Who to Watch at the Tony Awards

U-M composers already have a Golden Globe and an Oscar. And perhaps this Sunday, a Tony, too
Photograph Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

If you hope to score big on the Great White Way and you’ve graduated from the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, the “Michigan Mafia’s” got your back. Otherwise, you might as well fuggedaboutit.

“There were just a few of us when I moved to NYC, and now we proudly inhabit Broadway,” says actor Jennifer Laura Thompson, who grew up in Southfield and graduated from U-M in 1991. She’s featured as Cynthia Murphy in the groundbreaking musical Dear Evan Hansen.

Dear Evan Hansen composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who graduated from U-M in December 2006, are having an incredibly stellar year. The 32-year-olds took home both a Golden Globe and an Oscar, along with composer Justin Hurwitz, for “Best Original Song,” “City of Stars,” from the film La La Land.  

“I think they’re really the LeBron James of lyricists,” says La La Land producer Gary Gilbert, who grew up in Southfield and graduated from U-M’s Ross School of Business. The James comment is fitting since Gilbert and his brother, Dan, own the Cleveland Cavaliers. “Every single word that Benj and Justin write serves a purpose.”

Photograph Courtesy of Dirty Sugar Photography

Gilbert isn’t alone in praising the songwriting pair. Dear Evan Hansen received nine Tony nominations, including the “Best Original Score” for Pasek and Paul, plus “Best Musical,” “Best Leading Actor in a Musical,” “Best Book of a Musical,” “Best Direction of a Musical,” and “Best Orchestrations.” The Tony awards ceremony will be held on June 11.

“I knew on the very first day of the table read three years ago that this project was extraordinary,” says Thompson. “The book was intelligent and Benj and Justin’s music and lyrics were invigorating, gorgeous, and complicated.” Thompson originated the role of Cynthia in Dear Evan Hansen in its world premiere in Washington, D.C., its off-Broadway debut, and its current home on Broadway. “Benj and Justin are the latest to carry our Michigan Mafia torch to realms yet unreached,” Thompson says.

Dear Evan Hansen is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway, alongside Hamilton, produced by U-M 1986 grad Jeffrey Seller; and Hello Dolly, featuring Bette Midler and Gavin Creel, 1998. In fact, it was Creel, along with fellow performers Celia Keenan-Bolger and Daniel Reichard (Class of 2000), who performed in Pasek and Paul’s first New York concert of their music at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre in 2006.

“Because of the Michigan Mafia, we’ve been able to connect with Michigan graduates like Andrew Lippa (1987 grad who wrote music and lyrics for The Addams Family, The Wild Party, and Big Fish) who gave us advice about writing shows, and Jeff Marx (1993, songwriter and co-creator of Avenue Q) who took us under his wing and mentored us,” says Paul. “It’s a very real and powerful thing, and we want to make sure that we can extend ourselves as well and help the next generation of graduates.”

Pasek and Paul are both honored and humbled by all the industry accolades.

“Who knows what will happen with the Tonys. The whole world could love you, but there’s something special about you just wanting to be sure your parents are proud of you,” says Paul.

Besides, they really don’t have a lot of time to speculate. Pasek and Paul recently wrapped the movie musical The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, for which they wrote all the songs. “I think we’re just waking up every day really appreciating that we get to tell stories and write songs for a living,” Pasek says.

They visited Ann Arbor in late April for the commencement ceremony at U-M. The visit likely included trips to Zingerman’s Deli and Pizza House for the ritual chipati and milkshake combo. They were also among 20 alumni who received a Bicentennial Alumni Award at U-M’s main commencement ceremony, and they also performed a “mashup” of their songs.

“You can’t keep us away,” says Pasek with a laugh. “We love going back and interacting with the students and faculty. The university really shaped who we are as men and collaborators and the values that we have and hold. It was an incredible place for us to grow.”