After winning the Oscar for penning La La Land‘s lyrics and the Tony Award for composing the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are taking on the big top in the movie-musical P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman, out Dec. 20 from 20th Century Fox. In the songwriting contender race, the returning Oscar champs’ 11 original songs in the film, from spectacular group numbers to empowering ballads, will face off against new numbers from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (by Alan Menken and Tim Rice), along with tunes from notable music industry crooners including Ryan Tedder (An Inconvenient Sequel), Sufjan Stevens (Call Me by Your Name) and Sara Bareilles (Battle of the Sexes).
The duo, both 32, took a break from rehearsals of Fox TV’s live musical A Christmas Story (starring Maya Rudolph and Matthew Broderick and airing Dec. 17) to talk about some of their 11 new songs for Greatest Showman, pushing Hugh Jackman’s limits and writing a duet for Zac Efron and Zendaya that literally soars onscreen.
What makes P.T. Barnum ideal movie-musical material?
BENJ PASEK It’s a story that exists in this fantastical, larger-than-life world. P.T. Barnum was a man who was not defined by the world that he lived in; he was really a dreamer and wanted the world to exist not as it is but what it could be. When a character is so inspired that they can’t just speak their emotions, the world provides a justification for why singing can exist — to express these outsized emotions.
JUSTIN PAUL And a story with an entertainer at the center naturally lends itself to a bit of spectacle.
How did you find yourself pushing the limits of seasoned stage star Hugh Jackman?
PAUL We were, of course, intimidated because he’s such a master of musical theater, especially onscreen. But we were also inspired to write for a lead character that will be portrayed by Hugh, with all of his abilities and his vocal range and everything. It gives a songwriter such clear parameters of the playground, and with Hugh, it’s a really big one.
Michael Gracey, the director, wanted the music to have more of the spirit of pop songs and contemporary music while still being traditional in a musical theater storytelling sense. That’s not something that Hugh has done as much; we know him as a classic song-and-dance man of everything from Oklahoma! to The Boy From Oz and Les Miserables. It was exciting to collaborate on pushing his vocal abilities into a visceral, athletic, contemporary sound.
What can viewers expect from the Zac Efron-Zendaya duet “Rewrite the Stars”?
PASEK They’re two really dynamic characters, Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler. He comes from high society and she’s a girl of mixed race in the 1800s; they have a passion for each other, but the world is keeping them apart. The great thing is she’s a trapeze artist, so we get to write a song about a forbidden love but in the context of literally flying through the air — pushing and pulling and racing after each other and being torn apart again.
How did the anthem “This is Me” come to be?
PAUL It actually used to be a very small, intimate moment, a banjo or ukulele tune sung by a different character. Michael kept pushing us for an anthem for the oddities [the bearded lady, contortionists, and other performers] to show that they’re claiming their identity and willing to stand up against the world and anyone who would mistreat them or have them be disenfranchised. He kept saying of the song, “You really need to embrace what this is.” We started talking about shifting it to be for Lettie, The Bearded Lady [Keala Settle], and that’s when it started to open up for us as a moment for her to really step into herself and cement who she is and therefore who all of them are. Keala Settle is from Broadway, and the way she performs the song and the performance she gives onscreen is really captivating. We’re excited for everyone to get to discover her.
PASEK She represents this band of folks who have been kept away in their family attics and lived in the shadows their entire lives. Barnum initially provides a moment where they can come out of hiding and be seen and loved for the first time, so to get to write a song for people who have felt marginalized and to have these characters be proud of their identities was a really exciting thing for us to write.
Musicals have always been a place where marginalized characters can find a voice, including in your Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen. How does it feel to create awareness for that?
PAUL As a songwriter, it’s your job to take a character whose voice may not be heard otherwise and allow them to express themselves through song. That’s part of why musicals were born in the first place, and we feel like we’re part of this great tradition.
What have you learned from La La Land about making a musical for Hollywood?
PASEK I guess we feel really, really lucky that we’re in an environment where movie musicals are being made and that we are getting to be a part of this wonderful tradition that we respect and admire so much. We look left and right at what’s happening on Broadway and in Los Angeles, and there’s this wonderful appetite for musicals. It’s not a sort of dirty word anymore.
PAUL We view this as a window of time. Maybe it lasts for a while and maybe it doesn’t. The winds seem to shift sometimes, and we’ve obviously seen periods where people have really embraced musicals and periods where it’s really fallen out. But there are people who aren’t necessarily Broadway fanatics like we are, who still want to see a musical on Christmas with their families.
PASEK People like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alan Menken and Howard Ashman — and Frozen was also huge for musicals — helped create that. We grew up in musical theater and wanted to work in this world for our whole lives.
PAUL As for all the [awards season] events, we definitely feel funny getting dressed up for something because we’re intentionally behind the scenes. There’s such a humbling neurosis that goes along with writing because no matter what you’ve done, the next time you go to write a song, you’re standing at a piano and there’s a high probability that you’ve struck out the first time you try, no matter what. That will never change.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.