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The Name Behind This Year's Most Popular Album? P.T. Barnum


"The Greatest Showman" didn't exactly raise the big top at the box office when it opened last December, but the original soundtrack to this movie musical about P.T. Barnum - that is turning out to be a way different story.


HUGH JACKMAN: (As P.T. Barnum, singing) Ladies and gents, this is the moment you've waited for.

ENSEMBLE: (Singing) Woah.

JACKMAN: (As P.T. Barnum, singing) Been searching in the dark, your sweat soaking through the floor.

ENSEMBLE: (Singing) Woah.

CHANG: The album has outsold Justin Timberlake this year. It's outsold Kanye West and Taylor Swift. Hugh Jackman, who stars and sings as P.T. Barnum - there's a good chance he's getting more love than any of them. So why is this album so crazy popular? To answer that question, we are joined by Rob Harvilla. He's a music critic who reviewed the album for The Ringer back in February when it was just gaining popularity. Welcome.

ROB HARVILLA: Hello. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: What makes this collection of songs different from your typical soundtrack?

HARVILLA: I think there are at least a dozen currently popular artists that are directly sort of referenced by it. You know, you hear sort of the loud rock bands like Muse or Imagine Dragons or Fall Out Boy. "This Is Me" - obviously, the big hit that won a Golden Globe, that was nominated for an Oscar. Like, that's a pretty direct rip-off of "Fight Song," of Rachel Platten's "Fight Song." You know, the way it mixes rap and rock and a little bit of electronic - you know some critics have coined the term Spotifycore, which is the way that every popular genre now is sort of being distilled down into one, like, really robotic-sounding, hybrid form.

CHANG: Yeah.

HARVILLA: The other thing is that the pedigree of this thing is really impressive. The songs were written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They were the team behind "La La Land"...

CHANG: Oh, wow.

HARVILLA: ...And also "Dear Evan Hansen." You know, apparently, everyone just loves musicals.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARVILLA: I had no idea how much people were still clamoring for movie musicals. So...

CHANG: You already mentioned "This Is Me." This is the bearded lady song. Let's take a listen.


KEALA SETTLE: (As Lettie Lutz, singing) When the sharpest want to cut me down, I'm going to send a flood, going to drown them out. I am brave. I am bruised. I am who I'm meant to be. This is me. Look out 'cause here I come.

CHANG: All right. This is going to be my anthem. I was listening to this. And this is totally like "Fight Song."

HARVILLA: That's right.

CHANG: It was sung by Keala Settle. How did it fit into the story of this movie?

HARVILLA: I don't know a whole lot about P.T. Barnum other than this movie. But, you know, it sort of posits P.T. Barnum as, like, the guy who brought all the misfits together and empowered them. You know, like, it's not that he was exploiting these people...

CHANG: Right. No, of course not.

HARVILLA: ...You know, to sell a circus. No, of course not. That song is the big moment, you know, where they realize their potential, and they come together - this ragtag group of outcasts.

CHANG: I want to go next to "Rewrite The Stars." This was sung by Zac Efron and Zendaya.

HARVILLA: Ah, yes.


ZAC EFRON AND ZENDAYA: (As Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler, singing) All I want is to fly with you. All I want is to fly with you. So just give me all of you.

ZENDAYA: (As Anne Wheeler, singing) It feels impossible.

ZAC EFRON: (As Phillip Carlyle, singing) It's not impossible.

ZENDAYA: (As Anne Wheeler, singing) Is it impossible?

EFRON AND ZENDAYA: (As Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler, singing) Say that it's possible.

CHANG: If only we could all fall in love on a trapeze. I mean, this does make me kind of want to wear a leotard right now.

HARVILLA: That's what I'm saying. Absolutely.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARVILLA: No, I mean, that's a great moment in the film. Like, just the sight of two young, beautiful people falling in love on a trapeze is pretty enormously appealing, you know, when you're sitting in a movie theater on a Thursday afternoon or whatever, you know? And the song itself is kind of a little bit of John Legend. It's a little bit of Jason Derulo. Again, it's a sort of hybrid of various really popular artists and songs you've heard before. But yeah. In that moment, it's just - the same feeling you get off, you know, a great romantic comedy.

CHANG: Then there's "Never Enough."


CHANG: It's lip-synced by Rebecca Ferguson, but Loren Allred from "The Voice" is the actual singer.


LOREN ALLRED: (Singing) Never, never. Never, never. Never for me, for me.

CHANG: I was, like, feeling it. I am so there with her. I don't even know what she's singing about because I have not watched this movie.

HARVILLA: Right. That's the big Adele moment. I do - I have to tell you honestly, like, the day after I saw the movie, I went to the chiropractor. And I put this song on repeat all the way home from the chiropractor.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARVILLA: Like, I just - I listened to it, like, 10 times.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HARVILLA: Yes, it's very soothing. And I was perfectly aligned, you know, emotionally and physically by the end of that car ride.

CHANG: I feel like I don't hear movie soundtracks topping the charts anymore like this has. I remember, like, "The Bodyguard" and "Top Gun."


CHANG: Those were huge when I was growing up. Why is that?

HARVILLA: You're absolutely right that that's fallen out of favor. And, like, I talk to people about that. And some people said, like, I think audiences are too sophisticated anymore. Like, you can't just drop a pop song in the middle of, like, a dog fight. You know, like, you're going to get laughed off the screen. So that's why a lot of the big musicals tend to be kids' movies...

CHANG: Yeah.

HARVILLA: ...You know, "Frozen," "Moana," whatever. Like, that's - you know, where there isn't so much of a pressure to be, like, super cool.

CHANG: Yeah, maybe we aren't too cool for school. Like, maybe "The Greatest Showman" is telling us that.

HARVILLA: (Laughter).

CHANG: We're still pretty cheesy.

HARVILLA: If uncool is actually cool, then that's right on time, as far as I'm concerned.

CHANG: (Laughter) That's Rob Harvilla, a music reviewer for The Ringer. Thank you very much for joining us.

HARVILLA: Oh, thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.


JACKMAN: (As P.T. Barnum, singing) From now on...

ENSEMBLE: (Singing) And we will come back home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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