Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, friends since they met during orientation at the University of Michigan, collaborated on the music and lyrics for both 2013′s “Dogfight” and last winter’s “A Christmas Story” — which is currently nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Score. But you might know them as the inspiration for the two young writers on NBC’s “Smash” who wrote the libretto for the fictional “Hit List” (which coincidentally won a Tony on the show’s series finale in May). We asked them about their sudden thrust into the limelight, and what it’s like to see characters based on your life on TV.
[Note: In the interview, they are often overlapping and finishing one another’s sentences.]
So you two originally met at college?
Pasek & Paul: We were in a very small little program there, you know University of Michigan is like 40,000 plus students, but so there were only about 80 students in [the BFA program], maybe 20 in a class, so it was like this big huge school and we were put into a group together. But the orientation was like everybody in the school and we were the only two musical theatre majors, and we honestly started like freestyle rapping together and we thought we were like so cool.
You both grew up in the Northeast. Did you come to the city a lot?
Paul: Yeah I definitely did. My folks live an hour away still, I was always coming in to see shows. … But you know, it’s still very much like a foreign land that you go in and visit for a day. I was still very touristy in my mind-set about NYC until I moved here.
Pasek: You’re like: “Times Square! Port Authority! I have seen the city!”
And now you try to avoid Times Square at all costs, right?
Pasek & Paul: We avoid Times Square just walking through it, but we’re actually there all the time. We have kind of a love/hate relationship with it, it’s like the third collaborator in our partnership. We definitely go see shows as often as we can. We’ve gone to see stuff especially this season, because we wrote a show. People have been nice and let us come see previews of their show. Coming into New York this season, we really felt such a community of artists, they’d be like, “Oh you can come see a preview of my show!” And we’re like, “OK, well come see a preview of our show!” So there is that nice little network. We’ve been able to see more shows than we have in the past. We’re in the theater district every single day.
Have you seen the shows in your nomination category?
Pasek: I saw “Matilda,” which was awesome.
Paul: By Sunday we will have seen them all, collectively
Pasek: You know what’s funny, I don’t think anyone in our category has seen our show, but it was only running for two months. But we’ll all get to see each other’s songs [at the Tonys].
Are you nervous about that?
Pasek: It’s more awesome than nerve-wracking, but it’s nerve-wrackingly awesome!
Paul: I think every time we’re watching a performance of our show it’s always like, “Will the actors remember their lines?!” And I always forget that’s the reason we are not doing this job.
Pasek: Because we would freak out and freeze up and be looking at the camera and be like, “What do we do?”
Paul: We’re like, “Oh, this is why we’re writers!”
Are you adapting well to the limelight?
Pasek & Paul: It feels like we get to be surrounded by these people that we’ve looked up to forever, and that is the most surreal thing. It’s amazing going up to the actors that we’ve admired.
Pasek: We’re obsessed with Judith Light.
Paul: She’s been a real godmother to us.
Pasek: She keeps calling me her son, which I’m obsessed with. I’m like, “OK, be my mom!” She’s been so warm to us. I sat next to her at a luncheon and she’s like, “Use this fork when you’re eating!” She’s like giving me all this advice on how to be OK at fancy events.
Is there anyone you still want to meet?
Pasek: I would’ve said Tom Hanks, but we got to meet Tom Hanks! We got to talk with him. So cool!
Paul: We were next to Tracy Letts once in an elevator but I was too nervous to say anything.
Pasek: Harvey Fierstein has a slogan for our show, which he gave us at a press event. He said, “Your motto should be: Everyone needs a little f—ing Christmas!”
Do you feel like your show was written off as a holiday show?
Pasek & Paul: We feel like the show was written on! This is the first Christmas show that’s been nominated for Best Musical, so we’ve really thrilled with how people have responded to it. It was back in December and the fact that it is still around and people are talking about it and it got three nominations, which to us is amazing.
Did you have any hope at the time that it would be nominated?
Pasek & Paul: We had hope of course, but not a realistic hope. Back in December we were pacing back and forth just hoping that people would like the show. We certainly could not have in a million years thought that our first show would be received so well.
What do you like writing better? Big Broadway numbers like “A Christmas Story,” more expository songs like “Dogfight” or pop music like you debuted on “Smash”?
Pasek & Paul: “A Christmas Story” is set in the 1940s and it has this family element to it, this nostalgic quality. We wanted to write a story that felt like classic Broadway musical. And then “Dogfight” was set in the 1960s, but we also wanted to write things that we felt was sort of more of our own voice and our own tone. Then “Smash” was a really very modern musical within the show. So I think that approach to it was more just about what’s serving the material. And I think that we like writing all of it. We like writing and sort of changing hats and jumping from style to style.
Which of those works gave you the most creative liberty?
Pasek & Paul: “Smash” was pretty specific because it’s like, “Here’s the script, here’s where the song comes in, make it what you guys would do — but still, here’s the song, here’s how it will function.”
But with “A Christmas Story,” the only thing that was sort of restricting was that we were dealing with an iconic movie with some iconic moments. It was a challenge: How can we do what we need to as authors while still maintaining what’s so good about the film? … It was creative problem-solving and that was exciting for us to figure out how do we not mess with this movie and not mess with what people love about it — to still honor what’s great about it and retain our own uniqueness.
“Dogfight” did give us more liberty, because it wasn’t a movie that people knew very well, they weren’t familiar with it.
How did your involvement with “Smash” happen?
Pasek & Paul: It was amazing — it was another “right place, right time” situation. The guy who was brought in to do Season 2, the showrunner, [was] basing these characters on songwriters, so they had a meeting with us, like, you know, “What’s it like to be a young songwriter?” And at first we like, “Oh my God, they’re gonna ask us to write on the show!” So we sit down for this meeting and they’re like asking us questions about our lives and we’re telling them this and that and at the end they’re like, “Great, thanks so much guys!” And we’re like, “Yeah? OK, what else?” And they’re like, “No, have a good one, thanks for your time!” And we’re like, “OK, bye.”
It was so awkward, ‘cause we tried to put it out there and you could tell they were just, like, brushing it off.
But then they got in touch with us a few weeks later and said, “So we’re actually looking for a few songwriters to write for the show, and we’re interested in you guys and would you write for us, just to hear what kind of song you’d like to write.”
And the song we wrote, just as a demo, they ended up putting in the first episode. So it worked out great. It was unexpected.
Are all of your family and friends thrilled about seeing your work on TV?
Paul: Certainly all of our relatives [like in California] can now see our songs, so that’s a neat thing.
Pasek: Actually they mentioned our names on “Smash” last week on the finale, and that was the biggest deal of all time. I got more texts about that. We already had songs on the show, and people were like, “Oh, that’s cool. … BUT THEY SAID YOUR NAMES!”
Paul: I think it’s a funny thing that now [people think] that we write for TV. And it’s really like we’ve written the songs for the show within the show. But it’s great to have the credit. Also, the experience was a really unique one; we hadn’t had anything like that before, that was so specific and such a strict timeline.
Do you get recognized on the street yet?
Pasek & Paul: No one cares about writers — in the best possible way. I think that if anyone does care about writers, that’s awesome, if they know your work so well … they would have actually really had to do their research. It’s so obscure, but then that’s like the most flattering thing in the world.
How do you feel about Jimmy and Kyle, the characters that were supposedly based on you in “Smash”?
Pasek & Paul: It’s funny, we got excited at first because we were told there are two new young songwriters on “Smash” this year [that are a lot like us]. So we were like, “Oh maybe it’s based on us.” And some of the stories we would tell ended up in a couple of episodes. And then we watched the show and one like cheats on his boyfriend and gets killed in a car crash and we’re like, “THEY’RE NOT BASED ON US!”
And now your work is going to the Tonys, just like theirs did. Do you think you’ll also win?
Paul: We’re just excited to be there, and that we’re gonna be able to be on a red carpet with Cindy Lauper. It’s surreal to us. We’re already celebrating. We have been for the past month.
Pasek: We really do feel like it’s a huge win for the show that its gonna be there and that we got recognized at all — and a song that we wrote gets to be on the Tony Awards! Like please! We had no greater expectations than that — and it’s on my birthday, too, so regardless of the outcome it’s gonna be a celebration.
What’s up next for you?
Paul & Pasek: We’re developing a musical with Disney, and that’s cool cause we’ve wanted to work with Disney for our entire lives. … They were really what got us into writing in the first place, so work with them is a dream come true.
Follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy