Golden Globe winning composer Justin Paul reflects on his Westport roots

January 15, 2017

There’s a moment in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along” where the young songwriters in the story, best friends since high school, are about to start their career in New York City with trembling eagerness and hope and so aware of this profound moment in their lives. In “Our Time,” they sing: “Something is stirring/Shifting ground/It’s just begun/Edges are blurring/All around/And yesterday is done.”It’s a favorite song of Justin Paul, 32, and Benj Pasek, 31, and it captures the spirit and moment they’re experiencing. After being labeled a promising songwriting team for years, they are at last riding a wave of acclaim on several high-profile projects. Most impressively is their acclaimed score to Broadway’s latest hit musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” (“This gorgeous heartbreaker of a musical ... with a haunting score,” wrote the New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood.)The duo contributed lyrics to Hollywood’s first original live-action movie musical in decades, “La La Land,” a leading Oscar contender. On Jan. 8, Pasek and Paul took home Golden Globes, along with Justin Hurwitz — who wrote the music for “La La Land” — for the film’s “City of Stars,” as Best Original Song.They have a song in the DreamWorks animated film, “Trolls.” Next year’s big movie musical, “The Greatest Showman,” starring Hugh Jackman, the biopic about Bridgeport’s P.T. Barnum, will have tunes written entirely by Pasek and Paul.In a funky, wood-paneled room just off a Hell’s Kitchen studio in New York City, where the original cast album of “Dear Evan Hansen” was recorded, Paul talked about growing up in Westport, teaming up with his college pal and a long-ago visit to the Barnum Museum.Married, with a 9-month-old daughter, Emerson, and several shows more to his credit, the tall, lean and blond Paul has lost none of that sunny spirit and kid energy he had when I first met him. “My dream has always been to create music every day, and now that dream has come true,” he says of his recent successes.He says what’s extraordinary about “Dear Evan Hansen” and “La La Land” is both projects are based on original material, rather than coming from an established source. Pasek and Paul (as the team has come to be be called) had the idea for “Dear Evan Hansen” — about a high school suicide and a social media response that gets out of hand — “when we were in college saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to write a show about that some day?’ But then we diverged onto other paths.”Some of these projects were more successful than others. The duo created the score to the Broadway and touring musical, “A Christmas Story,” based on the popular holiday cult film, and the show and the team earned Tony Award nominations. They also wrote the score to the well-received off-Broadway musical “Dogfight” and contributed songs to TV’s “Smash.”Paul grew up in Westport with his younger brother Tyler (who is a theater merchandiser). His father, David Paul, is an evangelical pastor who heads the Spiritual Life Fellowship in Hartford, working alongside Paul’s mother, Rhonda. Paul was familiar at an early age with gospel music, and before long he was playing the piano and drums for his father’s church groups. “A lot of that musical inspiration comes from my parents, who weren’t trained musicians, but they always played and sang from their hearts, and that instilled a love of music for me from a very early age,” he says.Paul loved whatever music came his way in elementary school, but it wasn’t until he joined Westport’s Music Theatre of Connecticut’s (now in Norwalk) youth program that he really focused on theater. “My first show there was in ‘Oliver!’ That’s when the love affair with acting and musical theater began.”“Justin remains a close friend of ours and is still tied to MTC,” says Kevin Connors, executive director of MTC and its co-founder. “He started here when he was 8 and went all through our program to college prep, and then interned here when he was in college. He was a great performer, but whenever he wasn’t on stage, he was sitting beside me at the piano and also wanted to be involved on the orchestral side of the show.“Justin was always easy to work with. He has a huge heart and (is) sensitive to other people. He’s a perfectionist, but he puts the greatest pressure on himself. He always runs toward a problem in order to solve it, never running away.”Paul’s interest increased when he went to Staples High School, renowned for its arts program. His parents began taking him to see Broadway shows. “‘Cats’ was the first, and I became obsessed with the cast album. That was a gateway drug for all the other cast albums.”But it was a casual comment during the high school production of “Into the Woods” in the spring of his junior year that would change his life. “Someone — I don’t even know who it was now — said, ‘I hope you continue to study this in college.’ And it was — wow — I didn’t even think of doing that. But it struck a nerve. I thought I was OK for my town, but then I started thinking maybe I could do this. It inspired me to start looking at schools that specialized in that and I chose Michigan, which has a great music theater program.”That’s where he met Pasek during summer orientation in 2003. “He was wearing a ’76ers Jersey and a Philly’s ballcap backwards, trying to be very cool. I was your typical Westport kid, and we both thought we were trying to be cool, but we were both basically from the suburbs. We clicked right away.”Though they were there as actors, they began “messing around on the piano,” which led them to start writing songs together. In their sophomore year they presented their cycle of songs in the show “Edges” — the title comes from the song “Our Time” in “Merrily We Roll Along”— “and it went OK. It wasn’t terrible.”To say the least. “Edges” and other work helped them receive awards and grants and early-career recognition. As for the new year, there’s the Oscars, the Tonys, the score for Disney’s live-action movie of “Snow White” and “The Greatest Showman” is about to start filming.“I went to the Barnum Museum as a kid,” Paul says. “I even have a video of me and two classmates there because we were doing a project for school on Barnum.”Frank Rizzo has covered Connecticut arts for nearly 40 years.