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'La La Land' songwriters change their tune for risky new musical 'The Greatest Showman'

If you look up “Hot Streak” in the current edition of the musical dictionary, you’ll see a picture of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Collaborators since their freshman year at the University of Michigan, Pasek and Paul shared last year’s original song Oscar with Justin Hurwitz for “La La Land’s” “City of Stars.” They won this year’s original score Tony for “Dear Evan Hansen.” And they’re currently working on “A Christmas Story Live” — the upcoming live telecast of the musical for which they received their first Tony nom.

And then there’s “The Greatest Showman,” opening Dec. 20, the Hugh Jackman-starring big-screen musical about P.T. Barnum, directed by Michael Gracey — they provided the song score.

“We had a period of many years where we didn’t have anything coming out,” Paul points out over a quick breakfast before more “Christmas Story” rehearsals. “When you look under the hood, it’s more a day-in, day-out grind, and sometimes they come to fruition.”

The downright ripe contemporary pop of “Showman” figures to flavor the soundtrack of this awards season. The choice to go with music not rooted in the story’s 1800s setting was to express not just the characters’ feelings, but how ahead of his time Barnum was.

Pasek says, “He wasn’t bound by the world in which he lived; he wanted to create one.”

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Paul says, “The first number [‘The Greatest Show’], it’s this magical, colorful world. I think something in the time period wouldn’t capture the visceral feeling Michael was after.”

Gracey suggested the song be influenced by hip-hop, so the composers recruited Ryan Lewis (of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis) to create its driving rhythm track and group chant. Many of “Showman’s” songs have an anthemic quality, none more so than the empowerment belter “This Is Me.”

“We wanted a song that represented the Oddities’ [the circus performers] struggle, and claiming their identities and finding pride in your strangeness,” says Pasek. “To quote our leading man from ‘Evan Hansen’ [Ben Platt], he had a great line at the Tonys: ‘The things that make you strange, make you powerful.’ ”

They struggled, though, to find the ballad for star-crossed lovers played by Zac Efron and Zendaya. They knew the scene would involve a trapeze; eventually they stopped thinking of it as one chasing another and started thinking of it as two people longing to soar together. The result, “Rewrite the Stars,” seems destined to haunt karaoke bars for years to come.

“To know the staging — they’re literally flying through the air — really frees you up to write music that matches that idea,” says Pasek.

Jackman, meanwhile, gets to range from teasing the crowd in “Greatest Show,” to exhorting the troops in “Come Alive,” to a full belt in “From Now On.”

“This will sound funny, but we were interested in figuring out how Wolverine-Hugh Jackman could make his way into a musical,” says Paul. “So we went for moments of stillness where [Jackman] could just be the brilliant actor that he is, then evolved into something big and sung out. Hugh has this big, beautiful voice with vibrato; it can be almost operatic in a very confident and muscular way.

“We were working in the studio, we did reference Wolverine: ‘How do we get this grittier? … This is crazy low, but what would happen if you sang this an octave down?’ … Magical! The hairs stood up on your arm. This is a man as raw and vulnerable as he gets.”

This story is part of The Times' Holiday movie preview. See our complete coverage here.

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