Welcome to the new episode of the Billboard Pop Shop Podcast, your one-stop shop for all things pop on Billboard‘s weekly charts. In addition, you can always count on a lively discussion about the latest pop news, fun chart stats and stories, new music, and guest interviews with music stars and folks from the world of pop.
Casual pop fans and chart junkies can hear Billboard co-director of charts Keith Caulfield and Billboard deputy editor, digital, Katie Atkinson, every week on the Pop Shop Podcast, which can be streamed on Billboard.com or downloaded in iTunes. (Click here to listen to the previous Tuesday’s edition of the show on Billboard.com.)
On the latest show, the hit songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul drop by to talk about their work on The Greatest Showman soundtrack, including the song “This Is Me,” which recently garnered the pair an Academy Award nomination for best original song. It’s the second nomination in a row for the duo, who took home the Oscar in the same category a year ago for La La Land’s “City of Stars.” (Listen to the interview, below.)
“I can’t imagine that it will ever be not special,” Paul tells Billboard about what it means to be nominated again this year. He credits the song’s inspiration partially to the vision of the film’s director, Michael Gracey, and says, “It feels like a celebration of him and the spirit of the film as well.”
The empowerment anthem — with lyrics like “I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me” — came from a personal place for Pasek. While he credits being inspired by both Gracey and the song’s performer in the film, Keala Settle, he also acknowledges the song’s lineage in his own life.
“I’m a gay man who grew up in the closet when I was a teenager,” Pasek says. “You experience the world telling you that you’re not lovable, you’re unwanted, or something about you is broken, and you feel like you have to fix yourself or hide yourself.
“I think it’s amazing to work on a song that you think is your own private struggle and you realize that once you shine a little bit of light on it, there are a lot of other people sort of huddling in the dark there too. And that other people relate to that idea or relate to that message and can find a sort of communion in that message.
“It’s been a really amazing journey for us, and I’ll say for myself, to write something that someone — like Keala, or the girl in Iowa, or the group of Japanese girls doing their own dance routine on YouTube — all kind of find and identify with this message of feeling like you’re told you’re not good enough and declaring that you’re going to love yourself not in spite of, but because of your weird, awkward, unique attributes. That’s been an amazing thing to witness.”
Broadway actress Settle, who plays Lettie Lutz in the film and gets to sing “This Is Me” in a show-stopping number, was initially brought in to help workshop the show and get it greenlit by producers and studio executives.
“Whenever we did a workshop of it,” Paul says, “it was mostly just us [along with the film’s star Hugh Jackman] … calling on our Broadway friends to come in and fill in and play roles and sing in the chorus and all that kind of stuff. So Keala was one of them.” Settle earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in Hands on a Hardbody and has also appeared on Broadway in Waitress, the 2014 revival of Les Miserables and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Settle’s first performance of “This Is Me” for an audience was at one of these workshops. A video of the emotional rendition was posted to YouTube on Dec. 24 and has collected more than 10 million global views.
“It was an incredible, incredible moment to witness the force and the power and the guts and the glory of someone like Keala Settle,” Pasek says.
Paul says that before Settle sang the song in this particular workshop, he and Pasek knew she was “intimidated,” “super shy” and didn’t want to come out from behind her music stand and take center stage. They, along with Jackman, encouraged her to “bring it” for the performance. Paul says, “And so we said, ‘We love you… this is it, this is to get the movie greenlit, don’t mean to pressure you. But like, let’s bring it!’”
“Little did we know that she would put the music stand down, walk out around it, walk into the middle of the room — with all of these powerful executives that she had never interacted with in her life — and completely deliver this song and have such an emotional moment to the point that the president of the studio, after the workshop, was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know who you are, at all, but you’re definitely in this movie.’”
“She was so inspiring to us,” Pasek says. “Before that moment, the song was conceived to be a song for [the film’s character] Tom Thumb, and we couldn’t figure out how to write this… We were tasked with writing an anthemic identity song and we couldn’t figure it out until we realized that we had Keala Settle in our workshop … She’s such a fighter as a human being, and to get to have her represent what those words say and get to sing so gloriously, brought the song to life in an amazing, amazing way and changed the trajectory of the movie and the song, and we wouldn’t be sitting with you talking had Keala Settle not been in that room that day.”
Settle’s soundtrack version of the song has been a breakout hit since the movie was released on Dec. 20, garnering 49 million on-demand audio and video streams in the U.S. (through Feb. 8), according to Nielsen Music, and selling 124,000 downloads. The track has so far peaked at No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100, and debuts at No. 46 on the Dance Club Songs chart (dated Feb. 17). (The track was recently promoted to dance club DJs and got an official dance remix produced by Grammy Award winner Dave Audé.)
Pasek and Paul also discuss their feelings on having “This Is Me” used by NBC for its coverage of the Winter Olympics, their reaction to the commercial success of the film and its soundtrack (which spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart) and their favorite soundtracks when they were growing up.
In addition to the interview with Pasek and Paul, the Pop Shop team discuss news about the Spice Girls getting back together, how ice skating at the Winter Olympics is showcasing music with lyrics for the first time, Justin Timberlake’s fourth No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with Man of the Woods and much more.
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