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Oscar-winning songwriting team Pasek & Paul to speak at SMTD's commencement

By Marilou Carlin

U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance alums Justin Paul (left) and Benj Pasek (right) just after accepting their Academy Award in the 'Best Original Song' category.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance will welcome Golden Globe and Academy Award-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul as the commencement speakers for the school’s 2017 graduation ceremony Friday, April 28, at Hill Auditorium.

The duo will also perform and be among 20 recent alumni to receive a Bicentennial Alumni Award at U-M’s main commencement ceremony April 29 at Michigan Stadium.

The graduates of SMTD’s musical theatre program have become an internationally renowned and celebrated composer/lyricist duo in the 10 years since they received their BFA degrees.

At the University of Michigan: left, Benj Pasek as Yertle the Turtle in “Seussical, the Musical”; right, Justin Paul as F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Pursuit of Persephone.” Photos by Peter Smith.

At the University of Michigan, left, Benj Pasek as Yertle the Turtle in “Seussical, the Musical”; right, Justin Paul as F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Pursuit of Persephone.” Both graduated with Musical Theatre degrees in 2006. Photos by Peter Smith.

As the lyricists for the hit film “La La Land,” Pasek and Paul received the Golden Globe and Academy Award for “Best Song,” along with composer Justin Hurwitz. Meanwhile, their Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” with a book by Steven Levenson, is currently one of Broadway’s hottest tickets and is expected to secure multiple Tony nominations in May and be a major contender for the “Best Musical” award. There is also media speculation that the show will be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

“We are absolutely thrilled to welcome Justin and Benj back to their alma mater as our commencement speakers while they are in the midst of the most exciting year of their lives,” said Aaron Dworkin, dean of SMTD. “The talent of these incredible young men is exceeded only by their kindness and generosity—they have come back to Michigan several times to perform and work with our students, and they are truly inspirational. They are also outstanding role models who prove what talent, drive and an SMTD degree can achieve.”

Previously, Pasek and Paul have received Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for “A Christmas Story.” They were the winners of the Lucille Lortel Award for the Off-Broadway show “Dogfight,” which was also nominated for Drama League and Outer Critics Circle awards, as well as a London Evening Standard award when it was produced in London.

Next fall, 20th Century Fox will release “The Greatest Showman,” a biopic about P.T. Barnum starring Hugh Jackman, with all songs written by Pasek and Paul. The team is also writing the music for a live action Disney remake of “Snow White,” and have contributed original songs to the film “Trolls” and for a musical episode of the CW’s “The Flash.”

Pasek and Paul got their start at SMTD when they wrote “Edges,” a song cycle, first produced at Kerrytown Concert House, that was recorded and went viral online. It has since had dozens of productions throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia.

The songwriters are the recipients of the Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre (American Academy of Arts and Letters); the ASCAP Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award; and the Jonathan Larson Award. Both are members of the Dramatists Guild of America Inc.

Pasek and Paul will be among 10 recent graduates to receive the Bicentennial Alumni Award, which will be presented at the U-M commencement instead of honorary degrees. The awards were designed to highlight the excellence and impact of recent graduates and reflect a desire to acknowledge the university’s past contributions and herald the future achievements of the Class of 2017 and future classes. Award recipients were chosen by a campus committee based on nominations from the community.

An additional 10 Bicentennial Alumni Award-winners will be honored at the winter 2017 U-M commencement ceremony, including two more SMTD alums: Carla Dirlikov Canales (BM ’02, voice), a renowned mezzo-soprano who was named a U.S. State Department Cultural Envoy; and actor, singer, songwriter Darren Criss (BFA ’09), who rose to fame on FOX-TV’s “Glee” and starred on Broadway and on tour in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”  

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