Greatest expectations: How The Greatest Showman became 2018's biggest-selling album

Greatest expectations: How The Greatest Showman became 2018's biggest-selling album

Flash back to a bright, yet freezing sunny day back in early March 2017: your correspondent is in search of The Greatest Showman set in New York at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios. The cast are on a break, but waiting inside what seems a fairly ordinary if enormous, grey warehouse, are two of the most important people involved in the project - Benj Pasek and Justin Paul - who are writing the songs.  

Walking into the Showman set, the attention to detail is impressive. Our interview takes place in McCarthy’s Tavern as the sign read, a 19th century fabricated bar, that would become the setting for the song The Other Side, performed by Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron.

Tiers of ornate glasses and bottles line the wall behind the oversized bar that allowed for dancing on top, while the head of a buffalo hangs casually on the wall behind. A few days before, New York-based Pasek and Paul had flown back from Los Angeles after winning an Oscar for Best Song (with Justin Hurwitz) for City Of Stars from La La Land.  

“Somebody did tell me, ‘Isn’t it amazing that everyone thinks your ideas are so much better on Monday?’” Pasek jokes when asked what changes when you bring an Academy Award home on Sunday.

“All our ideas got a lot better on that Monday,” adds Paul. “But we throw out as many bad ideas as ever...” Pasek picks up the thread: “...So we have to remind ourselves that no, that idea is actually terrible, it needs work.”

The Greatest Showman had already been in development for three years before Pasek and Paul were brought on board in 2013. A long gestating passion project of star Hugh Jackman and director Michael Gracey, the musical was to use new, contemporary songs and juxtapose their sound with a 19th century setting to tell their version of the PT Barnum circus story.

“It’s been done before,” says Paul. “You look at something like Hamilton, or a lot of the Disney films, something like Frozen, there are a lot of pieces that use that contrast. I think we questioned it when we first came on to the project before we really understood the nature of it and then, once we got the hang of it, the moment you meet this guy [Barnum] you’re going to see something very contemporary about him.”

“Michael Gracey always talked about Barnum as the Jay-Z or Steve Jobs of his day,” Paul continues. “He was ahead of his time, always one step ahead mentally. So I think that element, combined with the circus which is so fantastical, there’s a little recipe that helps you get to the place of, ‘Well, yes of course they’re singing and dancing like that, because it’s a little bit heightened and ahead of its time’. I buy it, but then again we wrote the songs!”

That wasn’t the only risk involved in the project. Showman was the first fully original musical Fox had undertaken in more than 20 years. It would’ve been the first original musical in Hollywood had La La Land not crept in under the radar.

“We didn’t know if anyone would go see La La Land,” says Paul, noting how musicals tend to go in cycles and can polarise audiences. You love ‘em, or you hate ‘em. Pasek and Paul adore musicals, telling Music Week how the Disney animated ones were a big part of both of their childhoods.

The pair met at university while doing a degree in musical theatre; their writing favours Paul on the music, and Pasek on the lyrics but it’s a joint process to create the whole.

Michael Gracey took a considered risk getting the duo for Showman. There may have been a small lie involved which suggested Pasek and Paul had won awards for their songs to help sway the studio.

In 2012 and 2013 that hadn’t happened yet, as the composers were little known outside the musical theatre world, despite having had success with stage shows including A Christmas Story and Dogfight, but their hit rate was to grow exponentially as they began to work simultaneously on three projects; The Greatest Showman, La La Land and Dear Evan Hanson (the Broadway Show would go on to win six Tony Awards and a Grammy).

“It’s really cool to balance [those projects]. We’re in the world of Dear Evan Hanson writing songs for characters who were not experiencing a lot of joy,” says Paul. “And then being able to say, ‘Today we are working on The Greatest Showman so we’re going to find our way to something joyous that has a real pulse and a real energy behind it.

Even in moments at four in the morning, when we think we should quit, what are we doing? Michael has told us for the 20th time that the film’s going to fall over unless we write this song, like we should just stop this! I do think we became a little addicted to writing songs for this movie.”

“It lifted us up every time we wrote for it,” adds Pasek.

With a rumoured budget of $84 million (£59m), there were various points in preproduction when The Greatest Showman was almost called off, as can happen with films. “Michael Gracey is such a great leader and he’s very smart about his strategy,” says Paul, recalling how the director told them more than once that, unless they could write an inspirational song to send to the studio, the movie could be over.

Each and every time the pair delivered, most notably turning in lead single This Is Me under enormous pressure.

“I think we were given two days to write it and record it and send it to the studio,” remembers Pasek. “We got on a plane to Los Angeles. There is a photo that Michael took of us on the plane with Justin [Paul] on a little mini keyboard, and me on a laptop and by the time we landed we had something.”

The first time the world got to hear This Is Me was at the end of October 2017 when Atlantic put it online, audio only, alongside The Greatest Show. It was two months ahead of the film’s UK release on December 26, 2017 and the full album was to come out on December 8.

Bauer’s Magic Radio documentaries featured the Showman music heavily, airing each weekend in December, but the songs did not pick up substantial radio airplay until January, despite two thirds of the tracks being a radio-friendly sub-four minutes.

Film reviews started coming out mid-December and most were not kind. Many critics had not bought into the film’s blend of songs and story, which played with some of the facts of Barnum’s life. It turned out to be a completely different view from audiences, who warmed to the themes of inclusion and the infectious music. Fox and Atlantic had also done a joint promotion with the Odeon cinema chain, offering a free download of a track from the Showman soundtrack in exchange for adverts expressly calling out the record.

If you pre-ordered a ticket for the film, you got This Is Me for free and that was advertised in cinemas, online and on the Odeon app ahead of the film’s release.

Sung by the bearded lady of PT Barnum’s circus, This Is Me was conceived as the rousing anthem at the heart of Showman and will now forever be associated with Broadway singer Keala Settle.

That’s exactly how Pasek and Paul wanted it to be, bringing Keala in for the initial music workshops where the story goes her performance impressed studio bosses so much, they hired her for the film on the spot.

“I think there are amazing people in the pop world we would love to sing This is Me,” says Paul. “But Keala Settle, she was the very first person to sing this song.”

“She will be the defining voice for that song,” adds Pasek, “and it’s a huge honour for us to have her sing it.”       

Eventually Kesha went on to record a version of This Is Me, and while received favourably, its 3 million views on YouTube pale in comparison to the 100 million combined views of Keala Settle’s take on the song (44m for the audio version, 14m for the lyric version, 25m for the full lyric video and 17m for that workshop version).

To date, This Is Me has dominated the popularity of all the Showman songs on YouTube, where more than 3,000 videos of the song have been posted, both official and fan cover versions.

“On the social side, we’ve been monitoring some of the organic UGC that’s come out of the popularity of the film and especially the music,” says Nick Long, head of digital, Atlantic Records UK.

The label’s UK president Ben Cook adds to that by explaining how pre-marketing before Christmas – with that in-cinema deal – meant “that we have been able to deliver massive sales right from the launch. This has been sustained by a focus on Keala Settle’s This Is Me across radio, streaming, TV and more.”   

Atlantic reports that the Odeon deal saw ads reach 17m people, establishing the soundtrack as central to the film before its release, and equates to $622k (£437k) worth of media value across Europe, in return for 1695 tracks.

It wasn’t just This Is Me that radio eventually decided to go with, though. Never Enough was the first song from the soundtrack played on BBC Radio 2, on Ken Bruce’s show, on January 5, followed by a play on Elaine Paige On Sunday that same weekend.

Hugh Jackman’s From Now On was then picked for The Happening with Anneka Rice, and the Showman soundtrack became Radio 2’s Album Of The Week starting January 8.

The station put This is Me on its A-list from January 13, and has recently done the same for new release Rewrite The Stars sung by Zac Efron and Zendaya.

“We pride ourselves in picking the best of the best new music, music that is new to Radio 2, and the team really demonstrated that with our support of The Greatest Showman OST,” says Jeff Smith, head of music, Radio 2 and 6 Music.

“Ahead of others and despite many negative film reviews, Radio 2 spotted the quality of the music and played tracks very early, as our unique approach to music radio programming, experience and gut instincts pointed to its appeal for our core and new listeners.”

Bauer has also shown continued support for This Is Me on Magic, while Mellow Magic has played several Showman album tracks around musicals’ content on Sunday afternoons. Global’s Heart and Capital have not played the songs outside of the BT40 chart show on Sundays.

“When we secured the worldwide first TV performance on Graham Norton, Keala produced an exceptional performance that, too, was a massive driver for us,” says Cook.

That was on February 9, while Spotify reports that the soundtrack had its first major spike in streams over Christmas when the movie first came out, with streams peaking at the end of January.

In all the soundtrack has received over 700m streams on Spotify, increasing to 1 billion when other streaming sites are added. Taking all of that into account, it makes sense how The Greatest Showman album first went to No. 1 in the UK on January 18, and has spent 12 of the subsequent 14 weeks claiming that top spot, with George Ezra and Kylie Minogue being the only acts to relegate the soundtrack to No.2.

The February release of the sing-along version of the movie provided another boost for music sales as well as cinema tickets. Payment schemes that allow unlimited access to films at a cinema chain aren’t new, but The Greatest Showman has certainly benefited from them.

Head of film for the Cineworld chain, Stuart Crane, says that, “Over 1.5 million tickets for the film have been purchased across our cinemas, with many customers using their Unlimited cards to see the movie again and again”.

He adds that “Even now in its 14th week, there is still a strong demand for the film” and that when audiences were asked to tweet how many times they’d seen Showman, someone replied that he’d seen it 29 times at his local cinema. Just last month, Hugh Jackman mused that perhaps Showman will become the Rocky Horror of its generation.

By the end of March 2018, The Greatest Showman had become the biggest selling album of the year in the UK. Its sold 581,298 copies according to Official Charts Company data, prompting Atlantic’s Cook to call it a “landmark moment”.

“It’s quite simply a phenomenon, which eclipses all recent projects of its kind,” he says. The breakdown of sales is also revealing, showing how the soundtrack has skewed to a younger audience, highly unusual for a musical soundtrack of this kind.

“If someone said you were going to sell half a million [soundtrack] records in the first quarter, then the expectation would be 80% of those would be physical,” admits Derek Allen, Warner Music UK SVP, commercial, “but it’s more like half.” 

The 255,751 Q1 physical copies account for just 44% of Showman’s sales with 34% weighted towards streaming (198,438 streams of the album) and 22% downloads (127,109).

Whereas pop music and hip-hop have traditionally dominated on streaming sites, other indicators show that soundtracks are now finding listeners there as well. The Moana soundtrack, co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, ended 2017 as the 12th best selling album of the year.

Of the 281,066 units sold, 45% were physical copies (127,534), a trend-bucking 38% were streams (106,532) leaving 17% as downloads(47,000). Miranda already had form in this arena with the huge success of his Hamilton musical soundtrack (630.4m streams worldwide on Spotify, and 88.7m streams worldwide on Apple Music).

There’s a similar picture with two other best-selling soundtracks from last year, Beauty & The Beast and La La Land, which both showed a more even split between physical and streaming/downloads. 54% of Beauty & the Beast’s sales were physical (61,227), while 27% came from streams (30,661) and 19% from downloads (21,245).

The lean towards streaming was even more pronounced for La La Land, which saw 35% of its success on streams (54,340), 23% downloads (36,522) and a comparatively small 42% physical sales (66,830).

Interestingly, the Trolls soundtrack, which may have suggested it would out-perform on streaming sites thanks to having Justin Timberlake as its executive producer and appearing on many tracks, ended up being more traditional from a sales point of view.

Physical sales account for 66% of the Trolls soundtrack (200,754), with a relatively diminished percentage of streams and downloads at 18% (56,011) and 16% (48,033) respectively. It’s worth noting, too, that Showman’s Pasek and Paul were also responsible for the Anna Kendrick performed Get Back Up Again on the Trolls soundtrack.

Six months on from the music first coming out, Atlantic are not quite done with The Greatest Showman soundtrack just yet. Cook says he plans to “continue to market the record through innovative ways throughout 2018” and if he manages to keep up that momentum on sales, expect to see Showman creeping towards Mamma Mia’s position as the current best-selling film soundtrack in the UK since the Official Charts Company took over in 1994.

Mamma Mia’s sold 1,513,038, while another Zac Efron film, High School Musical, is close behind in second position with 1,265,574 (but bear in mind that The Bodyguard OST predates both and remains the global soundtrack best seller by some margin).

“We’ve still got a couple of big opportunities with the soundtrack still to come, and the digital release on TV,”
says Warner’s Derek Allen. “And we’ve got the DVD release in mid-May. Historically, those have always been big opportunities for soundtracks as well. It feels like it could get another bump there.”

There are no exact details on what’s next for the Showman soundtrack, but with a cast that remains passionate and engaged with the project (check the social media accounts for Jackman, Efron, Zendaya and Settle), a one-off live concert (perhaps televised), or even a short tour wouldn’t be unimaginable (although the scheduling of talent involved could be hellish).

“In the next five years I’ll be very surprised if there isn’t a stage adapation that’s introduced,” suggests Cineworld’s Stuart Crane, something that Hugh Jackman has considered as well.

So passion, marketing, talent and timing have all played their role in this soundtrack’s success but it’s the themes of the music that so many people have taken to heart.     

“The Greatest Showman is really a joy to work on,” says Pasek. “Because you have this central visionary,

PT Barnum, and he collects people who felt like they had been subjugated and lived on the outside of society for so long and they for the first time step into the light and are celebrated.

And that, for anyone who has ever felt like they are an outsider, anyone who has ever felt alone or has felt that they don’t fit in with the world as it is, it’s a really joyous, wonderful thing to see a group of people like that be celebrated.

That’s what this film celebrates and that’s something that we’re proud to be a part of and proud to write music for.”

But watch out Showman, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!, with accompanying soundtrack, is out in cinemas in July...

Story By: Natalie Jamieson

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