BWW Interview: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul Go Back to School with 'Unlimited' for Old Navy- Plus an Exclusive Song Premiere!
Old Navy will have its youngest shoppers singing their way into the new school year with the release of the brand's exclusive back-to-school musical anthem, "Unlimited". The retailer worked with Tony-nominated songwriters Benji Pasek & Justin Paul (A Christmas Story, The Musical; James and the Giant Peach, The Musical; and NBC's Smash) to create a song that captures the combination of butterflies and hopefulness that accompany the first day of school. Starring new talent Isabella Balbi, the video depicts her first day back at school through a musical journey that juxtaposes her dreams and self-doubt.
To support young people and their dreams, the proceeds from iTunes downloads of the song will benefit Old Navy's ongoing programming with Boys & Girls Club of America. The brand currently has a donation drive in stores to matching customer donations up to $500K, bringing the potential total donation to $1 million.
The duo just chatted with BroadwayWorld about the launch of the song and you can check out what they had to say about their collaboration with Old Navy, which projects are coming up next, and so much more. Check out the exclusive premiere of the track and a special interview below!
How did this project come about?
JP: It was all put together pretty organically with CAA (Creative Artists Agency). They have this wonderful relationship with Old Navy, and once they figured out what it was going to be, which was an original musical number, we got involved through that. They realized it would be a number that would tell a story and feature musical talent, so they wanted to enlist guys that did that. That's where we came in, saw that idea and were thrilled about it. We wanted to jump in. It was a new thing for us to try, so that made it really exciting.
BP: Yeah, and Old Navy has such a great tradition of fusing music into their brand. This is such a cool thing to be a part of- this new style that they are working on. And, to create something that is a part of that tradition is so exciting or us.
I think it's pretty cool that Old Navy is putting this kind of music out there!
JP: Yes! The idea was to create something that was still fresh, accessible and relevant today, but that still felt specific to this moment and the story they were telling with this campaign. We loved diving into that and getting to tell that story but still make it musically exciting.
BP: There is a specificity with the narrative that happens. This is an experience that everyone has gone through. You go back to school and you freak out because you don't know what the year has in store for you. It lends itself to being theatrical in a way. So I think its great that we got to write to that specifically.
Did you channel YOUR old 'back to school days' to bring the song to life?
BP: Oh, totally! I felt like a total middle schooler! I was like, "Oh my god, I have to go back to school!" There's such trepidation about fitting in and how it's all gonna go.
JP: I think the thing about this is it's not typical back to school. It's not: "Yay school! Yay kids running through the hall! I've got my new pencil set and it's gonna be great!" That's an element of it, but it's also mixed with: "Gosh, is this gonna be the year where everything falls apart or where everything comes together?" It's the combination of the rush of excitement and fear that is so universal about this moment beyond anything else. We can all identify with that. That's why I don't think it was that difficult for us to channel. We've obviously had that experience, but we also have it every day in small ways.
BP: I think the approach that Old Navy wanted to take with it was that if you are a dreamer, you can accomplish anything, and that felt very appropriate with the way we try to approach our work, but also how musical theatre works. If you have a big want or a big dream you can conquer the world. I think it lines up with that very nicely.
Were you guys involved in the making of the music video?
JP: Fortunately, that was left to smarter people than us [Laughs]. But, we got to be involved as things were being created and had conversations early on about what it would be to make sure we were writing specifically to the team that was creating it. Then we had that neat thing happen- we wrote something and got to see it come to life- we could never image that ourselves. We weren't there for the day of the shoot or anything, but we were part of the planning of it and got to envision what it would be with the director steering it.
BP: Right, and it's the same elements that we like about theatre too. You're with a team of people that have skillsets that are different and greater than that individual thing you do. You're creating something that's larger than what you'd be able to do on your own. It was such a fun, collaborative process. We actually just watched the final cut of the video 15 minutes ago, and all of the flourishes and little things that make it come to life are so exciting.
JP: And, we had such a blast working with this talented girl, Isabella [Balbi]. It was a new and cool experience. We can't wait to see this little baby go out into the world!
Has this converted you to Old Navy shoppers for life?
BP: I mean, it might! I have to say, I was walking in New York City and I saw the store...
JP: I'm just seeing Old Navys everywhere!
BP: I just wander into the store now hoping to hear the song. But, I also just wander in like we're old friends!
JP: It's an amazing American brand that we can now claim that we're a part of...even though we probably aren't! But it's like we are.
BP: I'm gonna act like I made the shirts this season.
JP: I was walking through an old neighborhood that my wife and I lived in, and I was like "When did this Old Navy come?" And she was like: "This was always here." I said, "It looks brand new and amazing!" and she was like "It's the exact same."
BP: Honestly, we talk about Old Navy now like it's a member of our family. He's like our cool older brother.
I know you guys are working on a million projects right now, but what's in the forefront?
BP: Yes! We're working on two stage musicals that are taking a lot of our time and attention. One is a musical with Rick Elice.
JP: And we're also working on a musical that Michael Greif is directing. That's with Stephen Levinson, who is an amazing playwright who also writes for 'Masters of Sex.' We had our first reading of that a little while ago and we continue to develop it!
This song is described as 'a musical number that encourages kids to reach for their dreams and unlimited potential.' Do you guys ever have a moment to reflect on the dreams you've reached and the things you've achieved in your careers thus far?
JP: Yes, right now!
BP: We're looking at each other right now like, "Really, wow!" [Laughs]
JP: I guess we have! [Laughs] Yes 100%.
BP: However silly this sounds, we went to college to study musical theatre. We got BFAs in musical theatre and it was part of our assignments to look up news that was happening in the Broadway community and bring it into class.
JP: So we would go on BroadwayWorld.com...
BP: And print out articles and bring them into class.
JP: So like Social Studies in school when kids have to bring in current events about what's happening in Iraq... for us it was what was happening on 46th Street [Laughs]!
BP: It was, "What's gonna occupy the St. James?!"
JP: Exactly. Or we'd have to study and label a diagram of Lincoln Center.
BP: How to spell 'Frank Loesser' was on our tests! That's what we were graded on. So, when we talk about having any kind of reflection, honestly this kind of moment is very, very cool for us. Just the fact that someone wants to interview us, and that it's about a project that we never thought that we'd be involved with. It's a really amazing moment.
JP: And obviously achieving things like getting to go to the Tony Awards... that's what we studied as students in college. That was such an incredible thing that we are still in awe of and will always be in awe of. Hopefully some day we can go back, or maybe we won't. That was an amazing, miraculous time. It was absolutely magical for us. We are in awe of it and in awe of the fact that we get to keep working at this thing that we love and respect so much.
BP: And it's very exciting for us that not just theatre dorks like ourselves are into musical numbers and using music to tell stories. The fact that Old Navy is launching this campaign that's using music to drive narrative is such a great reflection of where we are now in terms of 2014 and people's appetites for what musical theatre can do. We're so happy that the world is clearly hungry for musical content and musical storytelling and we get to be a part of that. It is pinch-yourself-exciting for us.
Benj Pasek & Justin Paul are the Tony-nominated songwriters of the Broadway musical A Christmas Story (dir. John Rando, chor. Warren Carlyle), which opened in November 2012 and enjoyed a critically-acclaimed, record-breaking run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. In addition to the Best Score nomination, A Christmas Story also received Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Book. The holiday musical was named one of the Top 10 Shows of 2012 by Time Magazine, shared recognition as the #1 Musical of 2012 in USA Today and received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. Benj and Justin's score for the show also received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Music. The cast album was recorded and produced by Sony Masterworks and is published through Warner/Chappell Music.
Benj & Justin are also the composers behind the Off-Broadway musical Dogfight, (dir. Joe Mantello, chor. Christopher Gattelli), a Best New Musical nominee for the Drama League, Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle awards. Benj and Justin also received an Outer Critics Circle Best Score nomination for their work on the show. Dogfight premiered in July 2012 at Second Stage Theatre, and a cast album, produced by Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records, was released in May 2013. The album debuted in the top 50 albums on iTunes.
As television songwriters, their original songs were featured on Season 2 of NBC's Smash, and have risen to the Top 25 on the iTunes Pop Charts.