Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul could become back-to-back Oscar winners at the ceremony on March 4. The duo won Best Original Song last February at the Oscars along with composer Justin Hurwitz for the “La La Land” song “City of Stars.” And now they return in the same category with “This Is Me,” the Golden Globe-winning tune from “The Greatest Showman.”
After a Grammy victory Sunday for their Broadway hit musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” they are now just one notch away from an early EGOT. Their first opportunity to take home that Emmy could be in just a few months away since their Fox holiday special “A Christmas Story” live musical is on the ballot this summer.
We chatted with the composers just before “The Greatest Showman” hit theaters in December and on the day 2018 Grammy nominations were announced. Watch that video above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Alright Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul] before we talk about “Greatest Showman,” you got some great news this morning with two Grammy nominations, one for “La La Land” and one for “Dear Evan Hansen.” Tell us about getting that news.
Benj Pasek: It was really exciting.
Justin Paul: It was very, very exciting. It’s funny, I actually had Alex Lacamoire, who was our music supervisor on “Dear Evan Hansen,” he also worked on “The Greatest Showman” as well with us, we talk all the time about whatever we’re working on. He’s in my Favorites on my iPhone and so I have my phone, I went to bed last night and did the “Do Not Disturb” kind of thing but I just hadn’t thought about this morning and so I went to bed a little bit late and I was like, “I’lll sleep as late as I can and get ready for the day.” But then I was woken suddenly because my phone was ringing at 5:30 in the morning in L.A. Alex is London right now working on “Hamilton” so I can’t do the math but he’s many, many hours ahead so my phone rang at 5:30 and I was so disoriented and I didn’t know what day it was and I was just like, “Send it to voicemail,” and I just remember being like, “I hope I’m not awake for the day now. Why is he calling at 5:30 in the morning, what’s going on?” And then I woke back up again and there were texts from family and friends and stuff and it was like, “Oh, this is what Alex was calling about.” That was cool to get to connect with him and friends and family. It’s exciting. We got to work with just really incredible teams, from the musicians to the vocalists, producers arrangers, everyone on both of those albums, on “La La Land,” the recordings, the actors obviously and on “Dear Evan Hansen” so it’s a celebration of a lot of marvelous musicians.
GD: When your phone rings at 5:30 it’s probably good news or bad news.
Paul: Right? It’s an extreme of some kind.
Pasek: So we got lucky today.
GD: “The Greatest Showman” opens at the end of December so for all your fans that haven’t seen it yet, ‘cause no one’s seen it, can you basically tell us about the plot a little bit? Is there a big opening number like in “La La Land”?
Pasek: (Laughs.) There is definitely a big opening number. It’s inspired by the life of P.T. Barnum. It’s sort of a storybook version of his life and what he represented, this belief that the world is not as it is but it’s what it could be, and this fantastical vision that the world is what you make it. So for us it lends itself to being a musical in that sense that he has a larger than life view of what the world is. So yeah, there’s a big opening number called “The Greatest Show” where it introduces us to the world of the circus.
Paul: Yeah you meet him at the height of his prowess or showmanship, really. You see him in the circus and we’re introduced to that world and then the story takes you back, so we’re in the middle of this moment and then we pull back and you see his roots and the story of his humble beginnings and what was driving him and what was motivating him and then all along the way you follow the story of his life and the invention of the circus. It is, as Benj was saying, it’s sort of a storybook version of that story that really leans into the wonder of it and the joy of it and the spectacle of it. It’s a family friendly movie. It comes out right around Christmas and I think a lot of what we did in the film was writing music that was meant to entertain and meant to be something that kids and parents and grandparents, hopefully everybody can come together on the holidays and enjoy, consume together. I know that I’ll be taking my mom and dad and my daughter. I don’t know if she’ll last very long but I know we’re excited.
Pasek: She’s under two.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. But she has lasted through a couple of movies, a little bit. But having worked on “Dear Evan Hansen,” it sort of is fun and interesting to do something that’s much lighter and much more focused on joy and optimism and I can take my daughter to it.
Pasek: Yeah, it’s celebrating wonder and magic. We lived for a long time in very—
Paul: Darker spaces.
Pasek: Darker, shadowy places and to get to write a score that really is about joy is a thrill.
GD: How important, especially with P.T. Barnum is it that Hugh Jackman, a charismatic man himself, a musical actor sometimes, is the star, and how much input did he have with you about the songs?
Paul: A lot. First of all, it’s hugely important. The film is all about a charismatic, dynamic figure and his larger than life vision and so Hugh is just perfect. He’s insanely, annoyingly charismatic.
Pasek: Onscreen and off. He could convince you to do anything.
Paul: He’s the sort of song and dance man of our time and so it obviously was a thrill to get to write this for him and with him and to that end, he really was a collaborator in ways that he’s aware of and he’s not aware of. In the ways that he was aware of, he was giving notes on songs and giving thoughts all along the way. This was his project before it was anyone else’s, certainly before we were involved. So he was giving a lot of notes on it. But also, for us as the songwriters, as we’re writing every song to know the voice that we’re writing for really informs what we write, so he was that third subconscious collaborator in the room because anything that we’d write, a melody or a lyric or whatever it was, there was the Hugh test, of, “How would Hugh sound on that? Is that cool? Is that not cool? Will that feature his big, beautiful voice or is it a quiet intimate moment?” Either way it was always sort of the Hugh litmus test of how will he respond to that and how will that be performed in a way that highlights his incredible skills of which there are many.
Pasek: And from a songwriting standpoint, too, stylistically, Hugh and Michael [Gracey] always wanted to write a story that felt contemporary for this telling of P.T. Barnum. I know Hugh’s talked often about how he wanted it to be something that his 14-year-old daughter would spark to as much as his grandmother as well. So that kind of vision accompanying with who he is as an actor and the contemporary sensibility that people were trying to achieve even before we came onto the film definitely informed how we approached the material.
GD: I’m curious, how long did the whole creative process for you guys take? How many months and years of your lives were devoted to “The Greatest Showman”?
Paul: This one was in bursts. But it terms of span, this would be the longest, or be up there, ‘cause the other things have happened in the meanwhile since we started working on it.
Pasek: Yeah, we met our collaborator on “Dear Evan Hansen” in L.A. at the beginning of 2013 to really begin to dive into that stage musical and we happened to be in the right office at the right time for the very first opportunity we ever had to write anything for a film project. Especially at that time, the idea of getting to do a movie musical seemed like pie in the sky. It didn’t seem like it would ever happen and it was a real thrill that it began to take shape. But I guess it started in 2013 and then we began to develop it while we were developing other projects.
Paul: Always in bursts, so we’d focus on that for a few weeks and then turn to “Dear Evan Hansen” or turn to then eventually “La La Land” and some other things, but it was several workshops and readings over a period of 2013 until December of 2017 when it finally comes out.
GD: We mentioned the Grammys earlier. You’ve had just an incredible year overall in the last 12 months with an Oscar win and the Tony win. Take us back to Oscar night. What were your thoughts as you sat down that night and what was the moment like when it happened?
Pasek: I think it’s just a blackout moment, one of those things that maybe you can watch it and be like, “Was that real? Was I actually there?” And it seems so surreal and I think it’ll always seem really surreal. It was wonderful to share it with the team and we became really close with our collaborators on that project and Damien [Chazelle], Justin [Hurwitz] have become good friends of ours so to get to celebrate that evening together was a real thrill.
GD: I watched your speech last night and the moment where you thank your mom and she gets up and shouts, that was such a cool moment.
Pasek: She’s a Jewish mom. Very excited. But I didn’t tell her that I was gonna say anything about her so I think that particularly she was really surprised and I’m really happy we got to share that moment together, too.
GD: And then the Tonys last June, winning for “Dear Evan Hansen,” how was that experience different from the Oscars? Whenever I’ve talked to people nominated at the Tonys, performing at the Tonys, they often talk about how that whole award show is such a community. Everybody works within a few blocks of each other.
Pasek: Everyone knows everybody. The Oscars was definitely us gawking. We couldn’t believe—
Paul: We definitely felt like guests at a really, really cool party. We feel, of course, part of the community, but we were born and bred as theater people, as New York, Broadway kind of people so I think the Tonys definitely feels like that, definitely feels like you’re at this small family event. It’s a smaller industry and it’s also, the real estate is much smaller. It’s those 10 blocks in New York and it’s sort of like, the world knows the Oscars which is really an incredible thing. I think the Tonys night, I think a lot of Broadway folks feel like this is the one night where everybody knows about Broadway and you can celebrate Broadway. It’s an important industry and art form. There have been articles written throughout the years of like, “Is Broadway dying?” Or any of those things, so I think any time the Tonys come around, everyone feels like, “Oh this is an exciting night ‘cause we get to celebrate this art form that everyone’s really passionate about so it felt like a family event and to be there with our collaborators on that show, for the show itself to be recognized that was the most exciting part, and watching so many of our colleagues get up to be recognized for their achievements was definitely the highlight for us. Running into our collaborator, Steven Levenson, backstage, we didn’t know he had won ‘cause we had gone backstage already and then he came around the corner.
Pasek: He’s swinging around the corner.
Paul: And we were like, “What are you doing here?!” And he was like—
Pasek: He’s holding a Tony Award!
Paul: “I won!” We’re like, “Really?” He’s like, “Yes, I’m holding, like, yeah!” So we were really crossing our fingers for him and all of our colleagues so to get to watch them have that experience was the true highlight.
GD: In L.A. where we are right now there are posters everywhere for “The Greatest Showman” and billboards everywhere and a lot of them say, “From the lyricists of ‘La La Land.’” Is there a lot of pressure to have that moniker around your names?
Paul: I think… yeah? (Laughs.)
Pasek: They’re two very different projects.
Paul: To us it’s like, “Oh sure, okay, I guess that’s technically true, but I’m not sure one has to do with the other.” I mean they’re both musicals and so that’s good but they’re such different films.
Pasek: And their ambitions are different.
Paul: Which is cool, which is the really cool thing. To get to have worked on “La La Land” and what that was and then “Greatest Showman” which is what that’s meant to be, which is something very different, I think it’s cool. If you’re asking us, we wouldn’t mind if they lost the moniker of that (laughs).
GD: Just Benj and Justin.
Paul: Or just nowhere.
Pasek: Or just Hugh Jackman (laughs).
Paul: Yeah, there are some exciting selling points about the film, with some wonderful actors but I think what we like about being writers as opposed to being actors is being in the background and hopefully the work speaks, or doesn’t speak but that’s sort of what our focus is and just getting to work as hard as we can and try to make something that we’re proud of and let it be out in the world and let the actors shine. Let it really take centerstage ‘cause they give really incredible, dynamic performances in the film.
GD: You’ve got the Oscar, you’ve got the Tony, nominated at the Grammys, we talked about that earlier. Just need the Emmy for EGOT. I remember interviewing Lin-Manuel Miranda around this time last year, he could’ve become the youngest EGOT winner ever. Some group from “La La Land” took him out, though, at the Oscars.
Paul: Oh boy.
GD: But what would that mean to you if you were ever to join that group? You’d have to… maybe “A Christmas Story” or something else would have to take off at the Emmys.
Pasek: This probably doesn’t sound like a real answer but it is real, we’re really just focused on just trying to write musical material that we’re proud of and work on projects that are exciting to us, and we feel really, really lucky that we get the opportunity to write musicals that are getting to be seen, so that feels like a really far departure from what our careers looked like three years ago. So for us it’s really an honor to be recognized with people that we respect so much. Having experiences like at the Oscars where we’re getting to see people that we’ve been fans of for so long like Sara Bareilles backstage, we get to geek out over the people whose music we listen to and get to be in the room with collaborators and artists that we really respect. All of the rest of it is just cherry on top of an incredible sundae but we just honestly feel really lucky that we’re getting to write.
Paul: To be working songwriters. That was always our goal from square one and that’ll keep being our goal and look, we also know that, ‘cause we see it all the time and we’ve experienced our own little mountains and valleys, I think that things can come in and out of fashion. We never know. You hit a tougher streak or things go well or whatever so I think having any focus on the awards thing, while it’s wonderful and we love seeing our colleagues especially recognized, it can come and go. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the next thing is going to be anything or guarantee anything so I think focusing on just trying to work on the assignments that we’re given or that we choose, that’s the most exciting part and just to get to keep working is our goal.