To say that Tony-nominated songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are having a good week would be an understatement. Last Sunday, their painfully resonant coming-of-age musical Dear Evan Hansen opened to rave reviews on Broadway. And on Friday, director Damien Chazelle's dreamy movie musical La La Land, for which they wrote the lyrics to Justin Hurwitz's bittersweet score, opens in limited release. Both projects are generating early awards-season buzz, but Pasek and Paul are taking things one step at a time.
The songwriting duo, who met as undergrads in the University of Michigan's musical theater program, have a knack for putting life's messy, uncomfortable moments to song. In La La Land, Pasek and Paul capture a kind of buoyant melancholia only artists could truly understand, as the complicated lives of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) romantically intertwine. Chazelle's ode to dreamers is a lush cinematic experience bathed in brazen technicolor and Stone's effervescent charisma, but its music is wonderfully simple.
MTV News talked with Pasek and Paul about their songwriting process for the film, how Stone and Gosling influenced the music, and that one time they nearly gave up their dreams for a life in finance.
MTV News: "City of Stars" was the first lyric you wrote for the film. Composer Justin Hurwitz has said that he and Damien Chazelle had given the melody to a few other songwriters but nobody was able to quite capture what you guys did. What was your process for writing that particular lyric?
Benj Pasek: Damien had talked about wanting to find a lyric that balanced the specificity of the yearning, the optimism, and the bit of melancholy that goes into the search for love and pursuing a dream — and how Los Angeles is a city that's full of dreamers chasing impossible dreams. But it was also really specific to the characters of Mia and Sebastian, who were hopeful that they could pursue and find love. We were trying to follow that direction in the songwriting process, while also reflecting what was so gorgeous about Justin Hurwitz's melody — that sense of aching.
MTV News: So much of your work, in both La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, is about finding the words to capture that sense of deep yearning and emotional messiness. What is it about yearning that speaks to you on an artistic level?
Justin Paul: We wrote a musical version of the film A Christmas Story a few years ago, and what we loved about it was that it was a musical about Christmas, but it was about a messy Christmas. A perfectly imperfect Christmas that you'll always remember. The reason that we started writing in the first place is because we were actors in an acting class, and we wanted to write songs that felt authentic to us. So in terms of being contemporary writers, we're very much aware of a lot of the imperfections in our world, and classic love is not exactly what love looks like today. It's more complicated. It's messy. We're attracted to that kind of material, where the current running through it is always a genuine emotion. We like to dwell in that gray area.
MTV News: That's reflected so well in Emma Stone's character Mia. One thing that struck me is that she doesn't have a typical "I Want" song, which is so common in musicals. I guess you could say that the end of "Someone in the Crowd" is her "I Want" moment.
Paul: You're exactly right. That is the moment that feels like that, when she's looking into the mirror during "Someone in the Crowd." But I think it would have been a little too by-the-numbers to write her a traditional "I Want" song. The story is more nuanced than that, and Damien is a more nuanced filmmaker than that. It's more interesting and complex, and we were attracted to that challenge.
MTV News: But she does ultimately get her big moment, and that happens toward the end of the film with the song "Audition."
Paul: That's her big torch song number.
MTV News: There's a moment in this film where Mia contemplates giving up on her dream and moving back home. She's tired of the rejection, but she's also really tired of getting her heart broken. You two have been hailed as Broadway wunderkinds for the past few years, but was there ever a moment where you contemplated just throwing in the towel and pursuing something else?
Paul: Oh, we've had a lot of those moments.
Pasek: A lot of Mia moments.
Paul: There's one that always stands out to us. We were working on A Christmas Story: The Musical out of town — a lot of those moments happen when you're out of town and living in unfamiliar territory — and the show just wasn't working. We were in Detroit, and people were coming in to see the show, and they were just not enjoying it.
Pasek: There was one particularly horrible moment in Act II that wasn't quite working. We couldn't even bear to watch our own show.
Paul: We retreated and hid in the lobby of the theater while the show was still playing. I remember sitting on the steps in the lobby having a pretty frank conversation. We had gone beyond "Oh my god, what are we going to do? This is terrible." And now we were at the point where we were trying to calmly plan out our lives, like, "What are some other things we can do?" We were pointing out other skills to each other — "Oh, you can go into finance, maybe."
Pasek: "You could be a lawyer. You could be a psychologist." It was a very rational conversation, and we were dead serious about it. "What else can we do? Because this, writing songs, is not working."
MTV News: At the time when you wrote the lyric for "A Lovely Night," which is a great modern twist on a kind of playful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dynamic, had Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling been cast in the lead roles? Because it's so tailored to them.
Paul: We started writing a version of the song before they got involved ...
Pasek: We wrote multiple versions of the song.
Paul: That song was the one that evolved the most because of Ryan and Emma being involved in the film. It was originally something else, but when they got involved, it really got shaped around them. It even was shaped by their process. They had a whole thing where they didn't want to fight at all. Then they said they would fight, but it couldn't be catty or superficial — it had to be more profound. There was a back-and-forth dialogue, so that song ended up being shaped by those two actors and the way that those actors were portraying those characters. We're really grateful for that because we ended up with a better version of the song.
Pasek: That was the final, final song that we wrote for the movie after several drafts. I remember we were out of town, working on Dear Evan Hansen in Washington, D.C., and we still didn't have a workable version of that song. We were on the phone with Damien, not knowing what to do or what to create, and we ended up writing the lyric after-hours in the theater where we were developing Dear Evan Hansen. Finally we came upon something that they responded to, and when we hit that moment, really inspired by Emma and Ryan, we knew we had it. And then getting to see them perform it, we knew all of those drafts led to something that was much better than where we started.
MTV News: This has been an incredible week for you both, with Dear Evan Hansen opening on Broadway followed by the release of La La Land. But I'd like to go back to the beginning: What was the first song you each wrote?
Paul: My brother and I were part of a local theater company for kids, and my brother was in a musical version of Pinocchio. He was playing Geppetto, and Geppetto did not have his own song. I thought that was unjust and unfair because Pinocchio had his own songs. So I went to the director of the show and said, "I think Geppetto should have his own song, and here it is." I had written a song called "More Than Just a Toy" for Geppetto to sing. I think was 13 or 14 at the time.
Pasek: I remember writing a song when I was maybe around 11 or 12 at the piano. It was all about a tumultuous breakup. The opening lyric was "I sit here lonely on a bar stool, turn myself around and have a shot or two." I didn't know what a shot was, but I knew it sounded very grown-up and adult to be depressed at a bar, sad about love. I thought I was being very sophisticated, like some little Billy Joel. It was a song about heartbreak before I had ever even kissed a person.