'The Greatest Showman' Songwriter Benj Pasek on Landing A No. 1 Album and Co-Writing Golden Globe Winner 'This Is Me'

Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum in Twentieth Century Fox’s 'The Greatest Showman.'
Niko Tavernise

Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum in Twentieth Century Fox’s 'The Greatest Showman'

By their own admission, it’s been a crazy several months for La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who captured the best original song Golden Globe Sunday night for “This Is Me,” from The Greatest Showman.

On Sunday, the pair also scored their first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman. The effort makes their third Top 10 album in the past several months, following the soundtrack to La La Land, which peaked at No. 2, and the original cast album to Dear Evan Hansen, which reached No. 8 (and yielded a No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chat with “Waving Through a Window").

“It really is unbelievable,” Pasek told Billboard, following reports that the album was likely headed from No. 5 to No. 1 on the chart. As the pair waited for Sunday’s confirmation of the news, Pasek said he and Paul “have been texting each other saying, ‘Is this real?’ We don’t believe it. It’s really wild.” The set debuted at No. 71 four weeks ago, then rose to No. 63 and jumped to No. 5 last week after the movie opened on Dec. 20. The Atlantic Records release is the first soundtrack to top the chart since Fifty Shades Darker summited last March.

Pasek talked to Billboard at a Q&A conducted by The Greatest Showman's star Hugh Jackman on Jan. 5 in West Hollywood. Paul missed the event after his flight from New York was canceled because of bad weather. 

The pair’s Golden Globes win makes them back-to-back winners in the category, after snagging the statue last year for La La Land’s “City of Stars,” co-written with the film’s composer Justin Hurwitz. The trio went on to win the Oscar for best original song for “City of Stars” and are expected to land a nomination in the same category this year for “This is Me" when nominations are announced on Jan. 23. They also won a Tony Award for best score for Dear Evan Hansen in 2017.

Sung by Keala Settle, who plays the bearded lady in The Greatest Showman, “This is Me” is a rousing, defiant tale of self-acceptance. “It was really inspired by the group of oddities in the film, and what they came to represent and what [director] Michael [Gracey] talked about them representing,” Pasek says. “People who had lived in the shadows their whole lives and for the first time wanted to feel love and acceptance, and even when P.T. Barnum turns his back on them, they make a statement -- not only to him, but to themselves  -- that they declare to love themselves for the first time.”

The first song Pasek and Paul wrote for The Greatest Showman was “A Million Dreams,” which served as their audition to write songs for the movie. However, nothing was assured. “Every song in the movie we wrote in a competitive way, because we were never hired as the songwriters for the movie,” Pasek says. “We had to submit a song for each song moment.” 

The duo drew on their strong theatrical knowledge of great composers, such as Stephen Sondheim, and their love for Disney animated musicals of their youth, as well as for Broadway musicals like Rent, and even for current hitmakers. “It was anything from listening to Jerry Herman for dramatic work, but also thinking what Imagine Dragons would do here,” Pasek says, “[We were] trying to combine those worlds and how they fit.” 

Atlantic began releasing songs from the soundtrack several weeks before the film appeared in stores to help build awareness, says the label’s West Coast President Kevin Weaver. He adds that the move “helped with early playlisting on the streaming side, focusing on the younger demo that would see the movie,” noting that Atlantic further reached a younger demo by having Radio Disney premiere “Rewrite The Stars” in November, accompanied by cast interviews with such stars as Zendaya. 

Oprah Winfrey also named the soundtrack to her influential “Favorite Things” list, and Amazon wrapped all packages with tape promoting the film, resulting in millions of impressions. 

The soundtrack grew in such demand as the movie’s popularity soared around Christmas that it was temporarily on backorder. “We always knew we had something incredibly special on our hands with this tremendous original music from Pasek and Paul,” Weaver says. “We felt confident that if the film performed well that the the music would follow suit. We all believed there was something great in the making since the very early beginnings of the project.”

As Atlantic did with the music from Hamilton, the label plans to release a pop covers version of the songs. “There will 100 percent be a full album of contemporary artist covers and interpretations of The Greatest Showman songs coming,” says Weaver, though he declined to give a date. The opening salvo has already been released: Kesha’s version of “This Is Me,” which Pasek calls “really visceral and raw.” 

At his Q&A with Pasek, Jackman couldn’t heap enough praise on the composing duo’s talents, adding that he never thought the musical world would see the likes of such talent again, following in the footsteps of Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe. “I count my lucky stars that I was there at the creation of something new, with two people who I have so much admiration for,” Jackman said, “I think [Pasek and Paul] are going to go down in history as two of the greatest writing talents of all.”