An Interview with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the Tony-nominated songwriters of the Broadway musical A Christmas Story, which opened in November 2012 and enjoyed a critically acclaimed, record-breaking run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Read on to learn about how they adapted this beloved holiday classic for the stage.

How did you become involved with the musical version of A Christmas Story?
Similar to how an actor auditions for a show, we were actually approached by the producers of A Christmas Story and asked to submit songs to “audition” in a way. We absolutely love the movie and were ecstatic when we were chosen to write the music for the production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater.

How did you go about adapting the story to be told with music?
There was a story in place—a structure that already works. Since it’s a holiday staple, we wanted to honor people’s favorite parts of the film and enhance them for the musical stage without tampering with them too much. For example, Ralphie’s obsession with the Red Ryder® Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle was part of the movie, but we were able to really explore and expand on that through the song “Ralphie to the Rescue.” If Ralphie wanted to be a cowboy then we could make him into a cowboy fighting off Indians, bank robbers, and old style western villains in a six-minute dance number. The fantasy scenes in the movie were perfect for becoming musical numbers.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqJiKXwSNKQ#at=11

Were there any characters for which you particularly enjoyed writing?
We’re really proud of the song “Just Like That.” At its core, A Christmas Story is about nostalgia and remembering your own childhood. In this song, we see a mother trying to capture that one moment as her kids are growing up too quickly. This is one of the moments in the musical that didn’t exist in the film, so it gave us the opportunity to explore the mother’s character and make her the emotional anchor of the show. It’s really rewarding, because audiences have really responded to the moments in the show that have more heart.

In your writing partnership, which comes first—the music or the lyrics or does it vary?
We have been lucky to have the chance to speak to several writing teams and explore how they work with each other. Because of those conversations, we try and push each other so that we both end up feeling responsible for the entire song. Neither the music nor the lyrics should overshadow the other. We’re interested in finding the place where music and lyrics really meet.

Much of our time collaborating is spent discussing exactly what we want our songs to say. We each have strengths that compliment each other well, including greater strengths in music and lyrics. But in the end, it’s a song in which (hopefully) the words and music are seamlessly woven together and you can’t tell what’s what. But that brings us back to the arguing… hammering out all those details and deciding where we want the song to go, what its message should be, what the character is feeling… that all usually happens before a note or word is written. Then sometimes we start with the music and sometime we start with the lyric. There’s really no formula for it at all—it’s always changing!

What advice do you have for young composers in middle school, high school, and college?
When we were first starting to write our show Edges, it was when things like YouTube and Facebook were just beginning. That allowed us to use the new media to get our music out without having to have complete productions mounted. Getting your music out there is the most important thing. But remember that whatever you post might live forever—be judicious and smart when posting. The only way to get better at composing is to keep composing. Don’t stop writing!

About Benj Pasek and Justin Paul:
The Broadway musical A Christmas Story opened in November 2012 and enjoyed a critically acclaimed, record-breaking run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. In addition to Benj and Justin’s 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 also received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Music.

Benj and Justin are both graduates of the University of Michigan. They are the recipients of the 2011 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2011 Sundance Institute Fellowship, the 2011 ASCAP Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award, the 2011 ASCAP Songwriters Fellowship Award, and a 2007-2008 Dramatists Guild Fellowship. They are the youngest recipients of the Jonathan Larson Award (2007) in the foundation’s history. They have participated in ASCAP’s Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project and were named one of Dramatist Magazine’s “50 to Watch” in contemporary theatre.

Alfred is proud to offer SATB, SAB, and 2-Part voicings of “Counting Down to Christmas” from A Christmas Story, arranged by Greg Gilpin. Click here for more information. 

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