No one expected the greatest show on earth to translate into the biggest-selling album on earth. Yet the “Greatest Showman” soundtrack hasn’t faced anything remotely competitive when it comes to the mantle for 2018’s top album, at the midway point… even if Drake is soon poised to overtake it. It’s sold about 1.1 million copies this year, more than twice as many as the No. 2 contender, Justin Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods.” Seven months into its run, the soundtrack shows no signs of slowing, continuing week after week to sit in the top two or three on the iTunes and Amazon sales charts. Overseas, it’s no less a juggernaut; the ”Showman” just reached the pinnacle of the British sales chart for the 21st non-consecutive week.
We could put it all down to Hugh Jackman’s irresistible pop-star prowess, or we could look to the creative team behind the music, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and producer Greg Wells. The latter was not just a secret ingredient but a savior for the project, coming on less than six months before the release date to take primary control of a song score that’d been suffering from too many cooks. That Wells had never even worked on a film soundtrack before was no particular minus to director Michael Gracey, who was hardly looking for someone with a lot of cast-album bona fides. He found someone with contemporary sheen and ship-righting know-how in Wells, whose producing and/or co-writing credits include OneRepublic (“Apologize”), Twenty One Pilots (the “Vessel” album), Adele (“One and Only”), Keith Urban (“Wasted Time”) and Katy Perry (“Waking Up in Vegas”).
“The entire reason for bringing Greg in was to move away from straight musical theater and find a sweet spot somewhere closer to pop that we could define as our own musical signature,” Gracey tells Variety. “The fact that he had no cast recordings was actually a plus. His ability to pick up any instrument with complete ease and find that visceral bounce that Benj, Justin and myself had been searching for was just remarkable,” Gracey says, with the chart success “definitely validation for Benj, Justin and myself, who all fought for Greg to be part of this process. There’s no way we would have reached the audience we did without him.”
Wells isn’t done with the “Showman” world, either. He’s co-writing with star Keala Settle for a debut album he plans to produce… plus, he’s working on material for a related fall release he declines to go into, but which is rumored to have pop stars covering material from the movie. Variety spoke with Wells about the unlikelihood of the soundtrack eclipsing even the Carters, Cardi B, Timberlake and Post Malone as the album (so far) of 2018.
Seven months into the run of this album, it remains near the top of the Amazon CD and download charts as well as the iTunes album chart. People aren’t just streaming but buying this album. Could you have foreseen that?
Greg Wells: It’s an enormous shock. Anything that celebrates the underdog always gets me going, so I thought the movie would find its audience. It didn’t open very well, and then it tripled at the box office the following weekend. And then the soundtrack was sort of sitting there, and then it started to really go, too. I remember about a month before the soundtrack was released, my manager said, “You know, there are some other record producers that were working on the music before you were hired, Greg, and we have to share some of the royalty points with them. What do you think is a reasonable amount to ask for for yourself?” And I said, “I’m not sure it matters, because I feel like this soundtrack will probably not sell more than a thousand copies.” Because it was a soundtrack from a family movie about a circus! … None of us, including the songwriters, had any clue that this was gonna be the biggest album of 2018. Had someone told us that, we would have laughed and fallen off the chair.
I can attest that there are young people who are streaming these songs who haven’t even seen the movie. They’re not listening as a souvenir of a film. They just like the songs.
That makes me really happy. I’ve never worked on a film before, and we wanted this music to stand on its own. Justin and Benj, the brilliant songwriters, also wanted the songs to stand on their own as well as serve the movie well when the movie is playing. We really wanted to approach this as pop songs, even though Justin and Benj are very proudly rooted in the theatrical world and never want to leave it. We really wanted this to feel like an album that you could just put on and listen to. … [And] Michael wanted to make sure this sounded like a competitive, modern album that could maybe get a shot at one day being on the radio. And “This is Me” is an amazing pop song. I think it’s the poppiest stuff that Justin and Benj have ever written, although if you listen to “Dear Evan Hansen,” that’s very pop-influenced as well.
You came on fairly late in the process. What had already been done?
Before I became involved, there were several people that were hired. Ricky Reed was hired to work on it. Ryan Lewis brought really cool elements to the tracks that they worked on. We used a lot of those elements, and they’re credited for it. But it couldn’t get to sort of a place where it sounded like all the music fit together. They would bring in different teams of people to work on different songs, and they moved it pretty far down the field, but nothing felt finished and it didn’t feel cohesive. They shot the sequences in the movie to the demos. Most of the actors’ vocals were already recorded before I got hired. We did a little bit with Hugh afterwards; we did one night with Zendaya; we did a couple of touchups with Keala, just a word here and there. So I was handed these enormous ProTools sessions that were so unbelievably organized, and the average individual track count was around 370 tracks per song, and quite often it went over 400 tracks per song… It was just nuts. Michael said, “Greg, you can use all of it, or you can use absolutely none of it.”
How did you go about choosing what to keep and what to do afresh?
I just followed my own nose. A few weeks into it I met Justin or Benj, and it turned out that they were fans of some of the music I’ve done. And they’re lovely, super-erudite, bright young men, and we spent half a year together, in my studio; they even followed me to Sweden. They brought another set of influences to it, and then I realized, well, I’m actually producing this music with them. They gave me lead credit, which I think is accurate, but musically, it’s their baby; they’d been working on these songs for four years. … They had a release date for December, and they were nowhere near ready for that, by the time I came onto it. I don’t want to throw shade on anyone’s work, because I really like what was done by a lot of the other producers that were on the project before me. I mean, some of the original demos that were Justin and friends of his are fantastic. With the opening of the movie, “The Greatest Show,” many of the elements that are really, really prevalent and loud in that mix are from the very first demo. Quite often I find the first demo gets it right more than a re-creation of it at the better studio with the more famous team or better cables and better coffee.
That opening song can be a little bit startling in how big and loud it is, for anyone going into it thinking it’s a period-piece musical. It certainly alerts the audience what kind of score this is going to be…
With the whole notion of people breaking into song in the middle of conversation, you’ve already got to suspend a lot of belief. I haven’t heard a lot of people complain, saying, “Well, there’s no way the music would have sounded like that over 150 years ago.” Michael just wanted to go for it. It’s not a documentary. It’s storytelling in a very big, blown-out kind of way. I don’t think that Barnum was probably much like Hugh Jackman — let’s just start there. One of the early up-tempo numbers is called “Come Alive.” It sounds more like Earth Wind & Fire, who definitely were not formed in the 1850s. And the choreography was incredibly modern. I think if people are talented and you lead with confidence in your choices, the audience will follow. Even though this was Michael’s first movie ever — something he was reminded of on a daily basis, by nameless people — he just attacked it with such chutzpah that it somehow worked.
It sounds like you probably went down pretty close to the wire on this. Were you still working on it through November?
We went past November. I’m still working on it! I’m not allowed to talk about it, but let’s just say there’s a surprise coming with the soundtrack. It seems to be as alive as it was half a year ago. There’s always stuff for me to do, if a TV show’s coming up and someone needs an instrumental version of the song, or we need a remix done. I’m still working on it.
Was it obvious when you were working on “This is Me” that it would be the Oscar contender and turn into an all-purpose anthem that gets adopted for causes?
I knew that it was my favorite song, but I can never predict how people are going to react. Anything that celebrates people that don’t fit in … I was terribly bullied in school up in Canada. Most of my schoolteachers didn’t like me and were quite open about it. … And my best friend was very obviously gay and I used to get beat up just like he got beat up, because I was his friend. And especially with a president today who has made fun of handicapped people and is doing all kinds of things that I find to be very offensive, it’s wonderful and deeply meaningful for me to be a small part of this project that is all about celebrating people that were literally freaks. And there’s an interracial love story in the movie. My wife is half African-American. I really resonated so strongly with it. And then to see Keala, who’s had a very difficult life — you know, there’s a reason why when she opens her mouth, we all just fall over. You can’t phone that kind of emotional wallop in. You either have that or you don’t. And unfortunately the way you get it is by living a life that has not been a day in the park.
You knew a star was being born.
She didn’t want to sing that song. This is well-documented. She wanted to sing backing vocals and wanted a friend of hers to sing that song, who would have sung it beautifully. There’s footage of it online when she sings it in a workshop, and at one point she had to grab Hugh’s hand because she’s losing it, and Hugh starts crying, too. That clip is almost as moving as the movie itself. And it’s kind of her story: I’m not going to run from this shit anymore. She told me the day that they filmed that she was still conflicted as to whether or not she wanted to sing that song in the movie. But of course it was kind of too late at that point. It was a 16-hour day of singing that song endlessly, and at the end of every take – and I’ve heard this corroborated by Michael, the director, by the dancers, by the songwriters, by other Fox executives that were on set — after every take, most people were crying. She just kept giving it and giving it. There was something about the beard that was on her face, that she had to kind of keep her head tilted down the whole time. Now, imagine trying to sing that song and get lost in the performance and doing all those crazy dance moves, and then you’ve got to keep your chin kind of tucked in lower like for 16 hours. And she was fried afterwards, but she said, “I could tell something had really happened.” Then Hugh came to her the next day and said, “Keala, the whole trajectory of this film has completely changed because of what you did yesterday.”
And you’re writing songs with her now?
After working on “This is Me” for about a week, I wrote to the director and I said, “Michael, can you please tell me who on earth is this person? She should be making records.” He connected us, and we had a pleasant exchange. She had absolutely no clue who I was; I think she thought I was just some guy working in post in the film, and it was probably better that way. I said, “Have you ever made an album?” She said, “Nope, never, ever wanted to.” And we’re now in the middle of making her debut album. We self-released a little EP online called “Chapter One” under her name, just some cover songs that she loved. And now we’re about to sign a record deal with her, and I think she could be the new diva on the block… Like me, she’s in her 40s. She’s not gonna sing some song about licking somebody all over the place. She’s gotta sing stuff that feels right for her. And her life has been a real struggle. She’s a heroic person, and she would slap me if she heard me say that, but that’s how I feel about her. So she wants to sing about overcoming hardship — some of that hardship being as yucky and as gross and as abusive and as awful as life can be — and being on the other side of that and forgiving yourself and other people. She doesn’t want to sing “This is Me” again; she’s already ticked that box. I really want to come up with music that she’s not just proud of but dying to get on stage and sing for people— that’s far more important than genre. It’s not going to sound like a Broadway record, which is what she was known for before “Showman.” Her influences growing up were a lot of R&B, old stuff, like Gladys Knight. And she knows every note that Mariah Carey ever sang or wrote. .
What was the trickiest number to nail for the soundtrack?
If I had to pick one song that was the hardest one to decode for me, it was “The Other Side,” which is a scene where Zac Efron and Hugh are sitting in a bar, and Barnum is trying to convince him to come on board with the circus. It’s some of my favorite choreography in the movie, but musically I had real trouble trying to get that to match how good the performances were visually. We tried a lot of different things, and I could not figure out why they weren’t working. Justin was playing me a lot of references and kept mentioning Ed Sheeran. Eventually I was working in Sweden for a month at the private studio of Benny Andersson, the piano player from ABBA. His original mini-Moog is sitting there, painted white, because the “Voulez Vous” tour in the early ‘80s had a white set. I said, “Does this work?” and the engineer said, “Yes, it sure does.” So we plugged it in, and I put down this really fat bass synth part from the ABBA mini-Moog circa 1980. It added all of these sub-elements to a song that didn’t really have that kind of cathartic explosion. That’s not really written into it melodically — it’s not a big, soaring, Vikings-coming-over-the-mountains moment, melodically, but a more chilled out, almost conversational chorus. But when I dug down deep and made the bottom really heavy and quite funky, everyone started jumping around the studio. That was the secret with that song, and it took me a long time to figure that thing out. It’s the weirdest, most circuitous process, trying to make things come through speakers that would excite me as a listener the same way a live performance would.