Between the triumphant release of their film debut, with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, and the Broadway premiere of their latest musical, Dear Evan Hansen, lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are in a “can’t believe this” moment of their lives. In demand after continued Broadway success and musical contributions to NBC’s Smash, Pasek and Paul nonetheless had to fight for their essential role in La La Land—the recipient of a record-breaking 7 Golden Globes and numerous BAFTA and PGA nominations—going to great lengths and falling in love with the project in the process. Speaking to Deadline a week after the curtains came up on Broadway, the pair discuss their unusual first exchanges with Chazelle, and the starry-eyed musical’s balance of the classic and the contemporary.
How did you both come to be involved with La La Land?
Justin Paul: We first heard about this project through our management [Richard Kraft, Kraft-Engel], and they said, “Hey guys, we just met you in L.A.” We were like, “What are you talking about?”
They said, “Well, we just met these two young guys who love musicals, and they’re wanting to make an original movie musical. They love the original animated films from Disney, and they love the old Hollywood MGM musicals, and there’s no way you guys aren’t going to work with them on this. But, you have to audition, and they have to like you.”
So, they’re talking to lyricists. There’s Damien, the filmmaker, Justin [Hurwitz] the composer, and they really work in tandem. We jumped on a phone call with them and the producers, just to talk over some general approach to making musicals, and our thoughts on the tone of the film.
Then we got the feedback from our management—his interpretation of it was, “Well, I feel like they liked you, but they didn’t love you.” We said, “Okay. Well, I guess we’ll wait to hear back.” He was like, “No, that’s not what we’re going to do. We’ve got to go further.”
Benj Pasek: He was like, “What you’re going to do is you’re going to fly across the country, and you’re just going to happen to be in Los Angeles on Monday. You’re just going to reach out to them and say, hey guys.”
Paul: “We just happen to be in Los Angeles.”
Pasek: Yeah, “We just happen to be here, do you guys happen to be free for dinner?” We were like, “You’re crazy. This is insane, and we like, are really poor and we don’t have money for flights.” He’s like, “You have enough money to fly yourselves economy across the country to be there on Monday to ask them to go to dinner with you.”
We fly out on Sunday night, and write to them, “Hey, do you guys happen to be available for dinner?” We end up going to dinner with these guys, and when we met them, it was a total nerd fest, total love fest. We connected right away with them, and we started geeking out about all the things that non-theater and non-movie musical dorks probably don’t geek out about. Our love for Alan Menken, or our love for Cole Porter, or our love for the MGM classics.
When we ended up driving back, we’re staying at a friend’s apartment, because we didn’t have enough money for a hotel. We’re like, “Do you think they liked us? We really like them, this is unbelievable, this vision is incredible.” We get out of the car at our friend’s apartment, and Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle pull up in the car right behind us.
We look at them, and we’re like, “Are you guys following us? What’s happening?” They’re like, “What are you guys doing here?” We’re like, “We’re staying in this apartment.” They’re like, “This is where Justin lives.” Thank God that they followed us and we didn’t follow them because then we would truly seem like actual stalkers, trying to get to work on this movie. It felt like total fate.
Then we ended up hanging out for two more hours at our friend’s apartment, and then the next day, we presented them our first pass at a lyric for the film, which was the song “City of Stars.” We found out a few weeks later we were fortunate enough to be brought onto the project, and had a fantastic time collaborating with them ever since.
Logistically, what was the process of collaborating with Damien and Justin? I’d imagine that he’d completed much of the score before you came into the fold.
Paul: You’ve got it pretty much right. Before we ever got involved, Damien and Justin had had a real back and forth for a long time, probably several years, of developing these song moments. Damien obviously has a clear vision for everything that he wants, and Justin as well, so they had worked a lot of that out. We were kind of folded into that process.
When it came time for us to begin putting pen to paper on it, it really would be that we would be sent some music that Justin had written that we knew had the Damien Chazelle stamp of approval, which is a very valuable stamp of approval.
Pasek: One that requires many, many, many drafts to get to that point.
Paul: Justin would send over the music, and Damien would just sort of talk us through, “Here is the moment, here is what we’re looking for, here is what we think it should be.” That would basically kick off the conversation. The conversation consisted of Benj and I batting around ideas between each other, saying them back to Damien and Justin and the team there. We would sort of throw things back and forth from coast to coast for a while, and then always there came a point where we’d say, “Okay, now it’s time to get in the room.”
They’d come to New York, or we’d go to L.A., and we’d have basically the raw materials to work with. The melody, and the lyrics, or the shape of the lyrics, or a skeleton of something, and then we’d come together in the room to really solidify everything, or to really wrestle it into shape and into form. Lines would be called into question and we’d say, “You know what, we hate that line, let’s come up with something better.” Or Damien would say, “You know what, you sent us something a month ago that I think I liked better, let’s go back to that.”
It was sort of the best of both worlds in the way that we got to work remotely and sort of have our time to create, and then get in the room together. Four minds, five minds, is always better than just our two. It was a unique and exciting collaboration in that way.
Pasek: What was so fantastic about working with Damien, who is a writer and a director, and Justin, is that they had such a clear vision. Damien would have a sense of every single shot, the way that he wanted the story to unfold. It was so informative to us, as we were writing songs that move the story forward.
We’re guys who come from the theater. We talk about the difference a lot between pop songs and theatrically minded songs. Pop songs are sort of like adjectives, they’re the way that they make you feel, and theatrically minded songs are like verbs, and they’re all about, what’s the action that moves the story forward? Collectively, all of our responsibility then was to figure out how to be telling the best story possible through music.
In any musical, the opening number is of critical importance in setting the tone and establishing the world of the piece. What was the approach with your opening number, “Another Day of Sun”?
Paul: That was something we talked a lot about, because it was really inspired by a lot of what Damien wanted to say about LA, and honestly, I think a lot of what he personally feels about LA.
He would often talk about the difference between New York and LA. In both cities, people are there because they’re pursuing their dreams. New York is just a tough, tough place because it feels like it’s constantly kicks you down, and that’s just the way it is. LA, there’s an irony to it, because LA is exciting and there’s more razzle-dazzle and flashy sort of feeling about it. The thing that we landed upon that felt like a good metaphor for it was, we would all talk about how LA, when it kicks you down, it does it with a smile.
You feel like you’ve hit the darkest night, you’ve been pursuing your dreams, you fall short, you fail and you go to bed, and the natural thing would be to wake up and be like, “This is my new misery, my new hell.” Except you wake up, and the sun is burning bright, it’s 7 a.m. and it’s a gorgeous day, and you look out and it’s so ironic because you think, “Well, I just went through hell, but now I’m looking out on the most beautiful veranda, or I’m looking out on a picture perfect day.”
There’s an irony there, but there’s also an inspiration there, because it’s like, “You know what, the world looks okay, and maybe I’ll be okay, too.” That’s how we ultimately ended up on the idea of, “The morning rolls around, and there’s another day of sun.” You get kicked down, but you keep getting back up, because LA sort of forces you into that way of thinking.
Pasek: The movie itself, in the way that it treats musical numbers, it doesn’t do it in a cynical way. It doesn’t say that we’re poking fun of the form, that we’re making fun of how a number functions in the plot. It’s not played for laughs, it’s played for genuine emotion and people really yearning and wanting and going after, with vigor, their dreams.
Was “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” a tricky piece to write? As you say, you’re always moving the story forward through music, but there is so much character background and narrative embedded in this number.
Pasek: Damien had written a story about Mia’s aunt, who inspired her because she lived a kind of wild, dangerous, a little crazy life, where she took insane risks and pursued the seemingly impossible, and that was a source of inspiration for her. And drawing from all of those inspirational pieces of source material, we began to craft and lyricize what Damien had laid out for us, and tried to find the specifics along the way.
The tracks have a lived-in quality to them—every now and then, Emma laughs, and it’s embedded in the music, giving it a different kind of texture.
Paul: Yeah, and I think that’s something that people talk about the movie, and what Damien’s done on it is doing classics and contemporary at the same time. I think that that’s one element that would make it so contemporary. It’s lived-in in a way that might make you think of some of the more classic things, but in a way, it feels like you’re still watching Emma and Ryan [Gosling], who are contemporary movie stars, and their dialogue feels very real, and almost indie, in a way. The fact that it sort of seamlessly gets into these songs, I think that helps bridge the gap between what still feels like a classic form, and what we want as a contemporary tone in the way that it appeals to a modern audience. I think that’s a really subtle but brilliant decision by Damien and the music team to really make it feel more acceptable, in a way.