There is a saying in the theater: “Never work with children or animals.” But those who go that route would miss out working with some talented young professionals like Benjamin Pajak, who is making his Broadway debut as Winthrop Paroo in The Music Manwhich stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster.
He doesn’t so much steal his scenes as he is given them. Onstage, he has charm to spare and a stage presence that cannot be taught. Offstage, he exudes a sense of professionalism and an enthusiasm for his work and his craft that one doesn’t expect from even the most precocious 11-year-old.
Pajak got the part through a process that is familiar to many actors. He told Newsweek, “My mom was scrolling through her phone, and she saw an open call or something, and she said, ‘I need you to learn this song, now! Here’s your music! We’re going to change something. It’s for something on Saturday. Just go, go and try it! So, I learned the song. It wasn’t in the right key for the audition. I thought it was OK. I didn’t think it was my best audition, but there were four callbacks I went through. And after the fourth one , I waited for six months with no notice—no one was telling us anything. And then I found out, but I couldn’t say anything because it kept getting pushed back and there was no press release. that I was actually in the show to anyone.”
The song that he learned for the audition, of course, was “Gary, Indiana,” Winthrop’s sthignature sthong, with his signature lisp. It’s tough enough to learn a song without having to affect a lisp—which he doesn’t have—at the right time.
“At first, I didn’t even really know what it was, but over time, the lisp kind of just became a part of me because of how much I do it every day. So, sometimes I’m just lisping in my speech , and I don’t mean to.
“Getting the part was a very, very long process, because the day of the last callback was the day before the pandemic and then the next day everything was shutting down. You couldn’t do anything. So, they pushed back [any announcements], and they said. ‘You can’t say anything.’ They did that like three more times; But then on October 20, we did our first rehearsal, and the press release came out, and that was a fun thing.”
Pajak plays the cornet suitably badly in the show—as one might expect from a student of the Think Method—but he plays it very well in real life and during the curtain call. His first love musically is actually the saxophone—Maynard Ferguson is one of his favorite musicians—but he has come to love the cornet.
When asked what the easiest part of this job was for him, Pajak told Newsweek“A lot of people, when they read just are gonna say, ‘No, that’s not true,’ but it’s doing the show. It’s so easy now. Partially because they shortened it—it used to be like five hours—but also because I just love it so much. It’s become something that’s very, very close to my heart. And I love my character too. I love playing him. He’s a character. He’s just like me in ways: the way that he goes from being sad to kind of blossoming like a flower. And not to do the same thing every night, but to re-create it every single night.”
Pajak told Newsweek That the hardest part of the job for him happens after the show: “Coming down from a show is so hard because of the thrill that you have every single night.”
Some actors are uncomfortable watching another actor perform a role they are playing. Not Pajak. He has seen the movie version of a Music Manwith Ron Howard as Winthrop, “a million times.”
Pajak may be young, but he is hardly a neophyte. He has been acting for a relatively long time. When asked how he first got the theater bug, he told Newsweek“My first production was Winnie-the-Pooh. I didn’t audition for it, but the director said, ‘I see something in you, Benjamin, and I think that you will be great as Tiger.’ So they cast me and I did it. And I just thought it was the coolest thing. For my next production, I was like, I want to keep doing this! I want to keep doing this, because it’s so fun. And the music too—even though it just was on the speaker. It wasn’t a real orchestra—even the music was just so amazing!”
Aside from that, “I’ve done lots of regional productions. My next one was aristocats, and I played Toulouse. And I just did You’re a Good Man Charlie Brownduring the pandemic on Zoom.”
When asked who he has to thank for all this, Pajak didn’t hesitate for a second and told Newsweek“[Director] Jerry Zaks and [choreographer] Warren Carlyle: They were the ones who brought us all together in the first place. The first day, Jerry said he called up Warren and said, ‘Hey, Warren, do you want to do a Broadway show?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ So they just started casting for Music Man.
“In the rehearsal process, they were just so fun. Like Hugh [Jackman], I think everybody has the same personality: In the business, everybody is kind of funny. Everybody’s heartfelt. Everybody’s helpful. And those are the three things that Jerry and Warren were, and they helped me so much. They were so kind, and I’m incredibly blessed to have worked with them.”
And considering how Pajak handles himself onstage and offstage, it’s clear the feeling is mutual.
Benjamin Pajak is now in The Music Man at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway at 50th Street for more information go to MusicManOnBroadway.com.