arts & entertainment
Songwriting partners and U-M grads
Benj Pasek, left,'and Justin Paul
Following in the footsteps of other Jewish tunesmiths
writing Christmas songs, Benj Pasek co-wrote the songs
for a stage adaptation of a favorite Xmas film.
Christmas Story, The Musical!,
running Nov. 15-27 at the Fisher
Theatre, holds a culturally Jewish
A Christian family, through a series of
mishaps, winds up celebrating the holiday
at a Chinese restaurant, certainly a popular
Christmas destination for Jewish families
across the country.
Benj Pasek, the Jewish half of the musical
comedy's composing team, fully relates to
that aspect of the plot
"Every Christmas, my family had dinner
at a Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia': says
Pasek, 26, a University of Michigan graduate.
"That's something I think is hilarious."
Pasek, whose dad, Jeffrey Pasek, is a lawyer
active with the American Jewish Congress
and whose mom, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, was
active with the Jewish day school attended by
her son, auditioned with collaborator Justin
Paul to get the composing assignment.
The stage production, based on the clas-
sic 1983 movie (shown on TV numerous
times during the Christmas season usually
in a 24-hour marathon), now begins with
"Counting Down to Christmas': the song
they wrote for the audition.
"Hopefully, I'm following in the great tra-
dition of Irving Berlin and other Jews writ-
ing Christmas songs' Pasek says.
"Jews are often considered analytical so I
think we give an outside perspective looking
Popular Christmas songs by Jewish com-
posers include, in addition to Berlin's peren-
nial "White Christmas': composer Mel Torme
and lyricist Robert Wells' "The Christmas
Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open
Fire); lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer
Jule Styne's "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let
It Snow!" and Johnny Marks' "Rudolph the
Red-Nosed Reindeer," among others.
A Christmas Story, The Musical! follows
young Ralphie Parker as he schemes for the
holiday gift of his dreams: a Red Ryder BB
gun. Ralphie thinks the gun will make him a
superhero as seen in the movies and pursues
his dream in a fictional small town during
The boy is resolute as his mom fears for
her son's safety and as his dad is caught up
with crossword puzzle contests and the win-
ning of a leg lamp, shaped like a woman's leg
and wearing a fishnet stocking.
"It's a fun, sweet show about a family'
Pasek says. "What I think makes it universal
A scene from
A Christmas Story,
is that it's loving and crazy at holiday time,
when things aren't always going right. At the
end, they're all together.
"As one of the writers, I've found it an
interesting and exciting challenge to pre-
serve what I love about the film. Ours is an
enhanced version of that."
Pasek and Paul, who met at U-M and soon
started collaborating, work together on both
music and lyrics with Pasek more focused on
lyrics. As they approached their responsibili-
ties for A Christmas Story, they watched the
film for musical opportunities.
"There's a scene in the movie where vil-
lains are outside Ralphie's house about to
rob it',' Pasek explains about their process.
"Ralphie stands up like a cowboy and pre-
vents the robbery.
"We thought that we should use all-
American, Copland-esque music expressing
ways little boys could be brave, and the song
we came up with is lalphie to the Rescue.
It's about a little boy imagining himself as
a heroic cowboy saving friends and family
from a whole crop of villains."
Pasek, who always liked writing poems
and songs, picked up on a talent shown by
"My mother wrote songs to track the
development of her sons," Pasek explains.
"She found it fun singing the songs with
a collaborator, and they ended up with a
children's music group, Kamotion, in the late
1980s and 1990s.
"The group released five albums of chil-
dren's music and performed at the White
House for the Easter Egg Roll. I sang in her
shows, including a performance at the White
House when Bill Clinton was president."
The first success for Pasek and Paul was
in their sophomore year in Ann Arbor, when
they developed Edges, a collection of songs
about collegiate themes and self-discovery.
With the attention gained through Internet
social media, they had some 200 productions
in and out of the U.S.
"Right after graduating, we applied
for the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts
Foundation Award and won a grant that let
us go forward': Pasek says. "About that time,
we got hired to write for Johnny and the
Sprites, a Disney Channel show."
The writing team is working on a musi-
cal adaptation of Roald Dahl's James and
the Giant Peach for the Kennedy Center
in Washington, D.C., and a new musical,
Dogfight, commissioned by Lincoln Center
Theater in New York.
"I'm interested in figuring out how to
write Jewish-themed shows and music that
is relevant to my generation': explains Pasek,
based in New York.
"For a year, I taught at a Hebrew school
and created a class to present Jewish learning
in appealing ways. We developed videos of
us reinterpreting Jewish text and making it
Pasek, who is single, enjoys traveling
and going out for special meals as ways of
taking brief breaks from work. He plans to
dine at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor when
he's in Michigan to see a performance of A
Christmas Story at the Fisher.
The Pasek family will join him as they
also celebrate Thanksgiving at the home of
his brother, Joshua, an assistant professor of
communications studies at U-M.
Says Pasek, "There are 11 U-M graduates
involved with this production of A Christmas
Story, The Musical! We only knew some
of them, but it's going to be like a college
reunion when we're together."
A Christmas Story, The Musical! runs
Nov.15-27 at the Fisher Theatre in
Detroit. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m.
Tuesdays-Saturdays and Monday,
Nov. 21, with no performance Nov.
24. Matinees are 1 p.m. Sundays
and Thursday, Nov.17, and 2 p.m.
Saturdays. There are 6:30 p.m.
shows on Sundays. $29-$79. (313)
872-1000; BroadwayinDetroit.com .
November 10 2011