Upper Darby Summer Stage’s social media strategist and student at Friends’ Central School (FCS), Mikaela Uricheck ‘17, sat down to talk with Broadway composer and Friends’ Central alumnus, Benj Pasek ‘03.
Benj Pasek, who along with his collaborator, Justin Paul, has composed some of this generation’s most exciting musicals. The Tony and Emmy nominated duo have been behind hits like “A Christmas Story, The Musical,” “Dogfight,” “Edges,” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” which will open in December 2016 on Broadway, as well numerous songs for television and film. The pair also wrote “James and the Giant Peach, Jr.” which is running at Upper Darby Summer Stage this week.
How did you make the transition from performing in high school to composing?
When I got to college and began to spread my wings a bit and saw what other options were open to me. I took a lot of the tools that I was given at Friends’ Central and explored what else I could do that was beyond being an actor. When I got to college (University of Michigan), I met my amazing collaborator Justin Paul and we really hit it off!
“We realized that we liked creating songs more than we liked interpreting them. It was freeing for me to realize that the skills I learned as an actor were all essential in my work as a writer.”
There are so many ways to work in this industry. Personally, it was more exciting to be able to create things. I’m so glad I was encouraged by other people to explore what I could do within this world that I love so much.
Where do you and Justin find the inspiration for the musicals you pursue?
I think it’s whatever sets off the spark in you. Part of it is identifying source material that will work. Some things are adaptations – you think maybe I can turn this into something that would work as a musical on stage. The flip side of that is original ideas, which can be exciting.
The source material for “James and the Giant Peach” was so fantastical and therefore it gave permission to live in a musical realm in a really easy way.
If there’s an Earthworm, why can’t he break into song? If there’s a giant peach, that song could be a Latin number, a traditional musical theatre number or a jazz number. There are no rules because of the world Roald Dahl set up.
How do you end up getting into the minds of the characters in your shows, such as a child like James?
I think every artist has a different process. For me and Justin our acting training plays a big part in the way we approach writing. I would say specifically for James we approached it from an acting standpoint more than anything else, because James is so full of joy and the characters are so quirky. We would act out big portions of the show, walk around and improv. We always try to come from within the character. How would they speak, walk and talk?
“When we acted it out those were the bits that became the kernels that we would turn into song.”
Your shows are known to connect with people on an emotional level. What’s it like to know that people react to your and Justin’s music in this way?
I think Justin and I are both really big fans of work that connects with people. Our shows like “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Dogfight” are aimed to be a little uncomfortable, because ultimately what we are trying to do is to bring out real life experiences and funnel them through song in a way that feels honest, true and appeals to people’s hearts. We’re honored when people respond and tell us that a show resonated with them – that’s our goal.
What was it like to know that FCS was going to produce one of your shows, “Edges?”
It was so awesome! To even know that Friends’ Central wanted to do a show I wrote was meaningful because I know they do shows that are not always typical and that are challenging for their students. It was heartwarming and super cool.
Friends’ Central is where I initially learned about theatre. What’s so cool about Friends’ Central’s theatre program is that they are always pushing the limits of what a high school can do in terms of the work that they pick. When you give a challenging piece of work to a teenager they rise to the occasion and it forces them to become better writers and actors. I was so inspired by the teachers I had at Friends’ Central, who always challenged us to think at a higher level.
What would you want to tell the next generation of performers?
I would say I encourage the next generation of performers to keep pushing the boundaries of what a musical can be and keep exploring what the art form can take on.
I think we’re living in this Renaissance and new golden age in musical theatre. I’m encouraged because there’s so much contemporary, original work that’s able shine through and find an audience. It has informed our generation that telling a story through song is acceptable and natural and that it’s a way we can express ourselves. So I would tell them to celebrate the fact that this artform that we love is being accepted and loved by the larger population.
If you could play any character in “James” who would you want to play and why?
Definitely Sponge. When Justin and I developed the show I would always be Sponge and he would be Spiker. We had a really fun time.
Tell me a bit about your senior project at FCS?
I collaborated with a wonderful actress named Ana Nogueira and we put on a play that was called “Black and Wild,” which is a two-person play. We had to figure out how to get a space and find a director. With senior projects you can make something on your own and no one is going to stop you. I think it’s that sort of entrepreneurial spirit really behooves a lot of people I know in being creative types in the field of theatre. It was really wonderful to have that opportunity to create something yourself.
What’s a fun fact about yourself?
Probably that my longest relationship is with Cheez-Its.
What’s your guilty pleasure song to sing in the shower?
I love singing anything from Newsies like “Carrying the Banner,” or “King of New York,” and “Santa Fe!” Those are my jams.
What do you want to tell the cast?
“I’m so glad you guys are doing the show and I hope it goes great!”
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.