From Staples to the big stage: Grammy, Oscar and Tony award winner Justin Paul returns to Westport
WESTPORT — For a time when he was in high school, Justin Paul thought he might be a lawyer.
“I had not planned to go to school for music or for musical theater,” Paul, a Grammy, Oscar and Tony award winner and Staples High School graduate told a rapt crowd of less than 100 students, staff and parents.
Instead, Paul said he was considering a career path “that seemed normal and straightforward.
“I feel like now, at least here, there’s such a sense that there’s a future in the arts, and that wasn’t necessarily so much the case at that time,” Paul told those gathered in the Staples auditorium March 9.
The Westport native also made a stop at Coleytown Middle School the same day to talk to the students about their March 23-25 performances of “James and the Giant Peach,” for which Paul wrote the music and lyrics to the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book.
Paul also has a connection to the Staples Players’ upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” As a senior, Paul actually starred in Staples’ 2003 musical, playing the jaded, former Broadway composer turned Hollywood producer Franklin Shephard.
But his status as a leading man in high school productions left him unsure how his talents would translate at the collegiate level. Instead, he visited several schools his junior year without their theater departments in mind. If not for the intervention of a stranger later that year, convention may have outweighed passion, and the music of “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Greatest Showman” and “La La Land” that has become so well-loved in the past half decade might never have existed.
“After a performance of ‘Into the Woods,’ someone random, who I don’t know ... was like, ‘Great job, I loved your performance, I really hope you’re going to keep doing this,’” Paul said. “I hadn’t really thought about that; I hadn’t entertained the idea as a real thing.”
Paul, now 34, ultimately followed the advice of that unknown person and enrolled at the University of Michigan’s theater school to become an actor, though his success was immediately limited by his lack of rhythm.
“I got to college and everyone that I was in school with was a better dancer than I was,” Paul said. Upon arriving in Ann Arbor, he remembered showing up to his first ballet class improperly dressed in baggy sweatpants and unprepared for the precise movements. Instinctively, he gravitated toward those in class who, like him, were struggling.
“I became friends with someone else in my class who was also terrible at ballet. His name was Benj,” Paul said, referring to his longtime musical partner Benj Pasek, with whom he wrote the music for “Edges,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “James and the Giant Peach” and others.
The pair bonded over their lack of rhythm and shared frustration at being passed up for leading parts in school productions. Paul said he was cast his sophomore year in two-bit parts as a coroner and as a “party-goer” in his school’s production of “City of Angels,” a play which Paul mistakenly thought would play into his strengths as a singer. In the same show, Pasek was cast as “man with camera.”
Pasek and Paul decided to take their fate into their own hands. Rather than try to fit the mold set by the likes of successful stage performers Gavin Creel or Steven Pasquale, both of whom Pasek and Paul admired greatly, they decided to pursue success on their own terms.
See the show
For more information on the Staples Players’ “Merrily We Roll Along” or to purchase tickets, visit staplesplayers.com.
“We started to think what should we be doing, what could we be doing? Out of that frustration and sort of not succeeding, the way we felt we would, we turned to writing more,” Paul said.
That fateful turn to writing led to the production of Pasek and Paul’s first original play, “Edges,” named in part for a Sondheim lyric, and the unlikely road from Westport to Broadway and Hollywood stardom that the latter navigated.
Though they share similarities, Paul’s fortuitous ascent is very different from that of the “Merrily We Roll Along” character he once portrayed, Franklin Shepherd, who discarded friends and sold out to achieve fame.
Instead, Paul continues to work with his friend, Pasek, and he continues to pursue his love of musical theater, both on stage and on screen, on his own terms. One of the most poignant pieces of advice he doled out to the Staples Players in attendance, was not too take for granted the friendships formed on the auditorium stage.
“It’s crazy the way that the relationships you guys are forming now are going to end up being the ones that carry through for a lot of your life,” Paul told the students.
For the younger generation of Staples Players Paul was addressing, including sophomores Sam Laskin and Justin Dusenbury, both 15, who listened to Paul’s story and participated in a sing-along with the composer, the experience was a beacon of possibility.
“It’s crazy to think we have access to someone with those accolades,” Laskin said.
“It’s very inspiring. He’s made it so far,” said Dusenbury, who plays a TV newsman and is in the ensemble for “Merrily We Roll Along.”
The Staples cast will perform March 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m. and March 18 at 3 p.m. At the March 23 show, Lonny Price, who originated the role of Charley Kringas in the original Broadway production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” will host a talk-back after the performance, speaking with the student actors and audience members.
firstname.lastname@example.org; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586