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InDepth InterView: Benj Pasek & Justin Paul Talk Tony Noms, DOGFIGHT Album, A CHRISTMAS STORY Coming Back, SMASH & More


Today we are talking to a terrifically talented twosome who are being touted as the next songwriting duo to take New York by storm - and, with DOGFIGHT appearing Off-Broadway at Second Stage last year and A CHRISTMAS STORY setting Broadway alight for a limited run this past holiday season, at this rate they are surely on the fast-track to success - Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Revealing candid reactions to last week's 2013 Tony Award nominations for their stupendous score for the screen-to-stage adaptation of A CHRISTMAS STORY as well as all about the creation and ultimate execution of the show itself, Pasek & Paul open up about their creative process and illustrate what makes their music work so well in a theatrical milieu. Most importantly, the songwriters discuss DOGFIGHT - the inspiration for it, writing of it, the recent Off-Broadway production directed by Joe Mantello, and, now, the absolutely spectacular cast album available on Ghostlight; to say nothing of next week's concert at Joe's Pub celebrating the album release, with an extra show just added. Additionally, Pasek & Paul share stories of the songs that make up their popular and frequently-produced EDGES, new and old, as well as hint at some of their audacious plans for future shows. Plus, all about the new material recently written by the pair for NBC's musical drama series SMASH, details about their stage adaptation of Roald Dahl's seminal children's book JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH, reflections on their participation in the 24-hour musicals festival feature film documentary ONE NIGHT STAND, as well as illustrative opinions on fellow songwriting teams and other influential musical theatre icons - and much, much more!

More information on the original cast recording of DOGFIGHT is available here.

Benj Pasek & Justin Paul will perform songs from DOGFIGHT and their other projects in two special shows on May 15 at Joe's Pub. More information is available here.

Pretty Sweet Year

PC: Congratulations on your 2013 Tony Award nomination for the score for A CHRISTMAS STORY - well-earned, I'd add!

JP: Oh, thank you - that is so nice of you.

BP: Aww, thank you so much, Pat. Thank you, thank you.

PC: And ONE NIGHT STAND is continually appearing in movie theaters, as well...

JP: I know! I know. It's crazy!

BP: It's a lucky time for us.

PC: And SMASH is showcasing your HIT LIST songs on TV...

BP: We're so excited! It's amazing. It's an amazing time right now.

PC: So, first things first: are you two over the moon about the Tony nomination news?

BP: Oh, totally - totally.

JP: Absolutely.

PC: What were you doing when you heard the news?

JP: Well, I was trying to play it cool - at first. I was like, "Oh, I'll stay in bed for a while and maybe I'll watch and maybe I won't," and, so, I was just kind of hanging. But, then, at the last second I just kind of freaked out and said, "I have to watch this!" So, I jumped out of bed at like 8:27 and turned it on and I heard our names and it was just crazy!

BP: A friend of mine was in town and so we hung out last night and I slept over there - just in case. I felt like it would be better if I was with somebody when I found out - so they could either make me feel better or celebrate with me. [Laughs.] And, so, this morning, we hung out and watched it on TV while my whole family was on speakerphone with me waiting for the nominations and the second we heard "A CHRISTMA-" that was all we needed to just start screaming! It was thrilling - really thrilling.

PC: Given that A CHRISTMAS STORY was a limited run, were you leery at all of your prospects going into the nominations?

JP: You know, the fact that A CHRISTMAS STORY even got to Broadway, that was miraculous, and, now that we've been recognized for Tonys? We could have never expected it.

BP: Never.

JP: And, not just us - it's just not us who were recognized; the show and the book and everything else, too. That's awesome.

PC: Was it always the plan for it to come to Broadway eventually?

BP: I think it was definitely unplanned and pretty unexpected. I mean, we did the show for the first time two years ago at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle and we thought maybe that would be it and then the show went on tour last year and it sort of became its own thing and it got very well-reviewed and well-received in Chicago and it was then decided that they wanted to bring it to New York - they felt that it was time. That was never the plan and that was never the goal, really, though, so we were really taken by surprise that it ended up on Broadway - and, now to have these nominations on top of it is just completely amazing.

JP: We are so honored to have been recognized for the show. It's so exciting.

PC: How did you become involved with adapting the source material in the first place? The movie is so iconic for our generation, natch.

BP: Oh, yeah, it is.

JP: So iconic. So iconic. We actually heard that they were looking for composers for it and so we sort of just threw our names at them and said, "Hey, will you give us a chance and let us write some songs on spec for this?" And, so, we sort of auditioned to be the writers for it, in fact.

PC: You had to prove your understanding of the material.

BP: Yeah, that's exactly what happened - as Justin just said. They basically identified certain moments in the show that they wanted to see what they would be like if they were fleshed out musically. And, so, we took a stab at doing it and we ended up getting the job which was just the most thrilling thing because we loved the movie and we thought it would make a really great musical. And, so, you know, we ended up getting it and we sort of wrote the first version in Seattle under the gun and we continued to develop it until it finally got to Broadway, which, as we have been saying, was so unexpected and thrilling.

PC: What was the first song you wrote for the show?

BP: We wrote the opening number for the show, which is still in it, and, at the time, there was a sort of jazz radio quartet that is not really in the show anymore, but at the time they were a big part of the show, so we wrote a sort of Christmas jingle for them. We wrote two spec numbers at first - just to sort of show the Style of how we might write the show. And, you know, we recorded it in my living room and now we are here. [Laughs.]

PC: Quite a journey! If you don't mind me asking, did you both grow up celebrating Christmas yourselves?

BP: No, no - not at all! I'm Jewish, actually, myself, so, for me, Christmas was always about going to a Chinese restaurant - like they do at the end of the film! [Laughs.]

PC: A different kind of Christmas tradition.

BP: That's what we do! So, for me, that wasn't something that was so much a staple of my childhood, but that's also what's so great about the story is that it isn't all about Christmas - it's really about a family. It's really about this sort of quirky, dysfunctional family who is just trying to make the best of it and who are just trying to survive the holiday together somehow - which I think is a really universal thing.

PC: You can say that again.

JP: It really is.

BP: So, you know, I think that is one of the reasons the movie works so well and I think that is one of the reasons the show now works so well, too.

PC: It's a universal message, despite some specific themes in it.

BP: Yeah, it's much, much bigger than just about the Christian holiday, for sure.

PC: Did you ever consider interpolating any traditional Christmas songs?

BP: Well, I think that was actually a little bit discussed at one point, but we sort of said, "Hey, if we could write them instead, maybe then we will!" [Laughs.]

PC: Why set up any competition for yourself, right?

BP: At one point, though, "Jingle Bells" was in the show, wasn't it Justin?

JP: Mmmhmm.

BP: It was, but it sort of made it's way out quietly - and, for good reason, because we actually were changing the sequencing of how some things went. So, it was something we did try, actually, but not something we kept. Of course, we do keep the incredibly offensive Chinese restaurant scene moment where he sings, [Sings "Jingle Bells".] "Fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra..."

PC: Of course.

BP: But, if you do A CHRISTMAS STORY, you have to have that pop up.

PC: Now that you have musicalized A CHRISTMAS STORY, have you given any thought to adapting Bob Clark's other Christmas entry, the slasher film BLACK CHRISTMAS?

BP: [Big Laugh.]

JP: [Laughs.] I don't know, I think that one Christmas musical for now is probably enough.

PC: Was Bob Clark involved in any capacity with A CHRISTMAS STORY?

BP: You know, actually, Bob Clark was not involved at all, but you know who was was Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the film, and, so, he came on as one of the producers and gave us a lot of advice along the way and he was incredibly helpful to us.

PC: "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" has been added to the show since the cast recording was originally made, among other changes that were implemented for the Broadway version. Can you tell me a bit about that?

BP: Right.

JP: That's right. "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" wasn't on the original cast recording - we did that a few years ago now. So, you know, one of the things about a show is that it goes through a number of tweaks and changes over the years and one of the big changes we made for Broadway was that we sort of reconceived the number for Ms. Shields and the kids in Act Two - it is sort of a big production number now. That number didn't even exist when we recorded the cast album!

BP: Yeah, it's something that you can only see if you come and see the show.

PC: Only live.

JP: Of course, John Rando and Warren Carlyle - our brilliant director and choreographer - did such a great job with conceiving it onstage and how the numbers should be presented. I think, in a way, it is right that you can only see some of it onstage because I think it is really brilliant what these guys have done. It's a live theatre event only.

PC: What is your own favorite moment in the score?

BP: That's tough!

JP: That's tough! That's so tough. [Pause.] You know, I think one of them is "Ralphie To The Rescue" - that is probably one of the numbers that we are most proud of. We really like that one a lot. We also like "Just Like That", the duet that the mother has with her son.

BP: We definitely love the production number, "Ralphie To The Rescue" - that's a really fun song; and, we kind of like singing that one ourselves, too. [Laughs.]

PC: An important asset to consider in your selection!

JP: Yeah, it's sort of shameless - we love singing that one together. Another thing we are pretty proud of is that, when we came on to the project we really felt like we wanted to invest a lot in the character of the mother - she is very sort of subtle in the film and it's all very underplayed. While we didn't want that to change very much, we felt that she was deserving of some material - she is a very special character to us. She is sort of the special engine that keeps the whole thing running. So, we were excited to get to write some songs for that character, and, of course, Erin Dilly is just wonderful and did it so wonderfully on Broadway - and Liz Callaway on the album!

PC: Two remarkable talents.

BP: Yeah, we are really, really lucky to have had two extraordinary talents playing the mothers and delivering that material.

PC: Liz Callaway is a prime vocal interpreter of so many great composers - Frank Loesser, Stephen Schwartz, Sondheim.

JP: She is - we are so lucky because we actually got to work with her when we got invited to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and she was there performing songs, so we got the opportunity to meet her there, in, of all places, Adelaide, Australia. Then, through bribes or promises of cookies or something, we got her to agree to sing some of our songs and we have since developed quite a relationship with her. So, when the album came up, maybe a year a later, we reached out to her and asked her about playing the character of the mother because she just has absolutely the perfect voice for it - exactly The Voice we were thinking about when we were writing the material and the songs for that character. And, so, then she agreed to do it for the album and so the mother is sort of Immortalized with her voice now and she is so wonderful.

PC: Is that thrilling as a composer?

BP: Oh, it's thrilling - and, as you said, she is such a great interpreter of material, so it is sort of like you get this delicious dessert with a cherry on top. Of course, granted, her voice is gorgeous - and then there is the way she is able to interpret lines, and, especially, on a recording, deliver with such specificity of intention. She's amazing.

PC: In the same way, was DOGFIGHT written for Lindsay Mendez specifically? The material fits her character and the actress unbelievably well.

BP: I think that a lot of the time when we are writing for a character we do have specific voices in mind. So, you know, some are dream people on some sort of wish list. But, I definitely think that, in working on DOGFIGHT in particular, I think we did - especially when you are adjusting the song and rewriting the song, having a voice of somebody, like we did with Lindsay's, in mind is very helpful to have as we went along and rewrote a lot of the material. So, I definitely think that a lot of the DOGFIGHT material was shaped around her voice, particularly when we were adjusting it. Then, of course, there are people - older songs of ours - that we wrote for particular musical theatre performers or at least with their voices in mind when we were writing them. Is there anything that strikes you, Justin?

JP: Well, you know, it is definitely that as we are writing we hear certain people's voices. I feel like when we were writing that "Do You Remember Song?" song we sort of thought of...

BP: Gavin [Creel]! Oh, totally, totally - yeah.

JP: Yeah, Gavin Creel. It's a song we wrote for a show that we never ended up finishing writing, but it's a song that we were inspired to do by hearing Gavin Creel's voice and then, a few years later, we actually got him to sing it.

PC: What a fulfillment of a fantasy, right?

BP: Oh, it was amazing.

JP: It was so great. It was like the dream come true! How cool is it that we just sent him a note and he did it. We said, "We just wanted to let you know we wrote this for your voice," and he sang it.

BP: Totally.

JP: It was amazing.

PC: What about writing a Gavin Creel/Liz Callaway duet, then!

BP: Oh, my God!

JP: People would not even be able to handle it, Pat! [Laughs.]

PC: In speaking of your concert songs, Tituss Burgess brilliantly sings "Part Of A Painting" in his shows and I was curious if you could tell me a bit about that song?

JP: Oh, he does that so beautifully, doesn't he?!

BP: He is so, so amazing.

PC: He really wrings a lot of emotion out of a lyric, doesn't he?

BP: Totally.

JP: Exactly. That's what I really love about Tituss is that he always comes in with a very specific take on something and it is always brilliant - like his take on that. We love it.

PC: Aaron Tveit's version of "Along The Way" is gorgeous as well. How did that song actually come about? It's quite a unique concept for a song - especially the fatherhood angle.

BP: Yeah, that's another one that just came about because I think it felt very honest to us - you know, in thinking about growing up and what men's fears are about growing up, which I think we both definitely have... [Laughs.]

PC: Don't we all?!

BP: Especially the idea of having a kid and how that can be a scary thing if you are not a responsible person. What does it mean? How do you prep for that sort of thing? And, personally, I would say that I am not always the most responsible with pets and matching socks and whatever the situation is, so I am sort of in that natural mishegoss - a chaotic state of mind. When do you actually need to grow up and take responsibility? That's what it's about, I think - which all came from real life.

PC: DOGFIGHT presents unique challenges for songwriters, particularly in writing for female voices - which you do so well. Do you consider the limitations of actors when writing or do you let it all out first and then pare it down as necessary?

JP: Yeah, I think that, for us, when we are writing musicals and shows it is definitely about what is best for the character and what we want them to sound like. When we are doing standalone songs and stuff for cabaret and songs for EDGES - which is this standalone show we did a long time ago - and stuff like that, that is really when we are in our comfort zone. You know, we started out as performers - that's our background; we didn't study as writers or anything - so I think that has a lot to do with our Style and how we first started writing. When we were first writing together, we were mostly just writing material that we wanted to perform - what sounds good to us and if we brought this to acting class, what would we need to do to make this a better song or make it sound better. So, I think that at the time we started out writing together we were just writing for ourselves, in a way, and then it developed from there - that's the only way we knew how to write.

BP: Yeah, I would definitely agree with that.

PC: What a fascinating perspective.

JP: And, also - to answer your question - I think that's why characters tend to have a strong voice in a lot of our stuff, too.

PC: In speaking of EDGES, I was curious if you could tell me about some of the new material you have added to the show?

JP: Sure! EDGES is sort of a weird kind of case because it has never been in New York...

BP: The origin of it is that we did it in college during our sophomore year and we took it on a sort of non-Equity bus and truck tour up and down the East Coast, basically targeting cities where the cast members were from - some of the actors who actually ended up in DOGFIGHT, as well, actually. And, so, we kind of just did EDGES for everybody who would listen - which was pretty much all of our moms and their friends - and from there the show kind of grew.

PC: "The Facebook Song" aka "Be My Friend" and the applicability of it to this generation is a great feature of the score, as well. It's very au currant, even now.

JP: Well, EDGES came out the same year that Youtube and Facebook really started becoming popular, actually - even though the song wasn't in it yet at that point - so we sort of targeted different schools and places that we sort of thought would be interested in doing the show and so the show became popular online and outside of New York without really having ever been there. The show is about young people, though, so that's exactly how it should have been, I think - and, it was written by young people, as well, since we wrote it when we were both about 19. So, like, twelve productions were done within the first year after we did it - Boston Conservatory and Carnegie Mellon were two of the first - and then we were approached by a director to sort of take a different look at it, Gordon Greenberg. And, so he sort of offered us the chance to do an Equity production of the show in Albany and we rewrote a lot of the stuff and changed a lot of the material there - wrote a lot of new songs; rewrote a lot of existing songs - and we turned it into the show that it is now.

PC: It has had quite a thriving life around the country - and some of the world - since.

JP: It has. Right now, actually, EDGES is being done in Singapore and next month it is being done in Paris, too. And, you know, it is just this show that we never expected to ever be more than just a one-night concert of our work. It's pretty amazing to see it take off in this really crazy way.

PC: Five or six new songs have been added since?

BP: Yes, that's true.

JP: That's right. We added "Pretty Sweet Day" and some others.

PC: What about a final recording of the show? Maybe on Ghostlight?

BP: Well, as you might know, we originally had this bootleg demo that we sold at all the tour stops, but we actually stopped selling it because the show changed so much since we recorded it. We are definitely planning on doing an official recording of the show, though, exactly as it is now.

PC: Would you be interested in doing a concert performance of it, as well? Maybe on Youtube?

BP: It's definitely something that we would love to work on, but, you know, we are so fortunate that we have gotten to work on other shows that have sort of gotten in the way since then. We just haven't found the time to make an album yet, but it is something that we are definitely moving to the front burner and starting to figure out when and how to do it.

PC: Is EDGES the first full score you wrote together, per se?

BP & JP: Yes.

PC: So you never attempted another project before EDGES?

JP: Oh, no, we did - but everything we worked on, pretty much, ended up in EDGES. I think that since it was a song cycle and all the songs were united at the time as being about young, college-age kids, all of the songs sort of worked well enough thematically that we could use them. So, I think that most of the stuff we worked on back then ended up in the show.

BP: I think so, too. Pretty much.

PC: Going back to the beginning: what was the first song you two wrote together?

BP: The first song that we wrote together was a song called "Classical Prose" and every now and then we still play it at concerts - if we are asked to do an Encore and we don't know what to play, we usually play that song. It's a duet for both of us and we dare you to try to figure out what it is about because both of us have absolutely no idea! [Laughs.]

PC: It's one to look out for at Joe's Pub, then!

JP: Yeah, it's just this totally random song that we have fun singing that just doesn't have much meaning, but it is the first song we ever wrote together - so who cares?!

PC: What is the most recent song you wrote together?

JP: That's an interesting question.

BP: It is. We are actually in the process of pitching a couple different projects right now, so that has been what we have been working on - otherwise, it would be the SMASH stuff. The songs we have written for SMASH have been the most recent things that we have been working on writing.

PC: Your HIT LIST songs on SMASH have been standouts. Joe Iconis said when he did this column that the composers aren't really aware of each other's work. Has that been the case for you in your experience? Is that challenging?

JP: Yeah, it's true. We are all working in our own little bubbles, on our own assignments. They did a good job of piecing it all together and making it seem like one soundtrack, I think, though.

PC: Did you write songs for other slots in the show that perhaps did not make the cut or Vice versa?

JP: Fortunately, that is not the case, because if it was I don't know if we would have ever written anything else! [Laughs.]

PC: There are a lot of songs in the HIT LIST score, after all!

JP: Yes, there are a lot of songs in HIT LIST. But, no, we were lucky because they basically gave us the scenario and told us what songs they wanted. They had a very specific outline of what HIT LIST was about, so they would tell us what characters would sing the song and what needed to be accomplished and then we would figure out a kind of pitch of what would work best musically for The Moment and then we would work all of it out from there.

PC: Was "Original" written as an homage to - or as an evocation of - Lady Gaga?

JP: Yeah - they actually said to us, for that song, "We are looking for a song for Karen," - the Kat McPhee character - "that is about her analyzing why pop stars become famous and we want to have a song that is a little bit about Lady Gaga, a little bit Lana Del Rey, and about how these people have reinvented themselves in order to become famous." So, you know, it was actually pretty particular what they were looking for and that's what we came up with.

PC: Were you looking to evoke any specific sounds in any of the songs or tribute any current artists in particular?

BP: Well, I think they basically wanted something contemporary-sounding that would also be completely functional in a musical. I remember there being some stuff for Kat that they requested be a little bit in the Kelly Clarkson world, though. One of the other songs we wrote, which was a really big dance number with a Kelly Clarkson/Pink sort of vibe, we ended up turning into a more Sara Bareilles type of thing. So, yeah, it was very much the contemporary pop world, but sort of erring to the side of theatre.

PC: Did you get to work one-on-one at any point with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman? They are so wildly talented and their work on SMASH is so fabulous.

BP: You know, it's funny because they are so nice and insanely generous. Like, we went out to LA to work for a few months this winter and Marc let me borrow his car!

JP: But, the craziest part is that we had never really even met!

BP: That's right. And, so, last week was the opening of the Bette Midler play, I'LL EAT YOU LAST, and they were there and we finally all were together in the same place and it was like, "Oh, my God!" So, we finally actually got to meet face-to-face.

JP: And, we are such fans of theirs, too, that we probably came off as totally crazy people. [Laughs.]

PC: They are probably used to it at this point.

JP: We were like, [Tearful Voice.] "We just love your work so much - it means so much to us." It was probably very intense for them, but we are definitely huge, huge fans of theirs.

PC: Marc Shaiman has such an amazing composing record for film, as well.

BP: Totally!

JP: Totally! The other day, I was watching something on Youtube from THE FIRST WIVES CLUB and I had completely forgotten that he did arrangements for that and I was reminded of it again. I was like, "Wow! Of course Marc Shaiman had a hand in this brilliant musical moment in a movie I know and love!" [Laughs.]

PC: Are there any people in the business that you yearn to work with somebody?

JP: You know, I think one of the people we love the most who we would love to write something for is Norbert Leo Butz.

BP: Yes. Our dream is to write a vehicle for three men starring Norbert Leo Butz, Danny Burstein and Christian Borle.

PC: What a combination! Have you ever attempted a song for that project?

BP: Oh, no, no, no - we haven't. Not yet, at least - right now it's just a pipe dream.

PC: What can you tell me about your stage adaptation of Roald Dahl's JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH?

JP: We developed JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH with Graciela Daniele as our director and we worked with an amazing dance troupe on it, Pilobolus, when we did the first workshop-ish production of it at Goodspeed in 2010. It was an amazing experience. What we learned from the experience was that we wanted to sort of scale it down and focus it more and now it is more of a kid's show, I think. It was a fantastic experience, though, to sort of put it together like we did and just see what we could create. It was awesome.

PC: I am inclined to ask, then: have you seen MATILDA?

JP: [Laughs.] Yes, of course - it's a fantastic show.

PC: Being performers yourselves, have you ever considered appearing in any of your own shows at any point?

BP: No, I don't think so.

JP: No.

BP: I think we would prefer to do sort of just little concerts of our material and not actually do our shows and embarrass ourselves horribly. [Laughs.]

PC: So, no MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG revival starring Pasek & Paul in the future?

JP: No, you will not be having that! [Laughs.]

BP: No way!

PC: Have you two ever broken up and written separately for any period of time?

BP: No. But, we do disagree on things.

JP: No, not technically - but, I mean, yes, we do fight! With frequency!

PC: Do you look up to teams like Marc & Scott, Ahrens & Flaherty and the late great team of Kander & Ebb?

JP: Absolutely!

BP: Absolutely. Ahrens & Flaherty have been very, very big influences on us, actually.

PC: How so?

BP: We actually did this Dramatist's Guild fellowship program and they were our teachers and our mentors on that. They are real heroes and idols for us.

PC: What did you learn in particular from them that was instructive?

JP: Well, it was a year-long program where we would bring in material from the very first idea for a song and get feedback from Lynn and Steve and develop it from there. We learned so unbelievably much from them during that process - what works and what doesn't and how you structure a song and what ways you can structure a song and where you place jokes and so many, many things that you don't realize are part of the craft of writing for musical theatre. So, we really credit them with teaching us so much about that. We worked with them for a year on that and they provided us with so many tools and gave us so much knowledge as to how we could be better craftsmen and know how to approach writing in a different and more sophisticated way.

PC: Using a DOGFIGHT example, take me through the process of creating the "Hometown Hero's Ticker Tape Parade" sequence - it's so musically, lyrically, dramatically and thematically dense and rich.

BP: Oh, well, that was something that initially that just started with only the guys - just the guys singing; the three man guys sort of singing about what was going to happen once they went overseas and give just a minimal amount of work and then be thought of as heroes. We knew that by the end of the song we wanted to depict that all of those guys were basically thinking that - the same thing. Just like our dads went over and came back and were celebrated as war heroes, it's the same thing with us that we are going to do - but, the irony is that, of course, that's not really what happens at all.

PC: The reality is much different than the dream, for sure.

BP: We started with just the three guys and then eventually we brought more and more people in to sort of show this powerful force, and, then, by the end of it they have this line - "no confetti for the boy's who stayed" - and they all kind of come together in unison to spit that line out.

PC: A very powerful moment, no doubt.

BP: Yeah, we thought that there was just a lot of power in having six or seven guys onstage - big, tough guys - singing that stuff. It was a great tool to be able to use.

PC: What an amazing cast that was assembled for DOGFIGHT.

BP: Oh, my God - yes.

JP: Totally.

PC: Tell me about how you came to cast the terrific actors who played the Seabees.

JP: Well, it was the wonderful Telsey casting agency - they really came through for us with these incredible guys who really came across as authentic in terms of how we thought 1960s Marines should look. Some of these guys we worked with before - Steve Booth had been in EDGES in Albany, for example, so he was an old friend of ours. Then, there were people who were brought to us that were totally new to us, too - like our lead in the show, Derek Klena, who played Eddie, was introduced to us that way and he was just fantastic.

PC: He comes across beautifully on the cast album, as well - they all do, really.

JP: Thank you - we are really proud of it. It was basically just a combination of people we knew and people who were new to us and just combining everything to create this ensemble of guys. You know, Nick Blaemire who played Bernstein was in our original EDGES at school - he was a year ahead of us at school back in Michigan and he was in the very first production of EDGES, actually.

PC: A full-circle moment for you all.

JP: Yeah, it was. We are just so proud of the cast who was assembled - we think they are all just so wonderful.

PC: Annaleigh Ashford, as well - a fellow 2013 Tony Award nominee, too!

BP: Oh, yeah! Isn't that so great?

JP: We are so proud of her - and happy for her.

BP: I have to say, we both feel really honored to have worked with her because she is just going to be such a big star and she was in our show, DOGFIGHT, way back when at Second Stage.

PC: Was it ever considered to transfer DOGFIGHT to Broadway at any point?

BP: Well, I think that it was really that we were just going to see what would happen. I mean, when we first started writing this show there were never any designs that we wanted to go to Broadway with it - we just wanted to write it and then see. So, there has never been a plan for it to be a big Broadway show or anything - we never conceived it that way. So, in scope, DOGFIGHT really didn't fit the Broadway criteria. We never had designs for it to be anything more than it was and we are so grateful that we got it to be our debut in New York City - and to have it be directed by Joe Mantello at Second Stage; we have them to thank for that. We are so grateful to have had the experience that we had with it.

PC: An auspicious debut, to say the very least!

BP: You know, we got very, very lucky that we got to work with all those amazing people and have audiences like we did and that we were at a non-profit theatre. So, yeah, we were just thrilled with how it was done and how it all ended up - and, now, the album is out!

PC: And, what a masterful preservation of the score.

JP: Yeah, hopefully everyone will hear it now and it will be done at colleges and in Community theaters across the country. That's what we are hoping.

PC: The cast recording really gives the listener a feel for the show. It sounds so alive and atmospheric.

JP: That was really our goal - to make it be an album that you can listen to and experience with the score front and center and have it be exactly how we want the show to sound; and, I have to say, we got it with this album.

PC: What are your thoughts on concept albums in general? Would you be open to initiating a project like that?

BP: Yeah, we've never done anything like that, but, to be honest, it sounds like an awful lot of work for a bookwriter. [Laughs.]

PC: Shades of the Kyle character on SMASH, no?

BP: Yeah, it's like, "Let's just put a bunch of songs together and see what happens. Just make it all work and tie it all together," and oftentimes it's easier to conceive a show as a whole that way. There is a lot to be said for conceiving a musical that way - music does drive a musical. That's the motor. But, I think that, in the future, we are going be of the ilk of writers who want to conceive something together and act on it rather than writing a bunch of songs and handing them off to a book writer or cobbling a book around the songs.

PC: What was the first song you wrote for DOGFIGHT?

JP: Actually, the first song we wrote for DOGFIGHT was "Pretty Funny", which was what we wanted for Rose at the end of Act One.

BP: And it was mostly just after watching the movie, like, twice, that it sort of just jumped out to us immediately as a musical moment and we said, "OK. No matter what happens with the show - no matter what the story is or the arc is exactly - we know that there is going to be a song that this girl sings when she comes back from the party about how awful she feels about what she has just been through." We knew there was always going to be a song moment there.

JP: That was sort of our access point for the character - and for the world.

PC: The way in. Did you always see it as the Act One closer?

JP: Actually, we didn't - we didn't originally see it as the act break song. I remember that when we did it in workshops, we actually had that song at the top of Act Two, but, over the course of the development of the show, "Pretty Funny" became the song that ended Act One.

PC: How did the first act originally end?

JP: We ended Act One originally with the "Dogfight" song and then the lounge singer had some lines about bidding us adieu for intermission. It worked much more effectively to sort of check in on Rose and have that question sort of looming, though. So, yeah, we are very happy with how it finally ended up.

PC: Given the 1960s milieu, I am curious how you chose the sound for the score - it could have easily been a more obvious 60s sound.

BP: Well, I think what we wanted to do was that we wanted to make something, For Better or Worse - maybe because it wasn't as fun subject matter and the story is a little more serious - that wasn't so much of a pastiche score. We didn't want it to be so much out of that sound and that era, but sort of a nod to it.

PC: Can you give me any specific examples?

JP: Well, I think that because, essentially, Rose the character herself is interested in folk music that I think we listened to a lot of folk music from the time and acoustic music and all of that and I think that influenced what we wrote for her character, but we also tried to go for something with the sound of her character that was something modern and also something of that period all mixed together. I think that we thought it would be a more interesting challenge to go at the score that way as opposed to, you know, "OK. Here is our version of..."

PC: You wanted to create a new sound for the score and not mimic something that already existed.

JP: Yeah, exactly. We wanted other material to influence what we wrote, not dictate what we wrote.

PC: Given the predominantly pop sound of much of your material, I was curious if you two have ever considered writing in a more classical vein in the future - perhaps attempting an actual opera or a PASSION-esque musical, branching out in that direction?

JP: Well, I think we are interested in writing as many kinds of songs as possible, so I definitely think we could end up writing something classical-sounding in the future. I mean, for us, JAMES & THE GIANT PEACH and DOGFIGHT and A CHRISTMAS STORY and the songs we wrote for SMASH all feel like they are from different worlds...

PC: They sound that way, as well.

JP: And, the project that we are working on now, that we are just at the beginning stages of, is sort of in its own style, too. So, I think that, more than anything, it comes from the material and the story that we are trying to tell and we are just going to continue to explore the stories we are most passionate about telling and just see how we can make those into musicals. I think that we are very interested in developing many kinds of muscles as we go along and it is consistently exciting for us to be able to try out different subjects and styles in what we write. That's what we hope to continue doing.

PC: Have you ever switched, even just as an experiment, with one writing music and the other writing lyrics?

JP & BP: [Laugh.]

BP: I think that I would be very bad at that! The music that I would write would be very, very rudimentary - I don't think that we have any care to waste our time trying that.

JP: I think Ben is right. [Laughs.]

PC: Would you say one is more the instigator for projects and one more amenable or do you both give and take equally?

JP: It depends on the year, I think.

BP: Yeah, it really does. [Laughs.]

PC: ONE NIGHT STAND gives us a revealing glimpse behind the scenes of your process, to say the least.

JP & BP: [Laugh.] I guess so!

PC: Does music come first or lyrics first or it just depends?

JP: It totally depends.

BP: Yeah, it totally depends on The Moment and what we are inspired by. In wrapping our heads around a moment, sometimes it makes more sense to attack it musically first and sometimes it makes more sense to write the lyrics first and develop it from there. I think it really alternates a lot for us.

PC: What can we expect from your upcoming DOGFIGHT release party at Joe's Pub?

JP: Oh, we are so excited!

BP: It should be a really great night.

PC: Can we anticipate that you are going to be doing some DOGFIGHT material yourselves?

BP: Oh, yes, definitely.

JP: Yes, we will definitely be doing songs from DOGFIGHT and we will have the cast there and the band onstage with us, too. It's really about celebrating the release of the album, so we are going to be having some really special, special guests...

BP: Really special guests!

JP: Yeah, so, we are going to do a bunch of DOGFIGHT songs and then do some stuff from our other shows as a kind of breather.


JP: Definitely. Definitely.

BP: Definitely. We just want everybody to have a great time and everybody will be able to pick the album up then if they want to, too.

PC: Will you be signing copies?

BP: Sure!

JP: Oh, sure! If they wanted them signed by us, by all means. [Laughs.]

PC: By the way, do you have any more original HIT LIST songs coming up on SMASH or have we seen them all by this point, more or less?

BP: No more, unfortunately, I don't think, right?

JP: Yeah, I think they have shown all they are going to show of our songs, pretty much, but I think there will be a reprise of something we wrote in one of the episodes coming up that will be new, but that's it. Most of our songs tended to be shown earlier on in the season, it seems - "Caught In The Storm" and "Rewrite This Story" at least.

PC: Would you two be open to writing an original movie musical yourselves someday?

BP: Oh, absolutely.

JP: Of course. That would actually be really fun to do, I think.

PC: Do you see a new emerging age for the performing arts? Between more awareness in the media and the many mega-hits on Broadway, it seems as though we are in a special time, no? Particularly as opposed to when we were growing up in the 1990s...

BP: Yeah, I totally agree.

JP: Yeah, and, I mean, just look at those Disney movies that we all grew up with - all these generations are growing up on these Disney movie musicals now. If you look at when we were 4, 5, 6, 7 and the Disney animated musicals that were being made back then - you know, THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY & THE BEAST and ALADDIN and THE LION KING - they introduced us to musical theatre without us even knowing it, really; the people who created them and how they told the stories with music. And, they made it seem fun and cool. And, now, those are the musicals we all relate back to - and it's all musical theatre storytelling. So, yeah, I think that those Disney movies were sort of a gateway drug to musical theatre for a lot of kids. You know, youstart with THE LITTLE MERMAID and you end up at Sondheim, which is just the best, you know? We are so glad that our generation was exposed to that.

PC: So, Sondheim is the ultimate musical theatre score creator, would you say?

JP: Oh, yeah. Just in terms of sheer craft, his songs are genius - he is the master of craft; that's a big part of it, I think.

PC: Given you both are admitted Sondheim devotees, I am curious: what are your thoughts on the other great theatrical titan of the modern age, Andrew Lloyd Webber?

JP: Oh, I think Andrew Lloyd Webber is a master creator of melodic musical theatre music that is Epic and totally incredible, that's what I think - only good things.

BP: Yeah. Only good things.

PC: Nothing wrong with selling a few singles along the way, too!

BP: Oh, yeah - Andrew Lloyd Webber has had a foot in the pop world and one in the theatre world for a long time and that is something that we definitely admire and hope to have ourselves someday. Definitely.

PC: Will A CHRISTMAS STORY officially be coming back this Christmas? A casting notice is out already.

BP: Well, I think it's as official as it can be in May! [Laughs.]

PC: Touché!

BP: I think it will definitely happen, though. We hope so!

JP: We'll see in December!

PC: So, what's next? What are your working on now that your SMASH songs are done?

JP: We are actually working on a show right now that is brand new and it is from an original idea, so there is nothing we can really say about it without giving it away right now, but we are very excited about it.

PC: How fantastic - so that means you two, as well as Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey with IF/THEN and Ahrens & Flaherty with LITTLE DANCER all have new musicals based on original ideas appearing in the next year. It's a very exciting time to be a team!

JP & BP: [Laugh.] I guess so! It's a really awesome time for teams! How fantastic.

PC: Thank you both so much for this today. It was extraordinary - as are you both.

BP: Aww, yeah, this was so great, Pat - thank you so much. Bye.

JP: This was amazing. Thank you very much, Pat. Bye.

Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Ghostlight, Masterworks Broadway, Second Stage, etc.

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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)