Pasek and Paul: “On The Outside Always Looking In” American Jews and Cultural Assimilation
“Growing up as a Jew in America means growing up as an outsider. Otherness can be debilitating or it can be harnessed and used as an asset. It makes you an observer of culture, people, and behavior, and being forced to look at the world from the outside gives you a unique perspective from which to write about it.” –Benj Pasek (Barnett)
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the composing team known as Pasek and Paul responsible for the Broadway Musical hits A Christmas Story and Dear Evan Hansen. They won a Tony Award for the Best Original Score for Dear Evan Hansen in 2012. In addition to their Broadway Musicals, they won the Golden Globe and an Oscar for their songs “City of Angels” in La La Land and “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. Pasek and Paul met as students at the University of Michigan in 2006.(Paulsen) Benj Pasek is Jewish and Justin Paul is Christian and this brings a unique perspective to their work. In 2012, Vanity Fair magazine called them, “The heirs to Rodgers and Hammerstein,” the duo who gave us Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, and The King and I. Pasek sums it up when he says, “We approach the world from really different perspectives — on what we see and how we view lots of situations (Rule).” These ideas lead the interfaith collaboration of Pasek and Paul to give us musicals that feature the universal ideas of family. Their creative work also highlight the notion of fitting in, a “close cousin” of the concept of assimilation, a theme that has consistently appeared in musicals and is clearly apparent in Pasek and Paul’s Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen.
(pictured above Justin Paul (left) and Benj Pasek (right) just after accepting their academy award for Best Original Song)
American Jews have “been on the outside looking in” for many generations. As part of the Jewish experience, they have had to balance assimilation and maintaining identity, the same issues Evan Hansen conquers in Dear Evan Hansen. As Evan struggles with his own sense of self, he sees the world around him as an outside observer. Benj Pasek reflects, “The Musical is about finding your identity, about forgiveness and coming to terms with the lies others tell us…” (Musleah). Since the time they fled from Europe, Jews in America have always had to deal with the sometimes difficult process of assimilation, its attractions, and the impact that it has had on defining Jews as individuals, and as a community.
European American Jews struggled to maintain their own identity, while being the outsider. Their “whiteness” enabled them to fit in and assimilate easier than some other ethnic groups, yet their Yiddish culture and religious beliefs still branded them as outsiders. This idea of cultural assimilation and belonging has a rich tradition in the Broadway Musical. The Jews “worried they might be exposed as dark impostors by suspicious white Americans and forced into the dreaded category of the black oppressed”(Most). The theater became an area where they could succeed and where they “fit in” and became members of the White American culture. Musical theater is an inclusive environment and Jews remain an integral part of the Broadway theater today.
Tevye, from Fiddler On The Roof, provides a classic example of a character that struggled with his desire to maintain tradition, yet assimilate his family into modernity. Tevye ultimately yields some of his beliefs and ideologies to accept new standards and ways of thinking. He recognizes the importance of educating women including his daughters. While he opposes, interfaith marriage, he ultimately realizes the importance of maintaining his family. “Tevye becomes the the personification of the Jewish immigrant and the universal grandfather of Jewish America” ( Wolitz 530). Tevye, while he may have been an outsider in his own community, realizes the importance of his family and the community of Annetevka to be accepted. His experiences mirrored millions of Jewish immigrants experiences in figuring out their own place in society. Continual revivals of Fiddler On The Roof prove the enduring nature of the theme of assimilation and belonging.
Newer Broadway shows with obvious Jewish twists like The Producers and Thirteen show us that Judaism has reached the mainstream of American culture. The more recent show feature “decided Jewish content sometimes including religion, but more of an ethno-cultural nature (Baskind).” These shows, including Dear Evan Hansen, feature references to Judaism, for example, a bar mitzvah, and do not require further explanation. The greater the number or references to Judaism, the more obvious it becomes that there is cultural assimilation, because they are taking for granted that they will be accepted.
In Dear Evan Hansen, Evan, as a typical American teenager, battles with his sense of self, and sees the world as an outsider. The circumstances that lead to his acceptance raise issues about how others’ view him, and reveal questions about his own family life and remaining true to his own identity. Evan yearns for the normalcy he imagines everyone else is experiencing. “I never had the dad who stuck it out, No corny jokes or baseball gloves, No mom who just was there, ‘Cause mom was all that she had to be…(Levenson 154)” Rationally, Evan comprehends his situation, yet, he still yearns for the normalcy as presented in social media by his peers. Constant media posts keep him feeling like an outsider. Evan realizes his feelings of isolation are more widespread, when Cynthia, Connor’s mom, confides, “When Connor started seventh grade, all my girlfriends said, here comes Bar Mitzvah season. He is going to have a different party every Saturday……. He didn’t get invited to a single one (Levenson 85).” Feelings of isolations and the need to assimilate are the same for an individual and as they are for a group.
Pasek and Paul, as an interfaith collaboration team, are able to bring their unique perspective to present shows that are naturally focused on the questions of assimilating and finding a place within a society or culture. By doing so, they tap into a perennial Broadway theme that has deep roots in the Jewish experience. At the same time, they have succeeded in capturing the modern audience by incorporating current issues into their work. If we are lucky maybe La La Land and The Greatest Showman will be their next collaboration to come to Broadway, whatever their next show is, one thing we know for sure is it will be a HIT!!!!
Barnett, Molly. “Re: Lehigh Religion Final Paper Pasek and Paul.” Received by Josh Rashbaum, 27 Nov. 2018.
Baskind, Samantha. “The Fockerized Jew?: Questioning Jewishness as Cool in American Popular Entertainment.” Shofar, vol. 25, no. 4, 2007, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42944412.
Most, Andrea. “‘We Know We Belong to the Land’: The Theatricality of Assimilation in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!” PMLA, vol. 113, no. 1, 1998, pp. 77–89. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/463410.
Musleah, Rahel, and Arlene Mayer. “Music Man: A Talk With Benj Pasek.” Hadassah Magazine, 30 Oct. 2017, www.hadassahmagazine.org/2017/10/19/music-man-talk-benj-pasek/.
Paulson, Michael. “What It’s Like to Make It in Showbiz With Your Best Friend.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/theater/benj-pasek-justin-paul-dear-evan-hansen.html.
Rule, Doug. “Perfectly Composed: Pasek and Paul Are the Future of the American Musical.” Metro Weekly, 13 Aug. 2015, www.metroweekly.com/2015/08/perfectly-composed-pasek-and-paul-are-the-future-of-the-american-musical.
Wolitz, Seth L. “The Americanization of Tevye or Boarding the Jewish ‘Mayflower.’” American Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, pp. 514–536. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2713000.