Jewish Composer Dreams of ‘Tony’ Christmas


Ardmore native Benj Pasek and his writing partner hope their "Christmas Story" will beat the competition for Best Original Score at this weekend's Tony Awards. 

Whether or not Benj Pasek bounds up the stage at Radio City Music Hall on June 9 to accept the 2013 Tony Award for Best Original Score (music and/or lyrics), he will still be thanking his mother for providing a decisive bit of inspiration at a crucial point in his life.

Pasek, along with Justin Paul, his writing partner and fellow BFA from the University of Michigan, is nominated for his work on A Christmas Story.

As Pasek tells the story, his mother, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a well-known author and Temple University professor of psychology, played a leading role: “Our sophomore year at Michigan, we were cast in the worst roles you could be cast in in a production of City of Angels. I was ‘Man with a camera,’ which meant that I literally just walked onstage and took a photo in a 2-and-a-half-hour musical. Our moms are going to fly out to Ann Arbor to see us in this musical? At that moment, we were like, we gotta do something else. We liked writing together, maybe we should write a show?”

That show, the song cycle, Edges, was written and produced by the pair during that same year of 2005, and its near-instantaneous success ensured that Pasek’s acting days were behind him forever. By the end of the academic year, Edges, which delves into topics familiar to any college student or recent graduate — growth, self-discovery, friends, etc. — had been produced at over a dozen colleges around the United States; today, it is performed worldwide and recently passed the 300-production mark.

Pasek has a theory for why Edges became so popular, so quickly, and without any of the traditional marketing aids, Broadway productions, cast albums, etc. “It came out the first year that Facebook and YouTube came out, and it was among the first new musical theater content online. With the advent of this new media, there was no gatekeeper anymore — kids could find the content and produce it themselves.”

For the Ardmore native, the success of Edges was a portent of things to come.

Pasek and Paul received the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award for composers in 2007 — the youngest winners in the award’s history. They have also won the 2011 ASCAP Foundation Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award and the 2011 Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others.

When asked how a nice Jewish boy from Lower Merion wound up working on a Christmas classic, he quickly responds, “The same way Irving Berlin did, I guess!” Just as Berlin scored the song, “White Christmas,” for the perennial favorite holiday film, Holiday Inn, Pasek has made his own mark on the theatrical adaptation of the beloved 1983 film that revolves around a young boy’s holiday quest to get a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas. “It’s really a story about a family trying to get through a crazy experience — to me, there’s nothing more Jewish than that,” he says.

Pasek has a keen sense of the history of musical theater, and the central role that Jews have played in it since musicals came to prominence at the beginning of the 20th century. “It’s a very Jewish art form,” he says, and brings up how the Jewish sense of otherness, which was a hindrance to so many immigrants in other fields, was perfectly suited to telling theatrical stories. “As a Jew, I am very proud to be a part of that historical arc,” he adds.

Pasek’s second half of 2013 is picking up where the first one left off. He and Paul’s latest musical, an adaptation of the 1991 movie, Dogfight, won a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, as well as the Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Off-Broadway Musical, Best Score and Best Book. The duo’s work on the play has already earned them a Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical. It is, by any metric, a tremendously successful year for the 27-year-old Pasek, whose 28th birthday falls on the same night as the Tony Awards.

To his credit, he seems nothing if not amazed and grateful for all of the acclaim. “I don’t think I could have ever envisioned any of this,” he exclaims. “It’s all incredibly surreal.” While they are enjoying the crush of awards season, he and Paul are focused on the future.

“It feels really good that people are responding to the work I’m doing,” Pasek says. “It makes the next project easier to get started. We feel like what all this has allowed for is that people are really open to our ideas.”

Despite all that he has accomplished thus far, there is still one area of the theater where his skills are lacking. “It’s funny,” he observes, “but I don’t get free tickets to anything! I had to pay for tickets to my own show.”

That shouldn’t be a problem with his next production.

The Tony Awards
CBS stations, June 9 at 8 p.m.