Facetime with those guys from 'The Facebook Song'

In less than 10 years, Philly-born Benj Pasek (left) and music-writing partner Justin Paul have gone from college dreams to sought-after status.
In less than 10 years, Philly-born Benj Pasek (left) and music-writing partner Justin Paul have gone from college dreams to sought-after status.
Posted: March 20, 2013

ALMOST every day, we hear about a pop star blowing up on the Internet. But who knew that YouTube can make a fast and enduring phenomenon of Broadway tunesmiths, too?

Philadelphia-born lyricist/composer Benj Pasek and his musical writing partner, Justin Paul - lately getting props on NBC-TV's "Smash" - are here to tell of the Web's charms and power in giving them a big head start on the competition.

Way back in 2005, while Pasek and Paul were still musical theater majors at the University of Michigan, Web exposure of their material ignited one of the most successful theatrical shows that's never played on Broadway.

Written out of desperation, Pasek said recently, "because we couldn't get interest going at school for a full-scale production," their stripped-down "Edges - A Song Cycle," featuring the viral hit known on the Web as "The Facebook Song," has scored more than a hundred productions worldwide. Last week it was playing in San Antonio. Next month the show will be up in Singapore.

"It's just crazy," Pasek said in a recent conversation. "We didn't intend for 'Edges' to be more than a one-night stand, as something to prove we're somebodies."

The same material also led to Pasek and Paul's win (youngest team ever) of the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award, honoring the memory of the gone-too-soon creator of the hit Broadway musical "Rent."

Dealing with the joys, trials and tribulations of being 19 - as the composers themselves were then - YouTube-posted performances of "Edges" material connected quickly online with an equally young, borderless viewership. It's since been translated into Dutch, Chinese and Malaysian, among other languages.

The song cycle's most popular piece, "Be My Friend," has been viewed "hundreds of thousands of times each in multiple-clip performances," calculates Pasek. In fact, it's come to be commonly known as "The Facebook Song."

That success encouraged the songwriting duo to graduate a semester early and jump head first into the usually hurdle-filled world of New York theater - "but in our case without having to go through all the usual rejections and struggles just to get a workshop on," marveled the now-27-year-old Pasek.

Among other things, the team got a gig writing songs for a Disney Channel show, "Johnny and the Sprites," which was a thrill for Pasek as "Disney movie-musicals were a huge influence growing up."

So, too, was the creative bent of his mom, Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, a developmental psychologist and Temple University professor inspired to write children's songs based on her offspring's accomplishments. So why shouldn't Benj do the same?

This self-acknowledged "singing nerd" also found his voice in the Philadelphia Boys Choir and by performing original material at coffeehouse nights at Friends Central, a school "that really works to bring out the individual best in every student."

And, of late, everything's really been coming up roses for Pasek and Paul.

Last summer, they made their off-Broadway debut with a musical version of "Dogfight." Although reviews were mixed for this dark saga of soldiers' last howl before venturing to Vietnam, Gaslight Records has just cut the original cast album. Regional-theater productions are looking likely.

A much bigger deal came to fruition this past holiday season, when Pasek and Paul's previously touring musical adaptation of the popular 1983 film comedy "A Christmas Story" landed on Broadway, charming critics "as holiday shows rarely do," noted Pasek, and "breaking box-office records at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where 'Disney's Beauty and the Beast' had played."

Oozing small-town period charm in "The Music Man" vein, the cast album for "A Christmas Story - The Musical" topped this writer's best 2012 holiday albums list. And that was without knowing the show's Philly connection!

'Smash' hits

Now, in a bit of "art imitating life," Pasek/Paul songs plus a slice of their personas are on display in the second season of NBC's Broadway-musical-themed and -styled "Smash." (Which hasn't exactly been one, its low ratings most recently leading to a scheduling change to Saturday nights, starting April 6.)

Still, "there's a lot of truth in 'Smash,' in its depiction of what really goes on in the making of a musical, including all the crazy things that happen," clued Pasek. "The business can be a really scary thing. Sometimes it makes you cry, sometimes makes you exhilarated. It's got such high-highs and low-lows. But for someone like me who enjoys never knowing what's around the corner, who doesn't mind working long days and nights, it's more exciting than not."

The lyrics-oriented Pasek and his mostly tune-writing partner were brought in for the TV show's second season to custom craft a few pop-Broadway songs. In the plot line, the tunes are supposed to be the work of an equally young and talented team (played by Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus) hoping to win interest in their show, called "Hit List."

"The characters were already drawn when we got invited in to write and meet with the show runners," shared Pasek. "They asked us a lot of questions, essentially probing what does it mean to be a young writer."

Evidently, the best takeaway was to have the on-screen team follow the same efficient path that Pasek and Paul took at drama school. Instead of trying to mount a full-scale theatrical showcase, the "Hit List" writers, like Pasek and Paul, decide to boil their product down to a book-free "song cycle."

Hope they're also planning to post some performances online.

Blog: philly.com/GizmoGuyWe

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