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INTERVIEW: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul Discuss Inspiration, the Olympics, and Their Original Song, ‘This Is Me’

This Is Me

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have been called their generation’s Rodgers and Hammerstein. Just a year ago, the pair, known simply as Pasek and Paul, won the Academy Award for their Original Song, “City of Stars,” from the multiple award-winning “La La Land.”

They followed up an Oscar with a Tony for the hit Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” That show also led them to a Grammy.

And if that wasn’t enough for 2017, the finished the year with the Hugh Jackman-led musical, “The Greatest Showman.” That film, still in theaters, turned out to be a huge hit with audiences, and the soundtrack has been the #1 album on iTunes for weeks. Their song, “This Is Me,” is featured in spots during the Olympics, and has earned them a second trip to the Dolby Theater.

I spoke with the ultra talented duo the other day about their work on “The Greatest Showman” and their song, “This Is Me.”

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Hi! How are you guys?

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul: Good! Great! What’s happening?

KP: I’m so excited to talk to you guys. I can’t even tell you how much I love all of the music for “The Greatest Showman.”

P&P: Oh, thank you!

KP: No, thank YOU. You know, I have to tell you this is the first music I have purchased in years.

P&P: {Laughter}

KP: I don’t buy music anymore, but I just had to have this because this music is so great. So, congratulations on your accomplishment.

Justin: Thank you. That is an accomplishment! We got you to buy music!

KP: It’s true! So, how have the last few months been for you?

Justin: It’s been really good. It’s been interesting and exciting to watch the story that’s unfolded with the soundtrack and the film. In some ways surprising and unexpected. So, you know, whenever that kind of thing happens…whenever it’s happening to you on your own, at least for us, we don’t find it that exciting.

The best part is just to get to share it with people that you love and especially the people that we worked with on the film. To get to see Michael Gracey and to get to be hanging with Keala Settle, and to talk with Hugh Jackman and everyone feeling so excited and proud of what the film has done and what the soundtrack was and how that’s been received as well. Tat is the really exciting joy. To get to see smiles on other peoples’ faces and feel like we all got to create something together that we’re proud of.

KP: One of the things I’ve loved as I’ve watched you guys at different awards shows and events is that you just look like you’re having so much fun. How do you keep the momentum going?

Benj: There’s a lot to be excited about right now. “[The] Greatest Showman” was a project we began working on in 2013, so it’s been a long road for us. And a lot of hills and valleys go into the making of a movie musical and the soundtrack. A lot of nights in the studio and a lot of nights on set. And a lot of nights up with Michael Gracey until 5:00 in the morning trying to crack what a song should be.

And I think this is the culmination of the highs and the lows. Getting to celebrate that people are reacting so passionately to the film and the music. And so that is a really exciting thing for us and it inspires us and invigorates us and reinvigorates us and gets us excited about diving back in to create a project again. Because you spend a lot of sleepless nights trying to make something that you’re proud of. So letting it out into the world and having people react to it is a really great reminder of all the ups and downs that go along the way.

KP: I was at the event awhile back where Benj and Hugh were there, Justin, you weren’t able to make it—

Justin: Yeah…

KP: I know, we were all disappointed you couldn’t make it. But Benj was telling the story about how you got signed on to the project. Can you tell that story again, because I thought it was so funny.

Justin: Yeah, we were—Well, Benj, you want to tell it again?

Benj: No, please do! I already told it once, you can tell it now.

Justin: Well I’ll tell my version and we’ll see if they match.

KP: Yeah, we’ll compare them.

Justin: We were staying in Los Angeles. We live in New York, but we were staying there for a couple of months, actually working on “Dear Evan Hansen” with our collaborator at the time. He was living in LA because he was working on a TV show, so we went out there to basically stalk him on his off hours.

…We didn’t have a place to stay. No one was putting us up. So I have some family friends who had a house in Toluca Lake and they’d moved back to the East Coast, but they hadn’t sold their house yet. It was up on the market. So they were like, “As long as you get out of the house on Sundays for Open Houses, you can crash there the rest of the week.” And we were like, “Amazing!” And it was a beautiful home. Totally not within our means. We had like, basically, a fake, pretend LA life. With a pool.

So we were working on “Dear Evan Hansen” there. And the other goal was basically to meet some people in LA and to have a few meetings. I didn’t have many contacts there or anything. So we were in a meeting—in a general meeting—with the Fox Music Department. And we were meeting with someone and talking about musicals. And she said, “Oh, you know, I think we’re developing a musical. My colleague is sort of the executive on the project.” And we were like, “Okay.” And she said, “Let me see if he’s in right now.” And she called his office and he was in, so she said, “Let’s stop by and say hi to him.” So we stopped in he’s like, “Uh..yeah…Who are you?” And we’re like, “We’re Benj and Justin and we write songs and we haven’t done a lot, but we’re really excited!”

And he said, “We’re working on a musical right now, we’re developing. It’s called ‘The Greatest Showman on Earth.’” That’s what it was called then. And he said, “Actually, I can show you the director’s mood reel.” So he showed us the mood reel, which was this beautiful thing that Michael Gracey had edited together to sort of give the feeling of what the movie wants to be, and we were mesmerized. And he said, “I think he’s actually in town right now.” And we were thinking, okay, another lucky circumstance. So he called him and said, “Yeah, he’s in town. He’d be happy to meet up with you guys and walk you through the film, and pitch it and see if it’s something you think you could write for.”

So we met up with Michael at Soho House in LA and he pitched the film. And we were completely taken with Michael and his energy and his passion and enthusiasm for what it was. He talked about wanting to tell this period story with contemporary music. We didn’t understand that concept at all. We didn’t say we didn’t understand, we just said, “That sounds amazing.”

And so we went home and thought about it, and I think we were sort of puzzled by it. That was exciting. It was exciting that we didn’t really know how this would work, but what the heck. We should try this. It could be a really neat opportunity. And we loved Michael’s energy.

So he was leaving town in a few days, and we were like, “We need to write something before then.” So we locked ourselves in that Toluca Lake house for a few days and wrote a couple of songs, and then invited Michael over to come and listen. Basically say, “Here’s what we would pitch. Here’s the style we would write for the songs for this movie if you would ever be interested.” And he showed up to the house—first of all, it’s this beautiful home. But he walked in thinking we were much more successful than we really were. So I think that was part of why he even entertained us in the first place. He thought, “Wow, these guys are, like, legit guys. They’re staying in this big, beautiful home in Toluca Lake.” But, obviously it wasn’t our home at all.

So we played him through a couple of songs and he immediately started giving us notes. We came to learn that that was a great sign. It meant he wanted to engage. It meant that he thought there was something worthwhile there. “I have a lot of thoughts.” It was a jumping off point. And from there we started a collaboration with Michael that lasted three or four years.

KP: Wow. And what a great collaboration. So, the main reason we’re talking today is because you’re nominated for another Oscar. Two years in a row. You just won last year and you’re nominated again for “This Is Me.” That song has become such an anthem for people. What was the process of writing that song? How did you get to the final version we hear in the film?

Benj: I guess it’s really a mix between being inspired by the director Michael Gracey and the incredible Keala Settle. Michael Gracey always talked about wanting a moment in the film where the “oddities” who these are people who have been hidden in their parents’ attics or basements, who have spent their whole lives living in the shadows. And eventually they, for the first time, felt love and appreciation, stepping out from the darkness into the light and having the world embrace them.

And when Barnum turns his back on them in the film, [Michael] wanted a moment where they had found enough of their own self-worth to really sing a song that epitomized that idea of claiming self-love. We were really confused as to how to figure that out. So we began to re-imagine a song.

Previously, it was a song that was sung by Tom Thumb. But we had been working on a series of workshops and readings for “The Greatest Showman” with tons of Broadway talent. And one of the people that was in those readings and workshops was Keala Settle. At the time, the Bearded Lady was just a song that had a couple of lines here and there, maybe a one line solo. And we began to think, what if we didn’t write the song for Tom Thumb? What if we wrote the song for a Keala Settle type? What if the Bearded Lady had a song instead? And, really, it was so inspired because we knew the incredible power and vulnerability and visceral nature of what she’s able to do when she opens her mouth.

And so we pitched back to Michael, “We kind of are thinking about how to achieve what your beautiful vision is for this anthemic moment for the oddities, but we’re not sure if we can do it if it’s just for the Tom Thumb character. How do you feel about the Bearded Lady singing this song?” And we were really in a big time crunch because we were trying to get the film greenlit and we needed this song cuz otherwise everything would fall apart. Because that’s what was being told back to us. And he’s like, “Give me a song! Just, anything! Make it work!” And we were like, “Okay!” So we really began to think of how do we create a song for Keala Settle to sing in these workshops? And from there, that’s how everything began to pivot and “This Is Me” was created to sort of serve that moment and then serve her character. And, as a result, the rest of the character got adjusted throughout the film to lead up to that moment for her.

KP: What was it like when you found out they were going to use it for promos for the Olympics?

Justin: That was pretty mind-blowing. Honestly, I’m still speechless even trying to answer that question. Because, obviously, when you write a song like that, it’s for the moment and for the character. But if it has some resonance or relevance outside of that moment, that’s a really special thing too. And so, you know, it’s very inspiring to watch. The Olympics themselves are inspiring. The athletes’ stories are inspiring. So to get to play a little part in the telling of those stories feels really special and meaningful and such a huge honor. It’s a total thrill.

KP: And it really is such a special song. I’m excited that you’re having so much success with it. So last year you had “La La Land,” this year you’ve got “The Greatest Showman,” and you’re getting ready to go on tour with “Dear Evan Hanson,” right?

Benj: That is true! It goes on tour in the fall!

Justin: Yes!

KP: I’m excited. I’ve been dying to see it, and I’m finally getting the chance!

Benj: That’s wonderful. Thank you!

KP: So what’s next? What are you working on?

Benj: Well, right now we’re still in the midst of all the beautiful things with “Greatest Showman.” We’re so excited about Keala singing on the Oscars.

KP: I cannot wait for that.

Benj: Yeah! We’re so excited…There’s lot of still exciting things happening with “Greatest Showman” and “This is Me” and with a lot of exciting ventures that are happening with the album. So that’s thrilling. And then yeah, we’re working on a couple of upcoming musical projects. We had the great fortune of collaborating with Alan Menken on a couple of songs for the live-action “Aladdin” that’s going to be coming up next year—

KP: Oooh

Benj: Yeah! That finished shooting about a month ago. And yeah, we’re just excited about this beautiful climate we’re in right now where musical theater and musical movies are being so embraced and people are willing to take risks on narrative storytelling through song. And that’s a really wonderful thing for guys like us who grew up loving musicals and being devotees of the art form, and we’re really thrilled that we’re living in a world where musicals are being created and people are showing up at the box office and wanting to see them.

KP: It really is an exciting time. I grew up on musical theater too. I love musicals. The big old timey ones and some of the newer stuff too. But there’s something that’s just really special about “The Greatest Showman” and really what that comes down to is the music. And you guys did such an amazing job with it. So congratulations to you. I smell a second Oscar coming your way.

Both: {Laugh}

Benj: We’re just excited to get to go and be around people we love and admire.

Justin: Yeah, being in that room is really special thing. And, again, the reward that night for us will be to watch Keala go from when she was performing in the chorus at a workshop to fast forward to her standing center stage on the Oscars delivering a performance. That’s the highlight.

Benj: She said her goal was to melt Meryl Streep’s face off.

KP: {Laughs} That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much to both of you! Congratulations! I’ll be looking for you at the Oscars!

Both: Oh, thank you!

We at Awards Circuit would like to thank Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for taking some time to talk about “This Is Me.” The song is nominated for Best Original Song. “The Greatest Showman” was produced and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox, and the soundtrack is available on iTunes.

What do you think?

AC Fan

Written by Karen M. Peterson

Karen Peterson is a writer from Southern California. When she is not at the ballpark cheering on her LA Angels, she can usually be found in a movie theater or in front of the television. Karen is obsessed with awards shows, and loves everything from the smallest indie film to the biggest of big budget spectacles. She is also unapologetically in love with Tom Cruise.

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