite “EGOT” club in memory.

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But the guys aren’t counting their chickens yet. “We feel lucky to just be part of this beautiful musical theater renaissance that’s happening right now, with people embracing theatrical songs in movies and on stage and television,” Pasek tells ET. “So many other people have paved the way for this, songwriters like Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda who have made this kind of writing cool, and we’ve been able to learn from them.”

Pasek and Paul, whose previous TV credits include Smash, credit The Flash co-creator and executive producer Greg Berlanti for his own theatrical intuition. “We’d been mutual fans for a long time,” says Paul. “It was clear to us from the casting of his shows that he’s a musical theater fan, because they’re all peppered with great Broadway actors. So when his office reached out to us, we naturally got excited.”

With the Flash episode, Pasek says they were struck by how well-conceived the script was. “I think sometimes when [TV] people want to do a musical episode, they’re not sure how they’re going to justify the character singing. But here there was a clear vision for that.” Specifically, “Runnin’ Home” -- only one of two original songs written for the episode -- was intended for the Flash’s alter ego, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), to sing to his girlfriend, Iris (Candice Patton), as he re-proposes to her. “There was this beautiful moment at the end that felt much larger than a specific episode, because it was about the entire relationship that Barry and Iris have had since the beginning of the show -- and we’re fans; I’ve watched it from the beginning.”

The idea of tapping into something bigger than themselves is not new for the pair. When DearEvan Hansen began taking shape, it was written “from our heads and hearts.” But the story about a lonely, troubled teenager who becomes an unlikely hero at school and on social media after attaching himself, unwittingly at first, to a tragic event speaks to a larger phenomenon.

As millennials, Pasek, Paul and book writer Steven Levenson “were definitely conscious of how our generation was responding to the world, particularly to tragedies,” says Pasek, who cites September 11, 2001, as an example of when so many people so aggressively wanted to be a part of it that they invented a place for themselves in the narrative. “They’d say they knew people involved, or write college essays that seemed a little self-serving. Another obvious thing is that social media has become so prevalent. We’re all constantly watching these perfectly curated versions of other people’s lives, so that while we’re more interconnected than ever, we can feel incredibly alone.”

This is not purely generational, Pasek points out: “My mom is on Facebook -- all our parents are. Whatever your age now, there’s a sense of returning to being a teenager, where you’re aware of what everyone else is doing. We’re all back at the cafeteria table, in a way.” Paul adds that while he and Pasek always let characters and stories lead them, “We wanted to make sure with Evan Hansen that this story really appealed directly to parents, to families -- that it wasn’t just for young people.” Indeed, it has connected with audiences, not only winning five Tony Awards but collecting over $33 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful new Broadway shows of the season.

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“All that’s happened with Evan Hansen has been miraculous,” Pasek says. “We really give the credit to our cast, and the collaboration we have with people like Steven Levenson, whose ability to capture contemporary life and the nuances of how people speak was so inspirational.”

Now in demand, the duo is currently finishing work on another musical film, The Greatest Showman, a P.T. Barnum biopic starring Hugh Jackman. Paul took note of director Michael Gracey’s comparison of the original impresario to JAY-Z and Steve Jobs, saying, “There was a desire to create music that was contemporary, to bring that vitality to the story.” The next holiday season will bring A Christmas Story: Live, a FOX broadcast of Pasek and Paul’s acclaimed adaptation of the 1983 cult film with the addition of new songs. And Disney has recruited the songwriters for its upcoming live-action remake of Snow White.

And with another awards season just ahead, Pasek and Paul are trying to stay grounded while still pinching themselves. “With both the Tonys and the Oscars, we had a couple of days before the awards ceremonies where we could just hang out with the other nominees,” Pasek recalls. “We got to be in the company of so many writers we’ve respected for so long, and that was something we never would have imagined we’d be able to do.”