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Justin Paul and Benj Pasek on Writing This Is Me for The Greatest Showman

The film has been out just over six weeks and its soundtrack has climbed to the top of music charts around the world. The Greatest Showman is a triumph at the box office and the writers behind the music, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek just won a Tony Award for Dear Evan Hansen. They’re an Emmy Award away from being the youngest to EGOT.

The duo are hosting the packed crowd in Hollywood on a Saturday night to perform a medley of their hits and it wraps with Keala Settle taking to the mic to perform the Oscar-nominated song, This Is Me. The song has become an anthem for empowerment and was used for the NBC Olympics. The crowd included Sarah Hyland, Shawn Levy, Charli XCX, Nick Kroll, Ricky Martin, Edgar Ramirez, Chrissy Metz, Matthew Morrison, Colton Hayes, Darren Criss who performed City Of Stars, Emma Stone and Damian Chazelle.

It was Settle’s performance of This Is Us that brought down the house as everyone joined in for a singalong, and yes, everyone knew the words.

I caught up with Pasek and Paul not long after the performance to talk about their process

How did you get involved in this? You’ve been doing so much lately?

Justin Paul: It’s funny that you said we’d been doing so much but when we first found out about Greatest Showman we had done absolutely nothing. We had A Christmas Story running for on Broadway, but The Greatest Showman was our first job in film that we’d ever had.

It was a series of lucky circumstances that we look back on and think thank goodness it worked out. We were in a general meeting at Fox, and the person we were meeting with at Fox said, “I think my colleague is working on a musical, let me see if he’s in.” He happened to be in and he said, “I don’t know who you are, but I’m working on a musical and the director might be in town and he was there. He’ll meet you at Soho House and will give you the pitch, but we’re not looking for Broadway songwriters, we’re looking for pop writers.”

We sat with Michael Gracey that week, it was February 2013 or March and he pitched us this film and I was in love. It was roughly the story of P.T Barnum and the rise of the circus starring Hugh Jackman. They were looking for a sound that can be influenced by popular music, it can be influenced by the music of today but still tells the story and furthers narrative.

We thought it sounded cool and we wondered how we’d get involved. He said we needed to audition and so we did. We wrote a few songs and we started collaborating with Michael back and forth.

Did you do any research into Barnum’s life?

Benj: We definitely did do some, but what was evident was that the vision for the film was that it was not a biopic.

It was supposed to be influenced and inspired by the creation of the circus and this incredibly entrepreneurial man. The vision that Michael has said is what is the vision of P.T Barnum and what is the story he would want to be told about himself now. He wanted to inspire, engage and to make people lean in. So, knowing it was going to be a musical meant that it was going to transcend any sort of reality and gave us permission to make our own version of his world.

Where do you begin in the process?

Paul: For us, we’re always writing song moments and each song moment really is its own assignment and I feel like our process is we are hunters and gatherers in terms of information before we write a song. We always want to be armed with as much information as possible. So much of that is relying on collaborators and working as a team, we always tell them to give us everything you’ve got. From the script to the concept artwork that Michael had. Michael would often say, “I wish it sounded like this Queen song but had the beat of this Kanye song.” We’d mine his vision. In theater, it’s what we envision. We bring our creative vision, but it has to work on screen and to do that we have to do it in concert with our director.

It’s really gathering all the information we can and then us putting that into our filter and feeding it into the computer that is us writing. We ask ourselves what might that sound like? What might that language be as spoken by that character in that moment? We add in the fact that we also knew who the actor was so we take that into the account.

Hugh Jackman is of course a Broadway fixture and he wanted to have this made for seven years. What was his input?

Pasek: He was in the trenches with us. He was there for the whole process and he and Michael had developed this before we had ever become involved. I think that the idea of creating a mix between a period film and a contemporary film was something that they had always envisioned.

What was unique was that we developed it through workshops and readings in the same way we’d develop a musical. The actors would sit around a table and we’d get to hear how they’d sound in tandem with the script. Hugh was at every single one of those readings. He was there helping figure out which songs needed to get cut and which needed to get added.

What was the first song you wrote?

Paul: The first song we wrote was Million Dreams. Michael had a running list of songs that he had envisioned in the film. He had this moment called Big Dreams and that’s when PT as a young boy is talking about the song he wanted to create. That was the first thing we wrote, the song that became Million Dreams.

OK, This Is Me is such an anthem. It’s right up there with Defying Gravity as a song about being marginalized. What was the writing process of that song?

Pasek: That was inspired by Michael and Keala. Michael would always talk about wanting an anthemic moment in the film for these oddities who he would describe as these people kept in the attic and lived in the shadows. He wanted to create a moment when they would literally step out of the shadows for the first time and what it feels like.

That moment became Come Alive. We talked about Barnum and a moment of a certain betrayal of when he would turn his back on these oddities and they’d had that feeling of love and acceptance and what happens when that gets taken away. We were really perplexed as to how to create the moment.

Knowing where to begin was tough. There was previously a song written on the Ukulele.

Paul: It was more a charming song for Tom Thumb

Pasek: We were wondering how to write this song for him and while we were exploring these options. Keala was a real team player, she had a few solo lines, but she didn’t have a song moment. We started thinking was that we knew about Keala and what was behind the voice because we know the person. She imbues so much heart, humanity, and soul and we thought what if we wrote the song for the Bearded Lady. We asked Michael if it was OK. Time was running out and when we started reframing it to a song that Keala could sing and one that could connect to our personal narrative and her personal narrative.

So many people have embraced it as you said as their own anthem.

I love that you’ve written these songs about people on the margin and you raise awareness.

Paul: It’s really wonderful but I think it’s more a testament to things that we want to write. In terms of the songs, I think we want to serve the moment. It can’t be conscious of we’re trying to write a big message song. It has to first and foremost serve the script and that right moment. I think we’re definitely attracted to stories of redemption, triumph, self-discovery and people coming to terms with themselves. Those are stories that move up and so we’re attracted to writing music about that.

Hopefully, people can feel they can access that character’s moment as well.

Have you been to any of the singalongs and seen the audience?

Pasek: Hugh just posted something from the one in London. I really just want to sneak in to see one of them before the movie has run its course in theaters. I’m so bowled over by the fact that people know the songs. The movie opened in December. To go to a singalong yo would assume people know the music and they do, but it’s such a wonderful surprise and they’re so excited about the music.

They sing their favorite songs and there’s no bigger reward for a writer and you become invisible and the writer embraces the song as their own.

It’s only been six weeks. People already know the songs and the words.

Paul: The other night you were there. I had the lyrics in front of me.

Pasek: I totally couldn’t remember the lyrics to the Other Side.

What was your first musical experience?

Pasek: For me, it was going to see The Little Mermaid. That was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. We believe Alan Menken and Howard Ashman paved the way for the musical renaissance you’re seeing today. Every kid grew up with characters that expressed their emotion through song, and that song was an integral part of storytelling when we were young. All those characters were raised by us and paved the way for musical theater to be where it is today.