If I’m going to say something about the white hot musical-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, I must immediately confess:
- Yes, I feel a certain jealousy over their meteoric success.
- No, I’ve never seen any of their musicals on stage.
- Of course, my daughter’s been playing The Greatest Showman incessantly.
- And… I just don’t get them.
In the past year, they’ve won a Tony (Dear Evan Hansen) and an Oscar (City of Stars) and they’re favorites to win another (This Is Me). This year, they both turn 33. I’ve gotten to know their work mostly by playing their songs. Singers plop their sheet music in front of me, and there begins a different kind of appreciation than one might get in the theatre, in the cinema, watching a TV rendering, or listening to an album. I see the complexity – jagged rhythms and thick chords – and think about the actor’s process, finding layers of playable emotions in their lyrics. Having the good meat of that sweeping audition song to sink her teeth into led Emma Stone to her Academy Award. So, yes, I have seen their films – hated one, disliked the other, but I never consider this a forum for cinema criticism. But Pasek & Paul are clearly a force to be reckoned with.
And the certain jealousy has to do with the good fortune of their timing. They came along at the dawn of YouTube and Facebook and were the first musical theatre writers to build a reputation through social media. But let them tell it:
My experience, my life in musical theatre, began in the era when workshops emerged as a major force in how new musical writers launch their careers. I did both BMI and the very first year of ASCAP. That was the thing, then. But Pasek & Paul discovered a way of getting known as musical theatre creators without a workshop, without, in fact, writing a musical. They put a bunch of musical theatre-style songs on the internet, and performers came in droves, flies to honey.
That’s the thing I envy, but, musing here, I check myself to make sure this doesn’t color my opinion of their work.
In a way, it bothers me that I don’t like them more. I mean, if a new flavor comes along, and everyone loves it, and you’re going “ick,” then you naturally feel out of touch, unhip. And it seems like we’ve stood and talked like this before.
So, let’s get specific:
This may be a matter of taste, but I’m rarely moved by songs that involve profound pronouncements, a heaping dose of wisdom, an explanation of What It All Means. This is particularly problematic when the songwriters are so young (19, actually) that we older people go “Come on, you can’t know that much about life if you’ve lived so little.” I’m never in the mood to hear that sort of thing.
But one early Pasek & Paul number really gets to me, Along the Way. And that’s because it’s telling a story and we’re tuned in to a young character’s feelings as he goes through a set of early-in-life experiences, many of which are humorous.
I take this as evidence that Pasek & Paul have all the tools necessary to be great theatre writers. They know from interesting accompaniments, narrative, humor, rhyme (sometimes), hummable tunes, and are particularly strong at utilizing pop sensibility. This last skill is best evidenced by what seems to be their best-loved song, Waving Through a Window, which sounds like something you’d enjoy listening to through speakers, but loses me as a thing to watch.
The rock aesthetic is to glom on to a good groove and stick with it. That makes a song good to dance to, and there’s some old joke about when “Can you dance to it?” was the determiner of a new piece’s effectiveness.
In the theatre, though, hearing the same little rhythmic phrase over and over again gets enervating. Characters are human beings: emotions pour out of them in waves that ebb and flow, not in iterated pulses. Typically, Pasek & Paul songs will introduce an appealingly complex phrase, and keep it repeating so often, it wears out its welcome. Their intention may be to use an ostinato as a background over which the singer should stand out. But many’s the time when the alchemy just isn’t there, and I find myself tuning out what’s being said. Worse, the vocal line sometimes repeats the same phrase ad absurdum.
When considering composition, though, let’s not forget that their songs for La La Land have a different composer, Justin Hurwitz. I think Hurwitz wrote a number of appealing tunes, but that traffic jam opening number exemplifies the problem I’m trying to describe. There’s the lively riff and a girl in a car starts to sing, and, within a few seconds, we cease listening to the lyric. That’s not what good songs in musicals do. In an effective musical, we pay attention and get rewarded for our attention.
Neophyte writers often fall into this trap: They take a moment in a story, think, “OK, the character’s now feeling this” and proceed to build this into a long musical moment. Considered individually, such a number can impress and affect. But what’s missing here is that we look to songs to move a story along. And if we have a moment where we know exactly what the character is thinking, we don’t particularly need to hear about it for five minutes. We’re ahead of it; we’re being told what we already know. The televised Pasek & Paul misfire, A Christmas Story, made this mistake in practically every number.
A Christmas Story also suffered from a severe deficit in lyrical jokes. Unlike their Dogfight, this is a light story with no emotionally wrenching moments, so the least they could do is provide some laughs.
(I’ve a story I won’t tell now about a time I extensively quoted one of their comedy songs and it was perceived as a death threat.)
I think they understand a lot about musical theatre. I think they’re learning. I expect they’ll improve and do great things. But, somehow, they’re failing to move me, even in a concoction like The Greatest Showman, which portrays a father dealing with young daughters and dreams. It’s as if a bunch of components are there but they haven’t quite jelled yet. I suspect they haven’t completely apprehended the difference between a nice-sounding pop song and a theatre song that’s truly interesting as it moves the story along. But I have hopes. Every time they put out something new, I’m truly interested, prepared for a treat. Someday…