If Benj Pasek and Justin Paul had been better at pirouettes, there’s a good chance that they would not be the reigning Best Original Song Oscar winners (“City of Stars,” “La La Land”), now vying for their second statues (“This Is Me,” “The Greatest Showman”).
The composers — who have only scripted songs for two completed films — became friends during their first week at the University of Michigan, where they studied musical theater. “We were the two worst students in our ballet class, which was required for our major,” Pasek told IndieWire by phone. “We were so bad at it that we would kind of hide behind each other and cover for each other, so that the teacher wouldn’t notice.” Unlike their confident, tights-clad peers, Pasek and Paul were dance novices in baggy sweatpants.
The next year, when they got cast as “Man with Camera” (Pasek) and “Coroner/Back-Up Dancer” (Paul) in the comedy “City of Angels,” Pasek remembers worrying, “We’re not even going to be single threats,” let alone triple threats. But they had already started collaborating as songwriters. So they crafted a show about early adulthood, “Edges,” and gave the roles to fellow students stuck in their program’s thankless supporting parts. “Edges” went on to be performed in 200-plus productions across five continents. Before graduation, the duo had become the youngest-ever recipients of the American Theatre’s Wing’s Jonathan Larson Award, named after the late “Rent” composer.
Over just 11 months, they won 75 percent of the coveted EGOT quadfecta (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). This stretch of victories began at the 2017 Academy Awards, where Pasek and Paul competed against themselves, with two “La La Land” tracks (the other was “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”) counting among the film’s 14 nominations. Next, in June, they picked up Best Original Score Tonys for “Dear Evan Hansen.” The Broadway hit translated to Best Musical Theater Album honors at last month’s Grammys. “The Greatest Showman” star Hugh Jackman has compared them to such legendary composer pairings as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and John Kander and Fred Ebb.
“We’re [always] writing something that in an ideal world helps to tell the story and helps to further the narrative, as opposed to just stopping and letting the characters sing,” said Paul. “Who’s the character, what are they feeling in this moment, what are they meaning to express, what are they needing, what’s their objective, what’s in their way? And then what actions does the song cover, what emotional ground does the song cover?”
Most movie-musical fans probably assume that after the success of “La La Land,” Pasek, now 32, and Paul, 33, were greeted with fawning offers, and chose “The Greatest Showman” — the tale of big top mastermind P.T Barnum — as their next project (Barnum’s circus concluded its 146-year run in May.) They actually began working on “The Greatest Showman” first, in early 2013, and somewhat unofficially: 20th Century Fox never named them as the film’s songwriters of record.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox, photo by Niko Tavernise
When they met first-time director Michael Gracey, their biggest credit to date was “A Christmas Story,” a limited-engagement on Broadway for seven weeks, inspired by the 1983 film classic. “I don’t think anybody knew who we were, and we didn’t really know who we were either,” Pasek laughed. “We just were very, very desperate to get the opportunity to be in the room with a director of a movie musical, and get to talk about what a movie musical could be.”
Gracey liked them so much that “He definitely lied to the Fox executives,” said Pasek. “He told them that we had won a Tony Award for ‘James and the Giant Peach,’” a show that peaked at the Seattle Children’s Theater. Later, Gracey even housed New York-based Pasek and Paul when they flew to the West Coast to pitch songs to “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz.
Still, Pasek and Paul had to audition for the right to pen each of nine original “Greatest Showman” tunes. Throughout four years, Pasek said they hosted numerous readings of the movie and musical workshops, “try[ing] to come up with song moments and do our best to try to be in contention.”
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox, photo by Niko Tavernise
One frequent member of their workshop ensemble was Keala Settle, a veteran of Broadway shows like “Les Misérables” and “Waitress,” who received a 2013 Tony nomination for “Hands on a Hardbody.” Settle was auditioning to play Lettie Lutz, better known as The Bearded Lady. Pasek described her as “so gutsy and so visceral and so honest and vulnerable in the way that she lends her whole self and voice to anything.”
The duo knew Gracey craved “this anthem for the oddities and we really couldn’t figure it out,” said Pasek. They strove to represent “these people who have lived their whole lives in the shadows and been told that they are unwanted or unlovable or broken for being who they are.” For a while, they tried a song on the ukulele, performed by General Tom Thumb (dwarf actor Sam Humphrey). “It wasn’t a big rallying cry by any means.”
With a deadline looming, the duo began to wonder, “If Keala sings the song, what kind of song would we write?” said Pasek. Gracey was intrigued. “That’s when the role of The Bearded Lady got expanded in a really big way, because we thought, ‘Okay, let’s make this Keala’s moment…We know that she can blow them away, and she can also imbue the song with a real sense of heart and humanity and a real vulnerability.”‘
They wrote “This Is Me” for Settle in less than a week. During initial runthroughs, she mostly stayed hidden behind her music stand. Then she was asked to do a rendition for a room full of Fox executives, as they decided whether to greenlight the film and its $84 million budget. The resulting clip has been viewed more than 11.6 million times on YouTube; Jackman teared up, and Settle won the role.
“The Greatest Showman” went on to make box-office and album sales history. After a fourth-place opening weekend that earned just $8.8 million, the film made $15.2 million the following weekend. That 73 percent increase set a record for features being shown on at least 2,000 screens. Around New Year’s Day, Paul said his less-green colleagues from the film confided, “‘We were all biting our nails there at the opening.'”
Since December 20, it has generated nearly $157 million domestically, and $345 million worldwide. A Broadway adaptation seems like a safe bet. “We’re really happy for everyone who worked so hard on the film that it found its audience, its return audience,” Paul said, calling it “really sweet and really gratifying” to have helped make “something that families can go to and enjoy together” — along with a fascinating patchwork of celebrities.
On Saturday night at Tramp Stamp Granny’s — a soon-to-open Los Angeles bar from the duo’s former college classmate Darren Criss (“Glee”) — a six-song Pasek and Paul concert was attended by fellow “La La Land” Oscar winners Emma Stone, Hurwitz, and Chazelle, plus Ricky Martin, Mindy Kaling, Nick Kroll, Chrissy Metz, Charli XCX, and more. The songwriters are now working with Nicki Minaj and Justin Timberlake’s musical director, Adam Blackstone, on a version of “This Is Me” for the Academy Awards telecast (as well as songs for Disney’s upcoming live-action remakes of “Aladdin” and “Snow White”).
That eclectic group represents the ubiquity of Pasek and Paul’s songs. “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack spent two weeks atop the Billboard 200 chart in January, a feat only accomplished by four other soundtracks this decade (“Glee: The Music, Volume 3 — Showstoppers;” “Frozen;” “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1;” and “Suicide Squad: The Album”). “This Is Me” has been regularly incorporated into NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage in PyeongChang, and was even used to preview the Games during last month’s Super Bowl. “The Greatest Showman” made Oprah Winfrey’s annual Favorite Things list. (“‘This Is Me’ should be everyone’s theme song,” she wrote in her magazine.)
“We’re in really divisive times right now, and some would say challenging times,” said Paul. “I think being reminded that the world doesn’t have to be as it is — it has the possibility of being something greater and better — is a wonderful sentiment and something that we’re both really, really proud to have contributed to.”
“The Greatest Showman” is in theaters now.