'La La Land' Songwriters on Emma Stone's 'Cool and Quirky' Singing Style & Their New Broadway Show

Dale Robinette
Stone (left) and Gosling in 'La La Land.'

By the end of this coming year, it’s entirely possible that 31-year old composer/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (TV’s Smash) could be more than halfway to an EGOT. Their new Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen (opening Dec. 4), has inspired Hamilton-esque Tony-sweeps whispers on the strength of their dynamic score and a star-making performance from Pitch Perfect’s Ben Platt. And then there’s La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-buzzy movie musical (in theaters Dec. 15), for which they wrote the lyrics to Justin Hurwitz’s score. On the eve of their Broadway debut, the duo spoke about their pop sensibilities and what it’s like to hear Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling sing.

Your style is very pop-influenced -- do you listen to a lot of current music?
Justin Paul: We’ve always been Broadway listeners and also radio listeners, and good pop writing has always been of interest to us. So it felt like it would be fun to take two of our loves and combine it into this sonic world for Dear Evan Hansen. I love everyone from Sara Bareilles to Taylor Swift, Ingrid Michaelson, Ben Folds -- those are the artists I’ve listened to for the past 15 years or so. We’ve always been Broadway listeners and also radio listeners; good pop writing is always of interest.

Writing for Smash must have been a tremendous learning experience; what did you take away from it?
Paul: It was definitely good for us to write for a mainstream TV show. It’s amazing how fast TV works. We’d get an assignment, write a song, and a week or two later, they’re recording it, then selling it. You see that, when push comes to shove, you can do it.
Benj Pasek: Smash was also a return for us to writing in the sound of what was on the radio. Our first show ever in college was like that, and it’s similar in a way to Dear Evan Hansen.

Your star, Ben Platt, seems to me like the template for the new Broadway star – he can sing in a pop style totally convincingly.
Pasek: Before Pitch Perfect, Ben auditioned for our show Dogfight and he was really unbelievable but a little too young. We knew we wanted to work with him in the future. When we saw him in Book of Mormon, we were like, ‘This guy could be our Evan Hansen.’
Paul: We love singers with real training who have a pop sensibility. We call Ben a unicorn of a performer: he has this beautiful, soulful voice but he’s also a real actor who’s funny and idiosyncratic and can be awkward or deeply emotional. It’s really insane.

What does La La Land’s music feel like?
Paul: Justin [Hurwitz] and Damien are close friends and collaborators, so it was really our job to come in and get on board with their vision. It’s old-fashioned music that feels very fresh in a contemporary story.  There’s this one ballad Emma sings that really feels like a musical theater-influenced torch song, somewhere between the worlds of jazz and American songbook writing. But it’s very much its own thing; little clashes of styles that make it interesting and unique.

What can we expect from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling?
Paul: These are two people who can really sing. Emma’s got a lovely voice; she can soar when she needs to, but she has this great moment I was blown away by -- looking in a mirror, just singing quietly to herself -- and her styling, the way she uses the breath, it’s so cool and quirky. And Ryan is a real crooner. He has a real beautiful vocal tone that’s very enticing and alluring.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of Billboard.