Last year Westport native and musical icon Justin Paul sat down with Westport magazine for a lengthy interview at the Music Box Theatre, home of his hit show Dear Evan Hansen. The Tony-, Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer had bigger magazine titles knocking on his door—not to mention deadlines for the score he and his writing partner Benj Pasek created for the movie Greatest Showman.
Last week Paul had stuff to do, you know, like attending the Oscars (Pasek and Paul’s “This Is Me” from Greatest Showman was nominated for Best Original Song). But the thirty-three-year-old with limitless talent also knows no bounds when it comes to giving back to his hometown.
On March 9, a mere five days after walking the red carpet in L.A., Paul visited Staples High School to share anecdotes, advice, and his music—in the form of a lively sing-along—with music and theater students. Staples Players Merrily We Roll Along opens today, and Paul played “Frank” on this same stage back in 2003.
When asked what Staples Players memory he would most want to relive, he said it would involve this lesser-known Sondheim show. “It was challenging—it’s a super mature, very adult show—and it was really rewarding,” said Paul. “It made a big impression on me.” Considering that Paul played a Broadway composer in the show, who eventually sells out to Hollywood—and Paul is now a Broadway composer who is frequently wooed by Hollywood, it’s a good thing he paid close attention.
“It’s an interesting show to be doing at this time in your life,” Paul said, referring particularly to cast members who are seniors. “It cemented that time in life. It always haunted me in a way, in thinking about how you pursue your dreams. It made me think a lot about Sondheim. ‘Our Time’ is one of his more earnest songs. It captures what all of us feel at this time: I can do anything if I band together with my friends. I revisit it as life goes on and remind myself I want to be like Frank in Act 2—don’t go through that door with Gussie! A lot of life is about having two doors and deciding which one you will go through.”
Listening to Paul—always humble, genuine, funny and clearly passionate about his work—it’s clear he will never end up a jaded, miserable, artistically compromised sell-out. He always seems to go through the right door, but sometimes getting through takes a good hard shove.
“Our sophomore year in college, we did City of Angels. Benj and I thought we’d get good roles. But Benj was cast as Man with Camera and Clapper Boy and my roles were like Coroner—I got to wheel a body onto stage— and Party Goer #40. Someone was cast as the Piano Player; I couldn’t even get that role!” said Paul (who, incidentally, did play piano himself in Merrily). “That made us think maybe we’re not destined to be actors, and we started to think about what we could be doing and should be doing. Out of that frustration, we turned to writing. We decided to write a show. There were other good actors who weren’t cast, so we approached them and said, ‘Hey, we know you are super bitter. We’re also super bitter. Let’s do a show about being bitter!’”
The result was Edges, a musical revue that would open a door with Stephen Schwartz. During a chance meeting with the legendary composer, Paul passed a CD of the show to him and Schwartz then became a mentor. Paul’s mom, Rhonda, was in the audience during the Staples talk and recounted how she insisted Paul take the CD with him, so she propped that door open and Roth and Long (who were with him) helped drag modest Justin through!
Paul became bolder through the years. “Benj and I went out and lived in L.A. one summer,” he recounted. “We went there to work on Dear Evan Hansen and basically to knock on people’s doors. We met with anyone who would meet with us.” A meeting at Fox with someone who liked what Pasek and Paul did with A Christmas Story: The Musical (“the one person who liked it,” quipped Paul) led to a meeting with a colleague who was working on Greatest Showman and, well, the doors just kept opening. (By the way, Paul didn’t bring home a statue for “This Is Me” this year, but in his Oscar speech last year—Best Song, “City of Stars,” from La La Land—he thanked his hometown and alma mater.)
The one door Paul thinks he left half open is one he discusses in his big piece advice for the teens in the room: “The relationships you are developing now and in college—it’s crazy how they will carry you through life both personally, for sure, but also professionally. People we went to school with now are actors, casting directors, directors. I just hit up Gina Rattan (SHS ’04) for advice two weeks ago. The people you are getting in bed with now… Oh wait, I probably should rephrase that [roar of laughter]! The people you are embedding yourself with now, those are the people you can always fall back on, the people you can trust, if you maintain those relationships. I still have an awesome group of people and obviously Benj and I did that, but I wish I had invested more time in that in high school and college.”
Paul concluded the afternoon by jamming at the piano, with the starstruck cast of Merrily We Roll Along encircling him and belting out “Waving Through a Window” and “This Is Me.” Earlier he had explained how “Waving Through a Window” was a last-ditch effort to hit the right chord for the show Dear Evan Hansen: “We were really stumped and frustrated with the show. We wrote it in a few days and then came back to the creative team and said, in a hostile tone, ‘Is this what you want?!’ They all said, ‘YES! That’s what the show should be.’ It was a defining moment. We’d unlocked something.”
If the Players kids were listening carefully, no doubt they heard more than a few things click last Friday.
Don’t miss Merrily We Roll Along, opening Friday, March 16, 2018. Renowned director and original Broadway cast member Lonny Price will be coming to Staples to conduct a talkback after the show on March 23.
Performances: March 16, 17, 23 & 24 at 7:30 pm and March 18 at 3 pm. Tickets: $15 for adults, $10 for students, $10 for seniors (matinee only). Recommended for ages 8+. Staples High School Auditorium, 70 North Avenue. Tickets may be purchased online at www.staplesplayers.com or in the lobby 30 minutes prior to performances, subject to availability.
Read more about Justin Paul from his interview with us last year: Life’s a Song »