Skip to main content

The City Journals

Alta High students learn from “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Greatest Showman” songwriters

Apr 09, 2018 10:40AM ● By Julie Slama

Alta High School theater IV students had the opportunity to learn from Pasek and Paul, the writers for well-known musicals, including “Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman.” (Julie Slama/City Journals)

It wasn’t their dream —  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the writers for well-known musicals, including “Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman,” said.

But after not making it to the stage, the two teamed up to learn they had a knack for songwriting, the two University of Michigan musical theater graduates told Alta High School theater IV students at a master class offered Feb. 26 at Utah Valley University.

Instead, they pooled their talents to write recent movie lyrics such as “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” which earned them “Best Original Song” at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards and a nomination for “Best Original Song” at the 90th Academy Awards. 

Their soundtrack “City of Stars” from “La La Land” hit No. 1 in its fourth week on the Billboard 200 albums chart earlier this year. “City of Stars” also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song and Best Song at the Academy Awards. 

They also wrote musicals for the stage including “Dear Evan Hansen,” “James and the Giant Peach,” and “Edges,” as well as NBC’s television series “Smash.”

Even so, success didn’t come to them — they had to seek it, Alta teacher Linze Struiksma said.

“They had to take a chance on themselves. They weren’t invited to LA to do ‘La La Land,’ but instead, had to buy their own plane ticket, talk producers into dinner and push themselves into the role. They had to show they believed in themselves and were their biggest fans to get their foot in the door,” she said.

Perseverance is one of the lessons Alta High theater students learned while observing the two songwriters work with five UVU students.

Struiksma said that through this class, her students are learning from top songwriters.

“Pasek and Paul are pretty well established, so it was good to hear how they had to change course and how their hard work led them to their success,” she said. “It’s pretty inspiring. They said to go after what you want, but in the meantime, enjoy every opportunity that comes your way.”

Alta senior McKenna Armstrong said she learned to be resolute and to not be afraid to hear no.

“Hearing no may be brutal, but you have to be OK with it and pick yourself back up,” she said, remembering she was broken-hearted after not getting the part she wanted in her seventh-grade play. “You may just land yourself in a better part or role for yourself. Everything happens for a reason.”

Classmate Jaren Sierer agreed. “Pasek and Paul’s path changed when they realized their acting dream didn’t work out, but look where it took them,” he said. 

 Alta senior Heather Bodine said it was an amazing opportunity.

“It was really cool to see them give critiques and suggestions to make their characters be more real, more honest,” she said. “They taught them (UVU students) to start with speaking their song instead of singing. They shouldn’t just show off their voice and belt it, but instead focus on the person they’re singing it to — give the moment to the other person. That way, we (the audience) are drawn into the story and the relationship.”

Bodine, who at region in late March will compete a monologue from “The Greatest Tuna,” said she also learned to pause naturally while saying her lines. That also would translate to when she’s singing.

“It’s more natural that way and it tells the story as you mean it,” she said.

Sierer said the application makes the song work, so in auditions, the actor will be distinguishable from others.

“Instead of having it be like everyone else’s and mundane, it will stand out,” he said. “It becomes more motivational instead of monotone.”

Classmate Addie Wray said that Pasek and Paul told students to take liberties with the songs on stage.

“When you perform, you’re the third collaborator (along with the lyricist and composer),” she said. “They told us it’s not about them, but to make the song your own.”

Wray also said they told students to ask: What does the song mean to you? What do you want to get out the song?

Wray has taken that message to heart in her piece from “Trip to the Library,” which she will compete with at region. She said she’s retelling a story about how she can get a boy to like her so she will bring in the audience with the message of the importance of love.

“Musical theater is about telling a story and the story always needs to change or inspire an audience,” she said.

Struiksma has provided other opportunities this year for students to work with professionals.

In October, they worked with choreographer Voltaire Wade-Greene, known for his work with “Hamilton,” and dancer Demetia Hopkins-Greene.

Bodine said she learned about their passion.

“They taught us how to dance to ‘My Shot’ and we asked them about what auditions and rehearsals are like on Broadway,” she said. “They said to make it your own, with every turn and leap and in our expression. You don’t always have to look your best, but to look for emotion and put your heart and soul in your dance. They look for that more than technique.”

In January, she said Broadway vocal teacher Darin Adams Skyped them and for 90 minutes, Alta students received feedback on their singing.

The students also will have a chance to get additional advice when they travel to New York to take in Broadway and take classes during their April tour.

For now, the lessons of musical theater they took away from Pasek and Paul — from making it their own to persevering — resonates.

“Every part has equal importance,” Sierer said.

Armstrong added: “On and off stage.”