In recent years, musical was seen as a dirty word in Hollywood.
But while the huge financial haul of “Frozen” and the pop culture phenomenon that is “Hamilton” contributed to its rehabilitation, it was really the box office and critical success of “La La Land” that convinced studios to put more faith back in the genre.
With a budget twice the size of “La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman” is the blockbuster musical that 20th Century Fox are hoping will cement the genre’s return. The musical stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the all singing and dancing founder of the famous travelling Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Other than sharing the same genre, both films have another thing in common, too. The lyrics for their songs were composed by the song writing duo Pasek and Paul. But while they actually started work on “The Greatest Showman” before “La La Land,” only for Damian Chazelle’s film to hit cinemas first, the pair insist the two films have served each other.
“For a time it was like, ‘Which musical is going to happen first? Or is either musical going to happen?’ One film served the other, though,” Justin Paul remarked to me earlier this month. “’La La Land’ getting made, and going into production, having its success, that served ‘The Greatest Showman,’ because then the people behind it were much more confident about it.”
“They were like, ‘Maybe there is an audience that will come and see a musical?’ Suddenly musical wasn’t a dirty word anymore. But even ‘La La Land,’ that came on the heels of ‘Frozen’ and ‘Hamilton,’ which were really big, widely appealing properties that happened to be musicals.”
“Audiences all over the world, who weren’t necessarily interested in musicals, suddenly became interested, and realized that they didn’t hate musicals.”
Pasek & Paul originally learned about “The Greatest Showman” from a pitch by its director Michael Gracey, which was “so full of heart, and was bold, daring, colorful, whimsical, and larger than life” that it immediately piqued their interest.
“We were mystified and challenged by it. Because they wanted contemporary pop music but in this period story,” Paul continued, before Benj Pasek added, “We come from musical theater, so we were used to a particular type of songwriting, which is much more theatrical. But this was a mixing of different worlds.”
Paul insists that their main ambition was just to “create something that was entertaining” with each song moment. “Michael Gracey would always say that Barnum celebrated magic, possibilities, and the wonder, and this is a colorful and vibrant world,” Pasek continued.
“We wanted to create songs that were joyful, and uplifting, and was something that you could share with your family. It is being released at Christmas time, and I think the goal is to have a really fun, uplifting, joyous experience with the people you love during the holidays.
But while Pasek admits they are “Broadway kids” and will always come back to it as their “middle ground,” something the recent Tony success of their original musical “Dear Evan Hansen” underlines, for them “writing songs is the same process, regardless of the medium.”
“It’s us in a room banging our heads against the wall, trying to come up with a lyric or a melody that works with a character in a story. For us it doesn’t make that much difference.”
You’ll be able to see the latest fruits of Pasek & Paul’s labor when “The Greatest Showman” is finally released on December 20.