Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are trying to remember when they first filmed their musical Edges. On a sunny morning, the composer/lyricists are lounging in Paul’s Harlem apartment and carefully recounting their first, almost accidental endeavor.
It happened while they were studying acting at the University of Michigan, and the pair got cast as “man with camera” and “Japanese backup dancer” in their sophomore-year musical City of Angels. But rather than have their moms come to Ann Arbor to watch them stand in the background, they decided to use their free time to write some music of their own. They booked the local 110-seat Kerrytown Concert House before completing 13 original songs, and (though they considered canceling) the performance of Edges went on as planned on April 3, 2005.
Just two months earlier, a video-sharing website named YouTube had made its debut on the World Wide Web.
“We didn’t film it first,” Paul affirms, though some donors to Michigan’s musical-theatre program did contribute a sum of around $1,000 after the first showing of Edges so the pair could make a recording. “Other people started putting stuff online before we did.”
“What was so revolutionary about Facebook and YouTube was this democratization of who could have access to putting stuff online.”
Those other people no doubt witnessed the show’s evolution through what became the Edges “national tour”—essentially a glorified road trip to play the hometown venues of some of the show’s four performers as well as those of both composers, culminating in a one-night showing at the Abingdon Theatre Complex in New York City. “[Audiences] didn’t hear about it because there was an Off-Broadway cast album—they heard about it organically through Facebook,” Paul clarifies. “Even before we did, other people started posting videos of their own school productions, or of them singing the show’s songs.”
Pasek had reached out to several schools via Facebook, also new at the time, to see if they were interested in doing the show. If you recall, in its early days, Facebook only existed at a series of universities and required a “.edu” e-mail address for access, so discovering musical-theatre programs and performers within that network was easier than it is today. (There was also a song in Edges known as “The Facebook Song,” and students would contact Facebook about performing it; Facebook redirected the requests to the duo, and those requests could lead to productions.) “It was primitive licensing,” Paul explains.
It wasn’t primitive for long. The song cycle, loosely centered on the intense life decisions that young people have to make, caught the attention of Music Theatre International. “What really appealed to us about Edges was the fact that there was already interest from groups that wanted to license the show,” explains Drew Cohen, president of MTI. “Much the way a record company might be interested in a band that is already performing in local venues and developing a fan base, to us it’s interesting when a work is already being licensed by the authors or being performed by other universities.”
The musical, now with an expanded list of 16 songs, went on to have its first professional production at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y., in 2007, and that same year, Pasek and Paul won the prestigious Jonathan Larson Award for the show. (Pasek illegally filmed the Albany production of the show from the back row; those are the videos that most people still watch today on YouTube.) Now that Pasek and Paul are Tony-nominated songwriters for A Christmas Story: The Musical and Lucille Lortel Award winners for Dogfight, the pair hasn’t forgotten the debt they owe to YouTube.
“To this day, Edges has never had a New York City professional production,” says Pasek, though it has had countless stagings and has even been translated into other languages, including Cantonese.
Pasek elaborates on how the Internet changed the distribution model: “Shows needed to exist in New York—you needed at least an Off-Off-Broadway production to spread the word. What was so revolutionary about Facebook and YouTube was this democratization of who could have access to putting stuff online, and being able to see it right away. So you could be in Iowa or Singapore, and you could see your content immediately without having to go to New York. And as writers, we didn’t have to go through any traditional means of getting it out there—we just put it online.”
Around the same time Pasek and Paul were joining forces, another rising composer/lyricist was using a similar model. Joe Iconis had just graduated from New York University’s musical-theatre writing program. Finding himself frustrated with the development process of his musical The Black Suits, he turned to writing songs for a concert to get his music out more quickly. Rather than put together a collection of “greatest hits”—as a young writer, he could hardly claim any hits yet—he gave the show a title: Things to Ruin.
The concert premiered at Ars Nova in 2006, marking the first time Iconis’s work was professionally performed (and filmed). Initially, Iconis admits he saw the videos as nothing more than a commercial for the show, which would go on to be performed around the city, still in concert form, at the Zipper Factory, Second Stage Theatre and Le Poisson Rouge. However, the nature of Things to Ruin—Iconis calls it a “short-story collection”—means that its songs can stand alone as “five-minute experiences,” more than songs from a book musical might.
“I wouldn’t necessarily put a song from a book musical on YouTube—an honest-to-goodness book musical should be experienced from start to finish,” Iconis contends. Iconis estimates that roughly 80 percent of Things to Ruin is online, but Things to Ruin is “more of a rock concert. If there’s a band like the Rolling Stones or Arcade Fire, I can watch 10 million of their YouTube videos, but it doesn’t make me not want to see them live. There’s a difference.”
Still, though Iconis says the connections between the show’s songs are purposefully vague, they do fit together as a cohesive unit, which is why Kurt Deutsch, president and co-founder of Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight Records, decided to make the show’s album and advocate for licensing. Like Edges, Things to Ruin has never had an official New York production, but the presence of an album helps the show live on, and the YouTube videos can generate excitement and awareness of the piece. The show is now licensed through Rodgers & Hammerstein.
“Young composers have a hard time being hired by producers to write original musical scores, especially right out of college, but they come out with tons of amazing songs,” says Deutsch. “You can write a song and it can live on its own, and people can sing it for auditions, or you can put it up on YouTube and you can get a following. But what is even more appealing is the idea of taking your work and finding some sort of through-line or thematic structure so that it is complete—where you’re creating almost a concept album, or a revue, or a concert that just ties together. It gives artists more opportunities for financial success as a musical-theatre writer if they have something that can be performed and licensed. There’s much more opportunity for them to get their work out there.”
Deutsch cites Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World and Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire’s Closer than Ever as precursors to the form. Post–Things to Ruin, Iconis saw The Black Suits premiere last fall at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, and he has written for the short-lived television musical drama “Smash.” His show Be More Chill will premiere at New Jersey’s Two River Theater in 2015.