It’s been a good year for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriting and composing duo better known as Pasek and Paul. After landing an Academy Award for their song, “City of Dreams” from “La La Land,” co-written by composer Justin Hurwitz, the duo saw their Broadway smash “Dear Evan Hansen” take home six Tony Awards, including one for their score. Earlier this year, they landed Grammy noms for both projects, winning the musical theater album award for “Evan Hansen.”
Now they find themselves repeat nominees in the original song category at this year’s Oscars for “This Is Me,” from the unapologetically old-fashioned musical “The Greatest Showman.” A rousing ode to anyone who has ever felt marginalized or overlooked, the song is performed in the film by P.T. Barnum’s “Oddities,” led by the Bearded Lady, played by Keala Settle (in her film debut). The song has not only become a hit on the charts, it’s inspired countless covers on social media and even been used on countless promotional spots for the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games.
Variety spoke to Pasek, Paul and Settle about the epic journey of bringing this rally cry of the disenfranchised to the screen.
In development with Jackman at Fox since 2009, “The Greatest Showman,” director Michael Gracey joined the project in 2011. Pasek and Paul began work on the project in 2013, long before their success with “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Benj Pasek: The movie had not been officially greenlit and the impetus for writing “This Is Me” was to get it greenlit. One of the moments Michael Gracey had always identified was we needed this anthem for the Oddities. There was a song in its place (written by someone else) for Tom Thumb, on the ukulele — sort of a charm song. It was a nice moment but not what Michael described that he wanted: an anthemic song for people who had lived in the shadows their entire lives and had stepped into the light, declaring they would be seen and love themselves as they are. We really couldn’t crack it and didn’t know how to write a song for Tom Thumb that would do that.
Justin Paul: The thing is, we never technically got hired to be the songwriters. We just pitched for each song. We were always aware that if our song wasn’t liked or approved, they would just go out to someone else. So every song was sort of a pitch, an audition, in a way. “This is Me” was not an exception.
Pasek: The moment it shifted for us was when we began to think, “What if we wrote a song not for the character of Tom Thumb but for this very small role that had a couple of lines, The Bearded Lady. And the reason we thought that was because of Keala Settle. Keala is such a force and such an incredible human being and performer who brings such visceral vulnerability to everything she touches. She was in this series of workshops we’d done and there was no big moment for the Bearded Lady. We had to ask Michael, “We don’t know if we can write this for Tom Thumb but if we can write it for someone like Keala and get a performer like her to deliver this song, we think we can figure it out.”
In August 2015, Pasek and Paul learned they had to start recording a demo in Los Angeles in two days. They boarded a flight from New York and went to work.
Paul: We all went to the airport. There wasn’t any time to waste, so I brought along this mini-keyboard and Benj brought his laptop. We were on the plane and I would write a little section and email it on Gogo Wi-Fi to Benj, who was in the seat next to me writing lyrics. It was a valuable five hours. We wrote most of it on that flight.
Pasek: I feel like the bulk of the song was probably written over Iowa or something.
Paul: Airplanes are very motivating.
Pasek: We also worked out “City of Stars” on a plane. We want to thank Delta for providing us with the best workspace in the world.
Photo Credit: Michael Gracey
The demo was recorded with singer and Broadway star Shoshana Bean. When it came time to do the final workshop in New York in February 2016, the songwriters presented it to Settle. A Broadway actress perhaps best known for her Tony-nominated turn as Norma Valverde in “Hands on a Hardbody.” There was just one problem.
Keala Settle: I said, “Hell, no!” (Laughs.) I knew Shoshana had done the demo and I said, “You call her, tell her to come and sing it, and I’ll sing back up for her.” Because I’m a huge fan, I love her voice. I love who she is as an artist. And when I heard her sing it I went, “Well, nobody else is going to sing this.” And to be honest, I still don’t think anybody else can sing it except Sho. So I tried with everything to dodge that bullet.
Finally when it was time to do it, T-minus one day, Hugh and Michael came up to me and said, “What is it going to take for you to sing this song?” I said, “If you buy me a bottle of Jameson, I’ll do it.” They kept it in a bag and said, “This is yours if you sing the song.” I’m very cheap that way.
The workshop was being held in front of many top Fox executives such as then-chairman Jim Gianopulos and Stacey Snider. The day before, they had learned Jackman would be unable to sing due to having had a basal cell carcinoma removed from his nose.
Paul: We were in a real panic. All these people were flying in to see this thing we’d been working on for three years and it was going to tank because Hugh couldn’t sing. We were nervous for a thousand reasons. Keala was being a little reserved, behind the music stand, and we were freaking out. As writers and director you want to be sensitive in how you talk to an actor. You can’t just say, “You have to deliver. These people are all here. You have to be amazing.” That’s not a good note to give an actor.
Pasek: She was afraid to be that vulnerable in public in that way. We even discussed if someone should sing parts of it with her. I got nominated to be the one to ask her how she felt if someone else joined in with her. She said, “That’s not happening, I promise you. I’m going to be able to do this.”
Settle: It was the very first time I sang it in front of people. I didn’t want to. The words and the music were so powerful that I didn’t want to carry that on my shoulders. I’m still scared of it to this day. But I had to. I had promised Hugh I would do it to the best of my ability. I was petrified but I also know you have to trust and believe.
Paul: She just delivered the number in a way we never expected. She put the music stand down and came out and began singing out and it was electric. And then there was this moment … Hugh had been the person guiding her though all of this and he had helped to make her understand she has so much power within in. She turned to him and began to sing to him; it was her way to connect it back to him in the midst of this incredible moment.
All point to that workshop performance as a turning point for both the film and Settle.
Pasek: I really do believe having Keala song is one of the reasons the film was greenlit. The way she delivered it in that room was so undeniable.
Paul: The way the story goes, after the workshop Stacey Snider went over to her and said, “Congratulations. You just booked your first major motion picture.”
Settle: I don’t really remember that happening, but Hugh does. I remember I kind of went, “Great, where’s my Jameson?” I wanted to share it with the choir.
Settle didn’t totally believe it. Later, a representative tried to contact her about having officially booked the part. She ignored his messages for five days.
Settle: They were trying to track me down and I thought I’d done something wrong. I was doing “Waitress” and I turned to one of my castmates, a great actor named Dakin Matthews, and I said, “It’s day five and this guy won’t leave me alone.” And Dakin said, “Keala, take the fucking email! Just reply to the guy! It could be the greatest thing in the world!” So I called him and the first thing I said was, “Do I owe you money?” He told me the news and I kept saying, “This isn’t real. This isn’t real. There’s no way this is happening.”
“The Greatest Showman” went on to become a massive hit, still in the box office top five in its ninth week of release. At $155 million and counting, it’s become the highest-grossing original, live-action musical in North America. “This Is Me,” meanwhile, has gone on to have an incredible impact all over the world as part of a chart-topping album that has already outsold the Oscar- and Grammy-winning “La La Land” soundtrack.
Paul: We got a call saying the Olympics were interested in using the song. We were like, “Uh, yes, please.” It wasn’t even a question.
Pasek: It’s so exciting, one of the highest honors to have it be affiliated with the Olympics and these athletes.
Paul: You want to put as much of yourself into a song and then become invisible after you do so. It becomes an anthem for other people and their own struggle and their own triumph. Once we get out of the way, people can own it for themselves. That’s incredible to witness.
Pasek: For myself, I was a closeted gay man who as a teenager felt like the world was inundating me with messages that you’re not good enough or you’re unlovable, and what has been amazing about this song in particular is you realize the thing that feels like your own private struggle is something that other people relate to when you begin to put it into words. When you’re huddled in the dark and think you’re alone, you begin to shine a little bit of light into this place and you realize other people are huddled there, too.
Settle: It’s not my song. It’s Benj and Justin’s and I’m grateful I got to be a vehicle for it. It’s one of those things where you think you’re alone in the world and you learn you’re not. If you have a beating heart, this is how you feel.