It never truly feels like Christmas for me unless there’s some kind of musical event in either the television or film world. Whether it’s a new movie musical for Hollywood or another one of those live musicals on TV (via NBC or FOX), a big part of my Christmas tradition nowadays is a new musical to watch and enjoy right before the big holiday. This year was no exception, bringing two musicals to my eyeballs. FOX just aired A Christmas Story Live! this past weekend (with a book by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins and music and lyrics by the songwriting duo Pasek and Paul) and 20th Century Fox is releasing a new movie musical about P.T. Barnum (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame) directed by Michael Gracey, with a screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and music and lyrics by Pasek and Paul. You might have noticed a theme there with both of this year’s big, new musical offerings: they both feature the music of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Fresh off their recent success with Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, Pasek and Paul have written original lyrics and music for The Greatest Showman as well as composing a new song for the live telecast of their 2012 Broadway musical A Christmas Story. (Also of note: one of last year’s big musical offerings, La La Land, also featured the lyrics of Pasek and Paul.) So with Pasek and Paul taking over my screens in both of the big new filmed musical offerings, I thought it worthwhile to give my thoughts on the soundtrack for The Greatest Showman (I haven’t seen the movie yet), FOX’s telecast of A Christmas Story Live!, and my general thoughts on the music of Pasek and Paul.
To say I’m not a big fan of Pasek and Paul would be a bit of an understatement. It’s not that I hate them or even actively dislike them. I just don’t really care for their music. I know, the fact that I’m writing an entire blog post about two of their works and their music, in general, seems to go against the idea that I don’t really care, but that’s not what I mean when I say I don’t really care for their music. What I mean is that their music does nothing for me. I find it generic, boring, and mostly disappointing. Their songs are mostly competent; they’re not bad songs or anything like that. There’s just also nothing special about them. Take any two songs they’ve written, even from different shows, and just listen to them side-by-side. You won’t hear much of a difference. They all kind of sound the same, and the sound that Pasek and Paul seem to go for is the sound of modern mainstream pop, a genre which doesn’t really do much for me. It’s a genre of music that feels cold, overly-polished, and ingenuine to me.
Currently, the two things that Pasek and Paul are best known for doing – to people outside of the musical theatre community – are the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen and the lyrics for the hit film La La Land. Both of these works exemplify my problems with Pasek and Paul’s music, particularly Dear Evan Hansen. Pasek and Paul aren’t entirely to blame for how bland and uninspiring La La Land was – they only wrote the lyrics to the songs, after all; the music was by Justin Hurwitz and the script was by La La Land director Damien Chazelle – but they are, however, entirely to blame for how bland and uninspiring Dear Evan Hansen is. Dear Evan Hansen is a musical that succeeds IN SPITE OF its music, not because of it. That musical works because it has a very strong, well-written, and well-executed book. It succeeds because of the talent on the stage and behind the scenes. Its music, however, is its weakest aspect. The songs are generic, uplifting numbers full of cliches and overused tropes, that aren’t particularly catchy or memorable in any way.
And I know that a lot of people love Dear Evan Hansen. It won a boatload of Tony Awards (though Kinky Boots won the Tony for Best Score and Best Original Musical over Matilda the Musical, a far better show in my opinion, so ya know) and has a legion of fans who adore the show and its music. I’m aware that my opinion seems to be an unpopular one. But I just don’t care for Dear Evan Hansen. Like I said, it has a great script that was well directed and well executed and it had some good acting. But the songs are just boring. The marketing for the musical didn’t help matters, what with the whole deifying of the thing. I’m glad a musical examining mental illness got big, but the way the marketing capitalized on that feels gross. That’s a different story, though. I just really don’t care for the music of the piece. I find it bland. I feel like it tries too hard to create something that’s gonna chart and be easily digestible by the mainstream audience. I understand that musicals need to sell just as much as mainstream music needs to sell, I just hate that it means that everything sounds so cold, calculated, and artificial. Lyrics aren’t filled with genuine emotion anymore in most mainstream pop, and it’s the same thing with Dear Evan Hansen – and most all of Pasek and Paul’s work. The lyrics seem deep and meaningful, but in execution, they just fall flat for me.
Speaking of things falling flat, let’s talk about A Christmas Story Live! It’s easily my least favorite of all the live musicals that have been broadcast since 2013’s The Sound of Music Live!. Sure, The Sound of Music Live! had a lot of problems, but at least it was a good musical. A Christmas Story Live! was a well directed, produced, and acted production of a truly awful musical. There’s no real plot that drives the narrative thrust of the musical forward, which would be fine if it spent any time developing the characters into anything memorable. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Add to that some truly unremarkable songs by Pasek and Paul and you’ve got a three-hour event that feels truly feels like a drag to sit through. There are so many songs that just kept happening so often that any momentum the musical had was constantly brought to a standstill by a musical number about a lamp in the shape of an erotic leg in fishnet stockings or something to that effect.
A Christmas Story Live! is the perfect example of why some people hate musicals. It’s a show that tries to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It thinks that audiences will grow bored if there’s not a constant bombardment of the senses (through elaborate song and dance numbers). It tries so hard to be entertaining that it actually ends up turning people off. It wants to make theatre accessible to those who don’t usually attend the theatre, but it fails. All people want is a good story. All good musicals feature songs that enrich the story or enrich the characters. The songs of all good musicals either help usher the plot forward or provide the audience with some kind of new insight into the characters. A Christmas Story Live! does neither of those things. Everything grinds to a halt while a mediocre, forgettable song and dance number happen. I truly can’t believe that Pasek and Paul’s score for A Christmas Story was ever nominated for a Tony Award. I saw the live production three days ago and I can’t remember the tune of a single song. The songs were boring and forgettable and took away from the experience of the show as a whole. The songs somehow made an already awful script even worse. In a way, it’s actually an amazing feat as many musicals that have a mediocre script end up being saved by its songs. A Christmas Story Live! is a musical with an awful script that decapitates the head of the musical complete with songs that then rip the heart out of our headless being.
All of this brings us to the soundtrack for the film The Greatest Showman, which, in brighter news, isn’t terrible. It’s still a perfect example of everything I dislike about Pasek and Paul, though. Half of the songs on the album sound exactly the same. There are at least three songs that are clearly designed to be contenders for the “Best Original Song” Academy Award and they feel so fake because of that – particularly “This is Me”. And naturally, all of those songs are devoid of any real emotion. They just sound and feel like things that were engineered to play an algorithm basically. They’re so calculated and cold and empty to me. There are a few songs I enjoyed on the album – “Come Alive”, “The Other Side”, and “From Now On” – but it’s mostly a forgettable mess of similar sounding songs. It’s also incredibly short with just eleven songs, clocking in at 39 minutes. For a pop album, that’s fine. For the soundtrack of a musical, it’s a bit on the short side.
As the soundtrack for a musical, it’s truly awful. Listening to the album gives you no sense of what the story is gonna be about. Compare that to the soundtrack of any good stage musical or any good movie musical and you’ll see how much of a problem that is. I’m not saying that the songs need to be so plot-heavy that they can’t stand on their own, but I do think that, when combined as an album, they should give some sense of the narrative arc of the story. The songs on The Greatest Showman soundtrack don’t do that. There are a few songs that seem like they would be the emotional crux of a scene, but on the album, you don’t get any sense as to why that might be the case. There’s no context to what’s happened prior to this point, no context about any of the characters, no nothing. So it ends up feeling like a generic love song. That’s the general problem with the album as a whole. It feels far more like a pop album with musical theatre elements than the soundtrack of a film. There’s no context linking any of the songs together, no concept of any of the characters explored through any of the songs, no nothing that suggests that these songs form the basis of the storyline of a film. Instead, it seems as though the songs have been written as vaguely as possible so they could be applied to any and everything – essentially so that the studio and label could maximize potential radio play since the songs are just pop songs with musical theatre singers. Viewed as a pop album, it’s a pretty decent album. Viewed as the soundtrack of a musical, it’s a massive disappointment.
Those last two sentences sum up my feelings on Pasek and Paul perfectly. They’re not bad composers and lyricists at all. They’re just not particularly unique, either. If they were just writing regular pop songs designed to get the maximum amount of airplay as possible from Top ’40s radio stations, I’d have no problems with them whatsoever. The problem is that they’re musical theatre (and movie-musical) composers. I expect more from the composers of musicals. Musicals are supposed to use the songs to help tell the story. The best musicals feature songs that either further the plot or deepen our understanding of the characters, and frequently Pasek and Paul accomplish neither of these things with their songs. The songs end up filling life fluff in the context of the shows and films they’re in. They just drag the narrative momentum to a standstill and offer nothing particularly unique or interesting to the mix. As pop songs, they’re perfectly fine. As musical theatre songs, there’s a lot that’s lacking.
(The Greatest Showman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack): 3/5 wands
A Christmas Story Live!: 2/5 wands, mostly because the set design, acting, and directing were superb)
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Definitely agree with you here. I think with many of their projects, I’ve just wanted so badly to like them that it was easy to overlook how generic the lyrics and songs were, and the other talent involved got me excited enough (Damien Chazelle with La La Land, Hugh Jackman with Greatest Showman, Ben Platt with Dear Evan Hansen), but the quality of the songs themselves are really lacking. The actors and singers bring so much to these projects that the songs feel a little better than they actually are, but in their essence, especially when compared to other musical theatre like Hamilton, Les Mis, Sweeney Todd, and other favorites of mine, these songs are so baseline okay compared to the layered genius that we can get from the best musical songs. I don’t know if it’s some kind of privilege at play here, but it’s baffling to me these guys keep getting consistent work with successful projects and they keep getting lifted up by the other talent involved.
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Agreed with you on the fact that the talent involved is what elevates their songs above mediocre into something decent. But if you just examine the songs, they’re really weak and hollow.
And, to be honest, they keep getting gigs because their stuff sells. They’ve tapped into what a large chunk of people apparently want. So good on them for that; I just wish they were as good as their colleagues are when it comes to their actual work. But it seems a sizeable chunk of people don’t mind it.