|Justin Paul and Benj Pasek
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a wunderkind brace who are the current creative young darlings of Broadway were in London for just one night. Unknown on this side of the pond outside of the musical theatre bubble, they nonetheless packed out the Hippodrome’s Matcham Room and attracted some of London’s top talent to join them in a late-evening showcase presented by Nathan Amzi.
An uber-talented pair, Pasek’s keyboard skills are exquisite and in performance the two dovetail together in perfectly synchronised harmony. They recently enjoyed Tony nominated Broadway success with their seasonal offering A Christmas Story, preceding that with the off-Broadway musical Dogfight helmed by Wicked director Joe Mantello. The cast recording of Dogfight has already been reviewed here and its fair to say that it reflects a carefully crafted tale, including action, tragedy and passion in equal measure. Based upon an unlikely and complicated love that emerges from a cruel prank played by a troop of US Marines before they ship out to war, the show’s lyrics demonstrate a perception and wisdom that belies Pasek and Paul’s youth. On stage in London, the Dogfight selection included the impressive First Date / Last Night along with the painfully poignant Pretty Funny, the latter sung by London’s Elphaba in waiting, Willemijn Verkaik. Amongst their achievements, as television songwriters the two men contributed Caught In A Storm to the TV series Smash. This song, also performed by Verkaik was a disappointment, sung by a voice that was too old and too polished for the number’s underlying mediocrity and not helped by Verkaik’s casual and untidy appearance that was at odds with the venue's glamour.
And thereby hangs the paradox of Pasek and Paul. Some of what they write is inspired and even if their patter went on too long, their refreshingly self-deprecating style along with a handful of numbers that Tom Lehrer would be proud of, served to remind us quite how razor-sharp their perceptive wits are. Yet the ballad With You Everywhere That You Are whilst having noble intentions and written as a memory of loved ones lost, came across as soppy and shallow, lacking the honesty of emotion with which Scott Alan easily seems to infuse his songs. Performing live, this pair who have been hailed as the next Rogers and Hammerstein bear a scary resemblance to Ant and Dec The Musical.
Yet their strengths undoubtedly outweigh their weaknesses and by some measure. Oliver Tompsett gave a beautiful version of Do You Remember, reminding us all why he is such an acclaimed performer, though perhaps the star turn of the night was Lauren Varnham whose take on the Pasek and Paul’s Perfect from their Edges song cycle, was a spine tingling moment. Clad in a simply elegant black dress, Varnham who had impressively dashed from performing From Here To Eternity looked as good as she sounded. The night closed on a standing ovation. Pasek and Paul may be inconsistent, but when they’re on their game they’re genius.