Graduation is a season of celebration and confusion. 

As students finish their education milestone, they wait for something more terrifying than taking an exam. There are no more steps to take or hoops to jump through, no more curriculum to fulfill. Every upcoming challenge doesn’t come with a workbook to cram with.

Yet it is at this season that we hear the greatest words of encouragement from fellow students, alums, family, and teachers. As they have gone through their own trials and tribulations, they are able to offer guidance and inspiration to the graduates so that they may face the future with full confidence.
Pasek & Paul, the Oscar-winning songwriting duo, returned to their alma mater to give a cheerful yet serious speech at the 2017 University of Michigan School of Music, Theater, and Dance Commencement. Their advice centered around the idea of focusing on the “verbs” you act as rather than the “nouns” you think you should be.
 
This speech is a part of the 2017 Graduation Special series. If you haven’t already, check out the full speech Where’s Home For You?”  by student speaker Tsukumo Niwa here.

JUSTIN (J): Thank you, Dean Dworkin! Members of the faculty and administration to all of the families and friends who are gathered here, and, most of all, welcome and congratulations to our excited, anxious, accomplished, exhausted graduates, the U-M SMTD Class of 2017! 

BENJ (B): We’re so honored to be here to celebrate this occasion with you, especially in U-M’s bicentennial year. With it being the bicentennial, and since it’s proper form to try to say smart or meaningful things in a commencement address such as this, we thought we should start by googling what was going on in 1817.

J: The New York Stock Exchange was founded in 1817. But this is a Music school graduation — so no one here cares about math or expects to ever make any money, So…not particularly relevant.

B: What else? Not much, except we discovered that 1817 was known in politics as the “era of good feelings”. Which feels eerily similar to today’s political climate. The good feeling train has just kept on chugging ever since, isn’t that right, Kellyanne?

J: Ok, well not exactly. But if 1817 marked the last time a sane person ever described politics as an “era of good feelings”, it IS a good description of our time at the University of Michigan’s Hogwarts Academy of music, theatre and dance (← we fell in love with them immediately after hearing this Harry Potter joke, btw!). I mean this place is downright magical isn’t it?

B: While we certainly don’t have 200 years of knowledge or experience to impart here, we have spent a solid decade trying to accomplish a few things before all of you young whipper Snappers and prodigies go out into the world and take all of our jobs and basically take over the music industry as we know it.

So, in an effort to set ourselves up to at least be able to one day try and take credit for your success, we hope to impart just a few things that we’ve learned along the way. But to get to those few words of wisdom, we first have to tell you Our Michigan Story.

J: We arrived on campus in 2003-bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to sculpt ourselves into the finest musical theatre performers this side of Lake Huron. And we arrived with the same dreams as any millennial: we wanted to attend a great school and then become immediately successful in our field without having to work that hard I mean – straightforward… And in our case — that dream was to sing and dance and act on Broadway — we were gonna be what they call triple threats. And we knew that a BFA in musical theatre from U of M was gonna us there.

So, we arrived to campus equipped with our trunks of original Broadway cast recordings and our newly purchased dance belts (AY-would explain but it’s not appropriate…intimate apparel). The two of us met the first day of Freshman orientation and we quickly bonded over our shared love of both Biggie Smalls and Bernadette Peters.

B: What What!! 

J: Day one of school: we show up to ballet class, ready to become the Gryffindors we know we were meant to be. We walk in, look around, and realize that we are straight up Hufflepuff at best.

B: Not even giving you Ravenclaw…  (← CMN’s founder is, unfortunately, a Ravenclaw… ?

J: We are wearing sweatpants over those dance belts — everyone is else is in proper ballet tights looking amazing. The teacher is yelling out a bunch of French words that are apparently dance moves. And everyone is doing across-the-floor routines from one end of the room to the other, so over the course of the semester we strategize how to bolt out the exit doors of the Power Center rehearsal room and magically reemerge at the other end of the room without our professor seeing. Sometimes this DID work… sorry Judy Rice! (laughs) 

But you know, overall, we really did try to learn and against our millennial instincts we actually tried hard, but it just didn’t seem in the cards for us to be doing pirouettes or pas-de-chevalles or… honestly I still don’t know these French words. Whatever they were — we couldn’t do them.

So maybe we weren’t going to sing and dance and act on Broadway. That’s ok, we could still sing and act on Broadway: Double-threats baby!

B: Double threats!! 

So we doubled down on our efforts to be actors. Then came sophomore year. The time when Michigan students REALLY begin to define themselves and determine the course of the rest of their years on campus. The time when the non-dancing singer/actors of the bunch might actually get cast in the spring musical. We prepped, auditioned and waited for the cast list to be posted for “City of Angels” the musical The moment of truth was upon us.

And we were in fact cast…

I landed the prestigious role of “Man with Camera”, and Justin was cast as “backup dancer/coroner”… 

J: It was a truly transcendent performance…

B: The first day of rehearsal, the director, Professor Mark Madama, got the cast together and gave an encouraging speech:

“I want you to know that every role is important. There are no small parts…only small actors. Every part in ‘City of Angels’ matters!”  And then looks directly at me to say, “Even the Man with Camera!”  That’s the moment you realize your part actually doesn’t matter at all… Wow! 

At this point, we were really beginning to question who we were, what were our actual strengths, and what was this all leading to… And was it too late to try and transfer to LSA? I mean, the Law Quad is really pretty…

J: Had we been ignoring the charms of the Kinesiology department all along???

B: Things go through your head. But it’s interesting, because all the while, during those first two rocky years, there was something else we had been doing… we had spent our free time together voluntarily locked away in the bowels of the Earl V. Moore building in the practice rooms, banging away at a piano. We were two friends with ADHD, and for fun, and maybe to distract ourselves from our embarrassment of being horrible ballet dancers, we started writing songs together! 

Now by that ‘City of Angels’ spring, our sophomore year, when we realized we had gone from potential triple threats → hopeful double threats → literally zero threats… Not A Threat to be found!!!! An idea occurred to us: “Well no one wants us starring in their show. So maybe we write our OWN’ !!! 

J: So we booked the 99-seat Kerrytown Concert House, sent out a mass umich email to our department asking them all to come, and reached out to other disgruntled musical theatre majors who hadn’t been cast in ‘City of Angels’ to be our performers and cast the in our show. Now we had not written that show. But with the pressure of setting a date, and inviting our fellow students to come, we then in fact had to actually write it.

And this next thing is ironic but it ultimately became a useful lesson. ALL of our classes in acting and voice that we thought had failed to help us STAR in a show, they actually gave us the exact knowledge we needed to start WRITING one. We found that surprising and sort of revelatory. 

And on April 3rd, 2005, we put up our show EDGES, and it was far from perfect. But it resonated with those 99 people in the room that night. And it was the beginning of something. And most importantly, it set us on a new, unexpected path.

We’d found a potential, one single potential “threat” . We were single threats, we were something. We were now songwriters, which was, in fact, what we had the potential to be all along. And of course, it’s who we are and what we do to this day.

 

B: Now, you’re probably asking yourself: why did I just have to listen to this tawdry tale of dance belts and failed actors? Well, hopefully, the takeaway here is something we took away when we were in your shoes.

We now spend our days writing theatre songs, and Brent Wagner — who ran Michigan’s musical theatre program while we were here — he had a theory about theatre songs. In class every year he always tried to teach us that what makes theatre songs so special, is that they are verbs” → 

They’re all about action and change.

They start in one place and they end in another.

They MOVE and they keep moving.

They keep telling a story… 

And while other kinds of songs, like a pop song, might just repeat and repeat and only be about one thing, theatre songs pivot and morph and evolve.

J: During first two years at Michigan, we were not behaving like Professor Wagner’s beloved theatre songs. We were not verbs. We looked at ourselves as nouns.

B: I’m Benj and I’m an actor and that’s what I have to be...

J: I’m Justin and I’m a singer… Our narratives and identities were fixed. So we got stuck and we hit roadblocks.

I think trying to force ourselves to fit into box-like definitions of who we had to be meant every action we took was in service of that definition, that noun. Everything we “did” was about reinforcing who we had to be — I’m an actor, I’m a singer… It was only when we let go of those nouns, and just focused on a verb, that we got unstuck.

We started to think — what are we passionate about DOING? What could we DO to change our story, evolve, grow, pivot and change? And through the action of just doing, making, creating, moving forward, we found completely new nouns to BE. All of a sudden, we became Songwriters — something we had never intended or even imagined! 

B: So we encourage you, dear graduates, DON’T wake up in the morning and think: “Who am I and what do I want to be?” 

THINK: “What do I want to do and want to make?”  

Don’t think about what you want to BE someday, think about what you want to DO today.

And in the doin, you find your identity! 

Through the verb, you find the noun you’re meant to be! 

J: Now I know today, you’re all here as nouns. You’re violinists and organists and music theorists and composers and dancers and singers and all kinds of makers of art… But as your path unfolds, try to remain open to those verbs that sort of bubble up inside of you. Because while what you’re passionate about may always remain constant, that verb that bubbles up, it could take you somewhere entirely new within your passion. That verb can change your story. That verb can start you in one place and deliver you to somewhere new.

We came to the University of Michigan to be Broadway actors, but it was really just because we were in love with music and theatre. We loved the art form. We didn’t quite realize that’s what it was, but that’s what it was. And then a verb that we finally said yes to took us from one noun to the right noun.

B: So go out, go forward! You are the architect of your own life. You have the power to design, define, and then redefine your own way. Don’t be just an identity – go be a story! A story that started here with this family of friends in music school practice rooms and sweaty dance rehearsal halls, with endless bus rides between campuses and randomly profound conversations sitting by a piano-shaped pond.

It’s a story that will continue to evolve if you let it. And sitting here, on the precipice of receiving a degree from the greatest music school in the nation, the possibilities and potential for your story are limitless and infinite! 

J: Congratulations to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance Class of 2017. We cannot wait to see what you go out and do. 

B&J: Congrats, guys!!!


J: So we’ve had the great honor of being able to write some special musical material about Michigan for this event, and we would love to share that with you all now. But in addition to that, we want to also share with you just a few snippets of our work from La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, and we want to share that because we feel like everything we’ve created and written in the last 10 years since being at Michigan, we feel like we were able to create it because of what we learned at Michigan! 

(Justin went to the piano…)

B: We were sent out of here by an incredibly supportive faculty that fostered such a nurturing and inspiring environment, So we dedicate these songs to our professors, and we perform them now in honor of this extraordinary graduating class of 2017! 


 

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