'Coco,' 'Greatest Showman' argue for the Oscars to revive the long-dormant song score category

'Coco,' 'Greatest Showman' argue for the Oscars to revive the long-dormant song score category
The songs for "The Greatest Showman" affected everything about the film, says director Michael Gracey. (Twentieth Century Fox)

So there are awards for original score and original song. But whither the category to honor musicals and their "song scores"? No such award has been given since Prince won for "Purple Rain" more than 30 years ago.

EGOT winner Robert Lopez, co-composer of a key song used several times in this year's "Coco," says, "For me, the primary difference between a song score and [an instrumental] score is when you write a song score, you need to develop the songs along with the story. We're talking about a much deeper level of commitment, a longer commitment."


His Oscar-winning co-composer (and wife) Kristen Anderson-Lopez says, "We're part of the creation of the story. It's a five-to-seven-year process. We're there for the germ of the idea."

The film academy's award for song scores, adaptation scores and original musicals has gone through many changes over the years, honoring the likes of "Dumbo," "Camelot" and "Let It Be." The original musical category is the surviving version, requiring at least five original songs by the same composer or team to be "substantively featured" and "further the storyline." It has yet to be awarded since it was reinstated 17 years ago.

This year, a number of seemingly qualified candidates with wildly varied approaches have emerged.

I wanted to show people there’s so much more than mariachi; what a rich history and cultural treasure. It’s a kaleidoscope of styles coming from Mexico.

Share quote & link

"Coco" is largely built around the multiple meanings and the truth behind one song ("Remember Me"), but the film is full of other Mexican-flavored songs that define the experience.

Composer Germaine Franco employed her expertise to fill out the film's musical setting: "I wanted to show people there's so much more than mariachi; what a rich history and cultural treasure. It's a kaleidoscope of styles coming from Mexico."

On the other end of the budget spectrum is the indie "Becks," about a musician (played by Tony winner Lena Hall) devastated by a breakup and retreating home. Hall's delivery is so convincing, one would think she wrote the songs. The actual composer, Alyssa Robbins, demurs about how much of the plot and songs are directly based on herself, but her collaborator, Steve Salett, blows her cover: "I would say almost all of it, the songs coming from the character, are autobiographical."

The songs, almost entirely accompanied by solo guitar (also Hall) and captured live, are intimate without being too obvious, low-key while occasionally soaring.

Listen to Lena Hall perform “Home” from the movie “Becks" by songwriters Alyssa Robbins and Steve Salett.

"I think there was no other way to do it, to tell this story," says Robbins of the lo-fi production and arrangements. "That character was figuring ... out. You don't put a full orchestra behind that kind of raw emotion."

Another indie with music woven into its fabric is "Band Aid," writer-director-co-composer-star Zoe Lister-Jones' bare-knuckles look at what it really means to be married for a long time. Luckily, the screen couple has a sense of humor — and some musical ability.

"I was toying with the idea of a film that looked specifically at the way couples fight," says Lister-Jones, who learned bass for the role. "We've seen how couples fall in love and fall out of love, but fighting is so integral in staying in love. So I thought, 'What if it's a couple who fights through their songs?' "

The lyrics can be cutting and hilarious.

"Most of the songs are comedic in tone because they're part of the storytelling," she says, but one she delivers solo, "'Desire,' is the most earnest, probably the one I'm most proud of. It's about the heartbreak of growing up and what it means to really confront all your baggage."

The thing that we talked about and worked tirelessly on was making sure the next day you’d wake up humming the tunes.

Share quote & link

But while all those loosely defined musicals had tunes in their DNA, the very-much-a-musical "The Greatest Showman" wants its melodies to be a virus.


"The songs had to be so undeniably memorable the studio would back an original musical," says director Michael Gracey. "The thing that we talked about and worked tirelessly on was making sure the next day you'd wake up humming the tunes."

He says the songs affected everything about the film; they'd display visual elements from the scenes while Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed.

"'The Greatest Show' starts the film. It has a hip-hop beat. It's the showman backstage, hyping himself up before he goes out. It's got a bit of the imagery of Steve Jobs backstage, all those people stomping their feet. It's got a bit of Queen's 'We Will Rock You.' And Hugh Jackman's first words are, 'Ladies and gents, this is the moment you've been waiting for.'"