Magazine article Variety

Making Modern Music for Old Story

Magazine article Variety

Making Modern Music for Old Story

Article excerpt

WHEN "THE GREATEST SHOWMAN" opens on Christmas Day, no one will be surprised that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul penned the songs for the P.T. Barnum story. After all, the two are the hottest songwriters in America after their Oscar win for "La La Land" in February and their Tony win for "Dear Evan Hansen" in June. The surprise is that they started work on "The Greatest Showman" before anyone had ever heard of either "La La Land" or "Evan Hansen." They've been on the project for three and a half years, working closely with director Michael Gracey.

Variety was given an exclusive first listen to the Pasek and Paul songs, and while post-production on the 20th Century Fox movie is still underway, it's clear that this latest effort by the 32-year-old musical-theater wunderkinds will merit serious consideration come awards season.

For instance, "From Now On," the big moment in the last act for Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he faces a critical stage in his life and career, is uplifting and powerful. "This Is Me," which arrives halfway into the film, will be much talked about. Sung by the unusual people Barnum discovers and presents in his show, it's a rousing, identity-affirming anthem for misfits that may have a life beyond the screen. It's featured in the film's trailer, sung by Broadway singer and TV and film actress Keala Settle ("Waitress") in her second film role after 2015's "Ricki and the Flash."

Among the other original songs: "The Other Side," sung by Jackman and Zac Efron (as Phillip Carlyle, whom Barnum convinces to join his company), and "Rewrite the Stars," a duet performed by Efron and Zendaya (as an acrobat with whom he falls in love). Both are distinguished not only by their memorable music and lyrics but by Gracey's eye-popping staging.

The challenge for Pasek and Paul was to make their material sound current - an odd request for a tale about a 19th-century character. "I always felt that Barnum was ahead of his time," Gracey explains. "He saw the world differently. It felt right, in a film that was more about imagination than historical accuracy, to use contemporary music and contemporary dance."

So Pasek and Paul - often with Gracey in the room - toiled for three years "to find that middle ground, achieving something that feels contemporary but does the necessary work of progressing the story forward," Pasek says. …

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