Upon cursory examination of the films taken on by Broadway songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a theme emerges. Oscar winners last year for La La Land, whose P.T. Barnum pic The Greatest Showman bows later this year, the pair are suckers for larger-than-life stories of show business trials and triumphs, who have played an integral role in reviving the original Hollywood musical. While the films are both enamored with the glow of showbiz, The Greatest Showman is also a great departure from the former film, a period piece for viewers of all ages, centering on Barnum’s pioneering creation of the Barnum & Bailey circus.
Below, the songwriting duo reflect on a moment in time that has allowed them to bring their musical talents to both the stage and the big screen.
How did you come to work on The Greatest Showman?
Justin Paul: Through a series of coincidences and lucky timing, we happened to be in LA back in 2013. We were having a general meeting at Fox with someone, and they said, “Hey, my colleague down the hall is working on a musical. You’re Broadway guys—you should talk to him if he’s in.” We went down the hall and he was like, “Here’s the mood reel. The director is this guy Michael Gracey—he’s a first time director and real visionary. Let me see if he’s in town right now.”
Within a matter of days, we found ourselves in a room with Michael, who had no idea who we were, and had no reason to. But he, like a champ, pitched the film, what his vision of it was going to be. He pitched it as this timeless tale of P.T. Barnum inventing the American circus, and really leaned into the fact that it was a man who was ahead of his time. Michael always talked about him as a Steve Jobs, or the Jay-Z of his day—the original impresario, who was able to bring color and life and magic to an otherwise gray world, really open people’s eyes—create some mischief, and some wonder.
He wanted the music to be contemporary. We thought that was really bizarre and intriguing, and that was one of the reasons that we really perked up. It was this period tale, but he said, “The choreography’s going to be contemporary, the music wants to be contemporary.” We resolved to write a couple of songs in that week while we were still in LA, and pitched them to Michael. He came over and listened to them, and that started our collaboration.
Can you give a sense of the range of music heard in this film, and what it meant to approach the project with a contemporary sensibility?
Paul: Michael really wanted the music to live in a contemporary place, or at least influenced by contemporary music. I think there were some other false starts with other songwriters, and what we figured out through trial and error with Michael is that he was looking for songs that at least attempted to straddle two worlds. It was the world of musical theater—book songs, story songs that carried the narrative, and told a story through the lyrics, and would be fed by those characters in that moment—balancing that with a musical sound that was influenced by contemporary music.
It was never trying to create something that was just for the radio—trying to be ‘2017,’ or whatever it was. Through the music production, and somewhat through the songwriting, it would be influenced by something contemporary. Michael referenced everything from Billy Joel, to Elton John, to Ingrid Michaelson, to Beyoncé, to Adele, finding contemporary-sounding music that still told a story. That’s what we tried to do.
There’s definitely a gospel influence. For us, any time you’re writing something that wants to be inspiring—or as I said, the idea of Barnum bringing color to a gray world—there’s something in the sound of gospel that felt right. Michael was a good collaborator in the process, and was guiding us all along the way.
Is it purely coincidental that The Greatest Showman and La La Land are two showbiz stories hanging on characters with larger-than-life dreams—and you wrote songs for both?
Paul: I think to a certain extent it’s coincidental, but I also think musical storytelling lends itself to stories that are about people with ideas, and visions, and dreams that are larger than life. I think entertainment lends itself to the same sort of big thinking—believing in the impossible, and making it come true. It wasn’t our goal to get involved with projects, necessarily, that exist in that space. But I definitely think that music and song has an opportunity to expand the world in a really unique way. You’re able to get to the core of big emotions very quickly, and you’re able to show a world much bigger than it actually is.
Pasek: I think there’s also something to the realism of film. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice when in a story—in a musical—you can find a blend, where there’s some songs that are diegetic or performed, along with some songs that are from characters.
In La La Land, Sebastian’s moment in the club, and those performances, those are real performances that are just musical by nature. Same with The Greatest Showman: there are certain numbers that are really performed. They’re in the ‘show,’ in the circus. Those are really being performed, and then we also have character numbers, where it’s the character speaking from their heart and their mind. That’s a nice thing about show business, needing stories that allow you to blend both of those kind of songs into stories.
With the success of La La Land, we’re seeing a resurgence of the original musical. What kind of line can you draw between that project and The Greatest Showman, in terms of cause and effect?
Paul: It’s funny: The development of Greatest Showman did start before La La Land really swung into gear. Then, La La Land swung into gear and got made. Now, Greatest Showman’s coming out, and Showman‘s just a different kind of film. There are all kinds of factors that related into it slowly developing. I think that La La Land—to no credit of our own, but really to Damien [Chazelle, director] and his vision; he and Justin [Hurwitz, composer], who really pioneered the project from the start—I do think that it probably gave anyone who was working on a musical at that time confidence.
It said that there is an audience that’s willing to go, if it’s a well-made film, and spend an evening or an afternoon, watching characters go through those kinds of motions, and sing through those types of emotions, and willing to go on the ride.
That definitely gave confidence to anyone working on Greatest Showman. They’re related in that they’re musicals. But really, they’re different kinds of movies, and I think they’re for different audiences. Greatest Showman is a family film at Christmas time, and I think we were all excited to be writing something that could be for the whole family.
The Greatest Showman cast features a good mix of Hollywood and Broadway stars. What did they bring to the process?
Paul: Someone like Hugh is a bona fide Broadway star and a Hollywood star. He came to real prominence when he played the lead role in Oklahoma! in London. He really comes from that world. We felt incredibly lucky that we had so many folks who are perceived to be film stars who actually have tremendous talents in the musical theater world.
Then, we were really fortunate to have folks like Keala Settle, who we’ve known for a really long time in the Broadway community, who is a fantastic musical theater actress who has been in everything from Hairspray, to Waitress, to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—tons of Broadway shows. It was a really wonderful mix of folks that maybe started in musical theater and then came to the film world. Then, people whose first time [it was], being in a movie musical, but really brought their talents directly from Broadway to the proceeding.
We really can speak to everyone in the cast having tremendous musical theater chops. It’s a delight when people that you don’t know, who come from the world of musical theater, get to show that they really grew up in that tradition.
Which songs in this film are you most proud of?
Pasek: One that comes up often, that I think is representative of the film and the tone of the songs, is a song called “This Is Me.” It’s sung by Keala Settle, who plays Lettie, the bearded lady. Michael had always talked to us about writing a moment for the oddities when they really claimed their identity.
In this story, there’s an element of empowerment for that group of “oddities”—a moment for them to step into the spotlight and own who they are. It was a fun, pressurized moment of writing. We’re really happy with how it came out.
Keala’s performance is so special. There’s tiny bits of it in the trailer, but we’re so excited for everyone to experience that full number. She really, truly owns it.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced with The Greatest Showman?
Pasek: When you’re writing an original musical, it means that you’re not looking at any story that’s already in place, and everything can continue to shift at any moment in time. For instance, with “This Is Me”—in the original draft, we never had a big song moment for Lettie, in particular. It’s an anthemic moment for the oddities, and you find those moments as you go about writing.
What that means is that you need to give yourself the appropriate amount of time to be able to investigate different storylines, different characters. Find the best places for where songs can go. Be willing to cut songs that aren’t working. That’s the nature of developing a story from whole cloth. You’re not looking to anything else to build the story up from. It takes a good chunk of time, and you’re constantly scrapping things, writing new things, going back to old versions, seeing if you can come up with something better. Eventually, you begin to weave together a story that hopefully makes sense, and that you’re proud of. It’s a really satisfying process, but one that is time consuming, and has to be developed over many years.
Can you reflect on the moment you’re in now, following successes on screen and stage with La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen?
Pasek: It’s exciting. To be totally honest, I think we just feel very lucky. We feel really excited that this is a moment in time in which audiences are eager and willing to go on these kinds of musical journeys. I’m not sure even 10 or 15 years ago that we were in quite this kind of moment. We also realize that in three or five or 10 or 15 years, there might not be this kind of moment again. These things do tend to come in phases.
But right now, it’s just really exciting. There is a sense that musicals are not completely uncool. People are willing to invest in that kind of storytelling; in that kind of journey, as an audience. For however long that lasts, it’s a really exciting ride to be on.
Paul: We feel very lucky that so many folks who are peers of ours, and people that we look up to—and, on a good day, we would call colleagues—really pushed boundaries, and created works that allowed for that to be the case. It’s just creating a world where people are excited about storytelling through music, and letting songs progress narrative. We feel very lucky that so many people have created stories that way, that audiences have sparked to.