'Greatest Showman': How a pop-culture punchline became the year's best-selling album
Inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum, 'The Greatest Showman' is an original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.
There's no escaping "The Greatest Showman."
Take it from the movie's Oscar- and Tony-winning songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek ("La La Land," "Dear Evan Hansen"), whose inboxes are flooded daily with videos of people singing, dancing and working out to its aggressively upbeat soundtrack.
"We know a lot people who have done 'Greatest Showman' rides at SoulCycle," Paul says. "We also got a lot of messages (in August) about this huge bar fight in Greece happening to 'Never Enough,' " a stirring ballad performed by former "The Voice" contestant Loren Allred for the film.
"Greatest Showman" was the butt of Twitter jokes when it hit theaters last December: roundly mocked for its anachronistic pop songs and largely fictionalized account of how P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) created the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the late 1800s. But the glossy PG-rated movie musical managed to overcome middling reviews (55% positive on Rotten Tomatoes) to become a sleeper box-office smash, earning more than $400 million worldwide.
Its original soundtrack was a similar slow-burn success in January, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart in its fourth week of release and dominating Spotify's U.S. viral chart with earwormy singles including "Never Enough" and "This Is Me," its Oscar-nominated empowerment anthem. Since then, the album has sold more copies than any album this year in the U.S. (1.3 million), according to Nielsen Music, and shattered multiple records across the pond, where it's matched the U.K. chart runs of Adele's "21" and The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
Now, the album is getting a star-studded facelift with "The Greatest Showman: Reimagined," out Friday, which contains 13 covers by mainstream acts including Kesha, Missy Elliott, Sara Bareilles, Zac Brown Band, Ty Dolla $ign and Panic! at the Disco.
Initially, a deluxe edition of the soundtrack was planned for release timed to Mother's Day, featuring two to three covers by well-known singers as bonus tracks. But coming off the success of the celebrity-fillled "The Hamilton Mixtape" in late 2016, Atlantic Records' president Kevin Weaver saw more lucrative prospects in a full album.
"Showman" trails only Drake's "Scorpion" and Post Malone’s “Beerbongs & Bentleys” in terms of total album consumption (sales and streams) in 2018, so "my expectations are very high for this," Weaver says. "With such a strong brand and amazing new renditions of the songs, I anticipate this will have a huge life of its own. I also expect it continue to be a feeder into the original cast album, and for this to be a really special release around the holidays" for families, in particular.
"Reimagined"'s A-list roster was culled in part from social media, where pop superstars Pink and Kelly Clarkson have expressed their adoration for the film. Atlantic reached out to both women about contributing and let them have their picks of songs.
Clarkson, who posted a teary video of herself in bed watching "Showman" in March, chose to tackle "Never Enough" and (unsurprisingly) blew the roof off with her signature belt.
"There are only a handful of artists who can pull that off vocally and she's among the best vocalists in pop music right now," Pasek says. "That was really, really thrilling to get to hear her vocals on that song."
Pink, meanwhile, opted for hopeful showstopper "A Million Dreams," with one special request: that her 7-year-old daughter, Willow Sage Hart, could sing the reprise.
It was Willow's first time recording in a studio, "and it was overwhelming watching (Pink) teach her how to adjust the levels and sing into the microphone properly," Paul says. "It was like, 'Welcome to the world of Mama. This is what I do every day.' She coached her through the entire thing and it meant the world to her."
Beforehand, "Pink said, 'Look, I'd love for you guys to record my daughter doing it and that's enough. You don't have to put it on the album or anything,' " Paul continues. "And we were like, 'Are you kidding me? She sounds amazing and this is such a special moment. We have to let the world get to share in it as well.' "
Like many of the album's other often-treacly cuts, "Million Dreams" brims with optimism and imagines the ways in which ordinary people can make a better, brighter world. It's this precise lack of cynicism that its authors believe have made "Showman's" music such an unlikely phenomenon in divisive times.
"There was an article in Variety that talked about how 'Greatest Showman' was uncool in an appealing way and I think that's true," Pasek says. "Ten years ago, everything was sort of ironic and snarky, and there are definitely people who will approach this material (that way). But I think the reason that it's resonated is that it isn't trying to be anything other than open-hearted, fun and uplifting."