When “The Greatest Showman” opens on Christmas Day, no one will be surprised that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul penned the songs for the P.T. Barnum story. After all, the two are the hottest songwriters in America after their Oscar win for “La La Land” in February and their Tony win for “Dear Evan Hansen” in June. The surprise is that they started work on “The Greatest Showman” before anyone had ever heard of either “La La Land” or “Evan Hansen.” They’ve been on the project for three and a half years, working closely with director Michael Gracey.
Variety was given an exclusive first listen to the Pasek and Paul songs, and while post-production on the 20th Century Fox movie is still underway, it’s clear that this latest effort by the 32-year-old musical-theater wunderkinds will merit serious consideration come awards season.
For instance, “From Now On,” the big moment in the last act for Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he faces a critical stage in his life and career, is uplifting and powerful. “This Is Me,” which arrives halfway into the film, will be much talked about. Sung by the unusual people Barnum discovers and presents in his show, it’s a rousing, identity-affirming anthem for misfits that may have a life beyond the screen. It’s featured in the film’s trailer, sung by Broadway singer and TV and film actress Keala Settle (“Waitress”) in her second film role after 2015’s “Ricki and the Flash.”
Among the other original songs: “The Other Side,” sung by Jackman and Zac Efron (as Phillip Carlyle, whom Barnum convinces to join his company), and “Rewrite the Stars,” a duet performed by Efron and Zendaya (as an acrobat with whom he falls in love). Both are distinguished not only by their memorable music and lyrics but by Gracey’s eye-popping staging.
The challenge for Pasek and Paul was to make their material sound current — an odd request for a tale about a 19th-century character. “I always felt that Barnum was ahead of his time,” Gracey explains. “He saw the world differently. It felt right, in a film that was more about imagination than historical accuracy, to use contemporary music and contemporary dance.”
So Pasek and Paul — often with Gracey in the room — toiled for three years “to find that middle ground, achieving something that feels contemporary but does the necessary work of progressing the story forward,” Pasek says. Gracey would often point them in a modern-music direction: “Think about this Kanye song, or this Ingrid Michaelson song, or this Florence and the Machine song,” Paul says. Numbers were written and thrown out, and others rewritten. “And the next day,” adds Gracey, “if I couldn’t hum the tune, I would get together with them and say, ‘We didn’t crack it. We have to go back to the drawing board.’”
Pasek and Paul were, at the same time, working on the Broadway-bound “Evan Hansen,” which was introspective and dark and complicated, Pasek recalls. “One of the great joys of working on ‘The Greatest Showman’ was that it was a celebration of hope, joy, imagination” — and, Paul says, finishing his partner’s sentence, “wonder and magic and color.”
One aspect of the “modernization” scheme was to relax the pair’s usual method of “perfect rhyme” for the lyrics so that the songs wouldn’t sound “too theatrical,” says Paul. Another was to bring in a pop-music producer with no previous film experience to massage the songs in post-production.
Enter Greg Wells, a multiple Grammy nominee who has worked with everyone from Katy Perry and Adele to Pharrell Williams and Keith Urban. Despite his track record, he admits to being “quite intimidated” by the prospect of “The Greatest Showman.” Pasek and Paul were on hand two weeks ago in Wells’ Culver City studio “making final tweaks” to the music.
Notes Gracey: “You have the classical strings mixed with electronic beats. In doing that, you create your own universe, your own musical signature. Sometimes the songs lean a bit more toward musical theater, sometimes a bit more toward contemporary pop.”
Color Jackman a fan of the songwriters. “When I first started working with Justin and Benj, they encouraged me to try a different style of singing, and asked me to try a different vocal coach,” he tells Variety. “It was hard for me, because I had worked with the same one for nearly 10 years. But they said, ‘We want you to sound different for “Showman,” to have a different quality.’ They were always there to challenge and support me. Hopefully I will get to do many, many Broadway shows with them.”