When Benj Pasek and Justin Paul came aboard The Greatest Showman to write the songs, they knew pretty quickly it was going to be like nothing else they had done. They had a wide-open canvas and Michael Gracey wanted to fill it with tunes and words full of timeless emotions and modern rock and pop references that could compel modern audiences to go on this fantastical journey with Barnum and his performers. Most of all, they had the chance to bring the past hurtling into the now through their music.
“Michael’s passion was so contagious—that energy excited us,” Paul recalls. “And we were drawn to this world full of color and life and imagination and dreaming. The idea of telling a period story with contemporary music was sort of terrifying in the beginning but it was also a very intriguing challenge. Writing these songs pushed us to explore a mix of styles that we might never have otherwise tried.”
“Because we were writing songs to support a story about opening up to a world of wonder, we had the chance to infuse into our process that sense of joy,” Pasek adds. “The Greatest Showman mixes in many things we love: it embraces what musicals can do that no other art form can, it has emotions that pierce the heart in ways words can’t, and it’s about pop music. So getting to combine these inspirations while creating songs that could musically and lyrically serve these great characters was incredible for us.”
Throughout, Gracey was a partner in the creativity. “We tend not to write with anyone in the room with us—we’re very sort of private and secretive about our process,” admits Pasek. “But Michael was our third collaborator on almost every song, and was part of the writing from concept to final result. Michael really pushed us to be motivated most by character, to find a unique voice for every one of them.”
As this was well before La La Land, and Pasek and Paul knew they had a mandate to prove themselves as unknowns, they especially welcomed Gracey’s confidence in them, which never wavered. “Michael really became our champion and because we talked to him at depth about every emotional moment, we were able to write something that was illuminating for each member of the cast,” says Paul.
Once the songs—and casting—were complete, Pasek and Paul rehearsed with the actors as if they were about to open up on Broadway, rather than shoot a feature film. “We truly rehearsed as if we were about to have a live show,” Paul explains. “Our rehearsal space in Brooklyn was everything that you would dream it to be: there were dance rehearsals going on in one room and singing rehearsals in the other room and the only difference from a Broadway show was that we also had a little recording studio where we could start to lay down tracks. It was all very surreal to have these incredibly talented, massive movie stars walk into the rehearsal hall in their dance clothes and start singing our songs.”
The recording sessions were equally intense. “The recording was a process of quantity, getting tons and tons of material, and the actors were relentless,” recalls Pasek. “They would come in for three-hour sessions at a time, singing their songs again and again, going line-by-line at times. It was all about pulling out the best of the best performances, assuring they matched the incredible energy on-screen.”
Nailing the opening song, “The Greatest Show,” which bookends the film, was an adventure of its own. “That song was written in a way that we’d never written a song before. Michael wanted it to feel like that moment you’re anticipating someone bigger-than-life coming out on stage, someone like a Kanye or Steve Jobs, an impresario who inspires sweaty anticipation. We wrote six different takes and none worked for Michael,” Paul recalls. “We then tried to write something new with him in the room and we were just banging our heads against the wall when he said, ‘let me play you something I came up with before this session.’ What he played was just a beat, but from that beat we started writing the melody and lyrics around it, doing a ‘Ladies and gents, this is the moment…’ kind of thing and it flowed. The one thing Michael most wanted was swagger. Barnum’s at the height of his powers to make the audience wonder: What is about to happen? So you’re anticipating and then the fireball blows and everything comes to life.”
Gracey inspired the song and the song in turn inspired Gracey. He says: “I wanted this song to make people eating popcorn to have to stop, look up and be like, what? Benj and Justin gave us music so punchy and lyrics that are so strong that I knew I then had to deliver even more on the spectacle.”
“A Million Dreams” offered a different kind of challenge: moving through time. “This song tracks Barnum him from a child through pursuing Charity to their life in the city together. The central idea is that Barnum’s dream never stops driving him,” says Paul.
“We were thinking about how a kid who feels underestimated would express his hope,” Pasek adds. “That’s why there’s a childlike innocence to the music—you never really think about how hard the work of achieving your goals will be until you get there.”
Gracey was taken aback by the warmth of “A Million Dreams,” “Melodically, it was so beautiful, it became the default theme of the film.”
“Come Alive” is another favorite of the pair. “It’s the moment when Barnum starts to achieve his goal of bringing color to the monotony. He’s built his museum and his dream is evolving,” comments Paul. “We saw the song as Barnum wanting to give this feeling to other people, so he gives it to the Oddities and then they give it to the audience and then audience gives it to their friends and family all around the city. That was fun to do in a song.”
The bar song “The Other Side” was written as a showdown as Jackman’s Barnum tries to convince Efron’s defiant Carlyle to join his circus. “We wanted to have a kind of musical face-off between Hugh and Zac, so we wanted it to be fast-paced and high energy but also believable emotionally,” recalls Paul. “An acoustic guitar vibe came into it and it took on the quality of a Western saloon shoot-out.”
“Benj and Justin cover so much narrative scope in this song—starting with Barnum negotiating with Phillip in the bar to being at the circus to Phillip falling in love with Anne at first sight,” notes Gracey. “That’s just an amazing arc to achieve. What was even more exciting is that as we rehearsed the song, you could see Hugh and Zac becoming friends and their interplay deepening.”
One of the more romantic songs is “Rewrite The Stars,” a duet between Efron and Zendaya. “That moment is about Phillip’s decision to leave behind the rules of upper-class society and pursue Anne. He’s saying to her the rules don’t exist anymore for me anymore and can’t you dream this with me? But Anne is more practical because she’s dealt with more hardship than he’s ever known,” Pasek elucidates. “This is the moment they decide to jettison the notion that their love is impossible and dream of a better future. Of course, that’s also what Barnum is always pushing, especially the way Hugh portrays him.”
Zendaya added her own personal stamp to the song. Recalls Gracey: “It was Zendaya who suggesting starting a capella, with Zac just singing it to Anne without any music. We tried it and it turned out be such a great transition into the song.”
Charity Barnum’s solo, “Tightrope,” is a different kind of love song. “It’s a song that explores how she is willing to give everything over to this guy who is a loose cannon, knowing it isn’t a safe bet,” muses Pasek. Adds Paul: “It has the lilt of a love song and yet there’s also an undertone of longing. And that’s where Michelle Williams’ contribution comes in, because she’s such a nuanced actress and brings so much complexity to it. You see Charity really grappling with her conflicting feelings. She knows this is what she signed up for with Barnum, yet she’s also experiencing the darker side of that.”
The anthemic “This is Me” took several tries, but Pasek and Paul are overwhelmed by what emerged. “We realized we needed the raw power of a really, really intense female voice to express the importance of learning to love yourself, to empower yourself, even when the whole world tells you that you don’t deserve to be loved,” Pasek says. “When we thought about it that way, the music and lyrics started flowing.” Paul continues: “It was very inspired by current pop songs, something you might hear from Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson or Pink—women with power and authority who can deliver a message in a contemporary way, and that’s exactly what Keala Settle brought to us in her performance.”
Recalls Gracey: “When Keala sang that in the workshop, it, it brought the house down. It was such a moment, when we could see the song was everything that we hoped it would be. She took it to another level with such a truth and an honesty.”
Perhaps the film’s most seductive song is “Never Enough,” which Rebecca Ferguson’s Jenny Lind sings to Barnum. Says Paul, “It’s a song about insatiable desire but it’s a real performance piece because it’s not a dance number. It’s about Rebecca standing there and delivering in a mesmerizing way.”
Jackman’s song “From Now On,” on the other hand, is about seeking redemption. “That song is about Barnum coming to terms with the mistakes he’s made with Charity,” says Paul. “It begins in a hush and build and builds until the moment where he has to rush down the street trying to win his family back.”
“From Now On” is Gracey’s favorite, he confesses. “I just love it because it’s the eleven o’clock number. Barnum is down in his dumps, having lost everything, but when the Oddities come in he’s convinced that things can change. The minute we first heard Hugh sing it in the very first workshop, I saw that he was really able to bring home that idea that Barnum remembers who he was doing this all for in the first place and that’s why he returns to his family.”
Each of the songs exists on its own but taken together, they forge something larger and grander than the sum of their parts, which was an inspiration for the rest of the production. Says choreographer Ashley Wallen: “Justin and Benj write songs that are so powerful emotionally, it’s the greatest joy to choreograph to them. When a song means so much to you and you like it beyond using it for your work, it makes you that much more creative. Their music is so original and their words are just transporting. They not only know how to tell a story but to write songs that are just really, really good tunes.”
The film’s musical soundscape goes beyond the songs, with a score by two-time Oscar-winner John Debney, and by Joseph Trapanese, which Pasek and Paul were thrilled to find synched seamlessly with their work. Says Paul: “John and Joseph created an entire musical palette and a beautiful set of melodies that relate to the songs in their own way. They took what we did and interpreted it through their own talent to add another beautiful layer to the storytelling.”
The Greatest Showman comes to Philippine cinemas on January 31, Wednesday.