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America’s New Favorite Soundtrack Is … ‘The Greatest Showman’?

The Hugh Jackman movie-musical is a sleeper hit at the box office and on Billboard. Why are so many people enamored of a bunch of songs about love and trapezes?

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

One of the biggest albums in America kicks off with a shrill, synthetic howl: half feral bleacher-stomping roar, half studio-treated android wail. WHOOOOAAAAAA! The effect is very unpleasant, and not ineffective; this project’s thesis, after all, is that there is no wrong way to get your attention. The bombastic tunes mix EDM gleams with stadium-rock grunts, chest-pounding ballads with peppy empowerment anthems, a thoroughly modern and disconcertingly eager post-genre assault designed to barnstorm as many Spotify playlists as possible. It’s a gilded cheese ball, pushing exhilaration to the point of exhaustion. It is blatantly too much in what it hopes is a charming and semi-organic way.

The record in question is not Fall Out Boy’s sprawling, bonkers Mania. Nor Imagine Dragons’ post-arena rock caterwaul Evolve. Nor the latest nuclear pop bombardments from Demi Lovato, or Camila Cabello, or Dua Lipa, or Taylor Swift. Nor Justin Timberlake’s confused-sexbot-in-bear’s-clothing Man of the Woods. The soundtrack to the cheery Hugh Jackman movie musical The Greatest Showman shares DNA with all of those, but it may yet prove a bigger hit than at least a few of them.

The Greatest Showman, a plucky, PG-rated song-and-dance extravaganza directed by Australian rookie Michael Gracey and starring Jackman as circus magnate P.T. Barnum, hit theaters just before Christmas with somewhat of a thud. Its top-tier Oscar aspirations were largely dashed by middling reviews and a general air of gently bemused skepticism. And the movie’s thesis—that Barnum, in assembling a lowbrow theater troupe of racially and physically diverse outcasts, was not exploiting “freaks” for financial gain, but rather revealing himself as the wokest dude in mid-19th-century New York City—was more suspicious still.

But the movie—concise, breathless, and relentlessly sunny even in its darker moments—perked up box office-wise just after Christmas, and now stands as a massive word-of-mouth hit with more burn than most top-tier Oscar contenders. Meanwhile, The Greatest Showman soundtrack—featuring original songs from powerhouse composer duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the EGOT-aspirant engine behind both La La Land and the Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen—is enjoying its own shadow-blockbuster campaign. It topped the Billboard album charts for two straight weeks in January, and likely has more staying power than much of its competition for weeks to come. (Enjoy it while it lasts, Fall Out Boy.) Turns out that the masses still love a good circus, and a good capital-M Musical, and an underdog, and songs of soaring inspiration untainted by irony or pretension, and very simple but reasonably sturdy words of encouragement that you can belt right back at the movie screen. (Sing-along screenings of The Greatest Showman are very popular. Bring the whole family, minus a grouchy uncle or two.)

The tipping point came when “This Is Me,” an empowerment-core “Fight Song” disciple with its own arsenal of WHOOOOAAAAAA!’s, won Best Original Song at the Golden Globes, driven by a fiery lead vocal from Broadway star Keala Settle, who plays Lettie Lutz, a.k.a the Bearded Lady. “This Is Me” is now The Greatest Showman’s sole Oscar nomination, also for Best Original Song, where it’s regarded as a front-runner alongside Coco’s magnificent tear-jerker “Remember Me.” (No offense to the Bearded Lady, but “Remember Me” had better win.)

Still, though, “This Is Me” is perfectly lovely, a modest showstopper with the blandly soaring uplift of a minor pop-radio hit. (Kesha covered it almost immediately, which makes almost too much sense.) The whole Greatest Showman soundtrack works like this, its crossover thirst all but audible, and also entirely plausible. The notion of pure musicals as pop-chart players got a big boost in the past few years with the multi-platform success of both Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton. And while movie musicals that double as Billboard hits tend to be animated Disney monoliths (Moana > Frozen), just last year, La La Land enjoyed its own January chart run, peaking at no. 2.

What separates La La Land and The Greatest Showman is several tiers of prestige. Charming as Jackman’s “Wolverine sells us a Monorail” act can be, it can’t compete with “Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling save jazz.” The Greatest Showman is a lowbrow tribute to P.T. Barnum, a historically lowbrow character; the movie is a rags-to-riches fable in which he longs for the monied adulation of the upper crust, but contents himself with titillating the unwashed but delighted masses.

The soundtrack, likewise, is populist to a fault, every song a Voltron-esque evocation of various current pop and rock stars. Jackman drives opening number “The Greatest Show,” channeling the noirish arena rock of Muse on the moody verses and the starry-eyed, slightly anonymous pop cheese of Walk the Moon or Bastille on the sunburst choruses. (He tries the same trick on the slightly more dancefloor-oriented “Come Alive,” which The Globe and Mail rather snobbishly dismissed as “a Miami Sound Machine D-side.”)

Michelle Williams, playing Barnum’s doting and long-suffering wife, channels pop-to-Broadway star Sara Bareilles on the soft-rock waltz “Tightrope.” And it’s awfully hard not to think of Adele when you get to “Never Enough,” a thunderous power ballad delivered in the movie by a lovelorn opera singer named Jenny Lind, played by recent Mission: Impossible series star Rebecca Ferguson but sung by The Voice alumnus Loren Allred. This song is definitely not opera, but it gets the job done if you like Sam Smith but worry that he’s not quite melodramatic enough. (Full disclosure: I recently put it on repeat on my drive home from the chiropractor.)

But if you want arguably The Greatest Showman’s best song performed by inarguably the cast’s coolest people, skip directly to “Rewrite the Stars,” a zingy duet between Zac Efron (playing a stuffy playwright slumming it with the circus) and Zendaya (as the trapeze artist who teaches that stuffy playwright how to love, or at least Emote). The vibe here is middlebrow pop-R&B, somewhere between Jason Derulo’s pool party and John Legend’s dinner party. But it is an undeniable thrill, sitting there in the theater, to watch these two very attractive people woo each other whilst sharing a trapeze. Efron, a friend to us all and a national treasure to some, slides up into a gentle falsetto with the mild, charismatic unease with which I imagine he puts on a shirt of any kind.

This extravaganza will, eventually, hit Broadway, and hit it hard. Meanwhile, it will haunt both box-office tallies and Billboard charts for the foreseeable future; it turns out that the breakout hit of this year’s Oscar field was excluded from that field entirely, save the Bearded Lady’s breakout moment. Lately, most successful movie soundtracks are heavily calculated pop-star grab-bags on the order of The Fate of the Furious or Suicide Squad or the 50 Shades of Grey empire’s various dry-humping jams. And even breakout musicals, from the live action (protect Mamma Mia!) to the animated (reject Trolls), usually rely on established jukebox hits and karaoke-style familiarity. This is different, and new, and original, at least in the sense that these are reliable sounds and words and uplifting sentiments put in a marginally unusual order. That the result isn’t that great doesn’t stop it from being awfully refreshing. There is a mild thrill in the mere act of not seeing this coming.

Indeed, no single element of The Greatest Showman is half as surprising as the fact the whole has proved so surprisingly popular. It is shocking, to say the least, to learn that moviegoers were clamoring for newer, flashier, cornier, more empowering musical-theater numbers; it is hopefully not the case that The Greatest Showman is the best those people can hope for. But the film spends most of its runtime convincing Hugh Jackman to stay humble, to forget the critics, to be content with thrilling thousands upon thousands of humbly uncool people as opposed to a few hundred ostensibly super-cool people. In both sound and vision, The Greatest Showman’s success coolly makes the same argument.