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

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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.”

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