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Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman (c) Fox Movies

The Greatest Soundtrack

7 February 2018 Suzanne Frost

While critics collectively shunned The Greatest Showman in cinemas, the soundtrack has quickly gained cult status among stagey folks and seems to have embarked on a life of its own. Trending on iTunes and nudging Ed Sheeran’s album ÷ (Divide) off the number one position in both the UK and the US – a rarity for a movie soundtrack – it also has three separate tracks currently residing in the top 30 single charts.

The Greatest Showman, a freely interpreted, fantastical biography of circus pioneer P. T. Barnum, is quite obviously intended to be this generation’s Moulin Rouge!. But unlike Baz Luhrman’s pop culture phenomenon of the 00s, which recycled and mashed up pop and rock tunes from Elton John to Sting, The Greatest Showman is from beginning to end an entirely original new musical from the hands of young songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.


Benj Pasek and Justin Paul at the 75th Golden Globe awards (c) Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
 
While just a few years ago you could have called these two musicians up–and-coming Broadway newcomers, they are by now proper Hollywood royalty and well on their way to becoming the next EGOTs, an illustrious group of only 12 high achieving artists who won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award for their work. Last year, everybody’s favourite Lin-Manuel Miranda got close – but ultimately missed out on the Oscar which instead went to “City of Stars” from La La Land, written by, you guessed it, Pasek and Paul. The team behind Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen and the television series Smash (whose soundtrack is also well worth a listen) have teamed up with Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire as executive producer on The Greatest Showman. Lacamoire’s influence and style are easily recognisable on every track: the use of stamping feet, clapping hands or clinking glasses to create rhythm patterns. The way he uses the background choir almost as another instrument with short rhythmic shouts, echos and defiant battle cries, building momentum.


 Zac Efron and Zendaya in The Greatest Showman (c) Fox Movies

The opening number “This is the greatest show” is a song clearly written in a post-Hamilton era, with a mild Hip Hop influence just gently adding spice to a big stadium pop song, the suspended beats of silence adding thrill. Of course it helps that, unlike the cast of La La Land, Hugh Jackman is a fully-fleshed triple threat, an award winning actor of leading man calibre with a big warm voice and impeccable choreographic timing. The same can be said for High School Musical’s Zac Efron as Barnum’s suave business partner Philip Carlyle and, more surprisingly, for Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife Charity. Other cast members include pop star Zendaya and Loren Allred, first discovered on season 3 of The Voice America. Her out of this world vocals on the belting ballad “Never enough” were described by a critic on Variety as “Adele ascending into the heavens”. “From Now On”, the closing number by Jackman and ensemble, works with a folksy banjo riff reminiscent of Mumford & Sons, mixing country and gospel.


Kaela Settle as Lettie Lutz in The Greatest Showman (c) Fox Movies
 

The song competing for an Oscar on 4 March is “This is me”, the most unapologetic anthem of self-acceptance since Lady Gaga’s “Born this way”. Broadway singer Kaela Settle, playing bearded lady Lettie Lutz, drives this number from a soft solo ballad into a soulful oversized Gospel choral. Pasek and Paul use the ensemble on almost every song, emphasising that The Greatest Showman is an ensemble musical about finding acceptance, a place to belong and sticking together as a family. Sceptics might quibble that the 11 songs do sound somewhat similar but Pasek and Paul work with repetitive musical motives, a method of storytelling that also gives the album a rounded unifying sound. This is a big bold musical score, crossing over genres, mixing classic show tunes with pop rock and gospel, creating an album that is joyous, optimistic and life affirming.
 
The Greatest Showman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was released on Atlantic Records and is available on Spotify, iTunes and retail
 
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