As of midyear, the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman is the best-selling album of 2018, having sold nearly 1 million physical and digital records worldwide. This is quite a feat, considering that songs from an original movie musical have surpassed famous artists like Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Eminem, Pink, and Taylor Swift. Songs from the album have also received love on the awards circuit. “This Is Me” garnered a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and received a nomination at the 2018 Academy Awards.
Did Greg Wells, a producer of the album alongside songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen), expect such a commercial and critical success? “No, not at all. Nobody did,” Wells, 49, told The Advocate in a recent phone interview. Even today, its universal appeal eludes him. “Entire families are obsessed with the soundtrack and they can't seem to quantify exactly why. But it does seem to sort of tick a lot of boxes for grandparents down to 5-year-olds.”
Wells — a Grammy-nominated Canadian musician, producer, and sound mixer — has worked with artists as varied as Mika, Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry, and the all-female heavy metal band Otep. In total, his songs have appeared on over 120 million sold albums. Yet throughout his professional career, Wells has never worked on a cast album.
That changed when Michael Gracey, director of The Greatest Showman, reached out to Wells during the last year of the film’s production. In part, Wells was persuaded to wade into new territory by the inclusive message of the film, which centered on the life of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and the “freaks” in his circus troupe.
Wells felt a need to help broadcast acceptance in the current political climate. At the time he joined Showman, a then-presidential candidate was “making fun of anyone who's different, and going much further than making fun of them. It's really rewarding to play a small role in something that is a championing a very different message,” he said.
Wells has a variety of skills that he uses in his work to make music shine. A classically trained musician, he has perfect pitch, plays a variety of instruments, and composes and arranges music as well. He applied these abilities to the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman. As part of his process, he would analyze a scene’s dancing and acting, and then strive to create “a symbiotic relationship” between the sound and the visual.
“I kept imagining that I … bought a ticket, and I was sitting in the theater watching the movie already released and thinking, How do I want this to hit me? Working with the visuals was hugely informative for me,” he said.
For example, in “This Is Me” — the breakout hit of the album — actress and singer Keala Settle, who portrays a bearded lady in The Greatest Showman, is performing complex choreography and delivering an anthem to individuality. All the while, she is wearing a beard and an elaborate dress.
Wells immediately recognized the need for an audience member to be “riveted” during this song as it builds to an emotional climax. So, while layering the track, he added the sound of drums, which becomes more prominent as the song progressed. “I just wanted the cathartic release to be as big as I could get it without overturning the apple cart,” he said. It is a “funny balance” to accomplish with recorded music, he said. If done incorrectly, it can turn a fantastic live performance into something “underwhelming.”
“Music to me, absolutely, is audio, but it's so much more than that,” Wells said. “It's visual. It's an energy exchange between the performer and the audience. And then if it's going well, the performer feels that energy coming back from the audience, and it’s a beautiful chain reaction.”
Songs can do a lot more than entertain. “Music, when you get it right, is among the most powerful stuff out there in a way that I can't really put a label on,” said Wells. Thanks to the empowering words of lyricists Paul and Pasek — who is gay — combined with the magic touch of Wells, “This Is Me” has become a new anthem for the LGBTQ community. It was played in Pride parades throughout June and is a favorite performance choice of Ada Vox, the first drag performer to reach the top 10 on American Idol. Recently, at LoveLoud, a music festival supporting LGBTQ young people, a trans youth brought the crowd to tears by singing a rendition.
"I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I'm meant to be, this is me," state the lyrics, an unapologetic declaration of identity that all queer people can relate to. "I'm not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me."
“I'm so honored” that the track has been embraced by the LGBTQ community, said Wells, who has a personal connection to the movement.
Wells grew up in Peterborough, a small city in Ontario, Canada, in “a really redneck environment.” From an early age, he was an ally of the LGBTQ community. His father, a minister in the United Church of Canada, was an advocate for ordaining gay and lesbian ministers — a stance that elicited a few angry responses. And his best friend, Derek, “was very gay and couldn't hide it. We both got beat up all the time,” Wells said. “There was no song like this for him.”
Wells thought about Derek while he was working on the Greatest Showman soundtrack — as well as how his friendship with him “opened me up in so many ways.” Through Derek, Wells learned what it was like to be “a young gay man in a town where you couldn't talk about that.” And culturally, his friend “really offered me up to so many things that I never would've been exposed to it all,” like the art of Andy Warhol and films of John Waters starring Divine. This early influence impacts his music even today.
Pictured: Greg Wells
Wells has also worked with many queer artists throughout his career. He played with k.d. lang and produced albums with Mika and Rufus Wainwright. Through these musicians, he witnessed homophobia in the music industry firsthand. In 2001, when he told his manager at the time that he would work with Wainwright, who is gay, his manager replied, “Don't work with him. Why would you want to work with him? He’s not going to sell any records. He's gonna drive you crazy.” Likewise, when Wells collaborated with Mika on his 2007 album Life in Cartoon Motion, another manager told Wells, “Just do two songs and get out, because … he's too gay for America.”
“Which wound up being true,” said Wells, “because, I won't name names, but let's just say the gatekeepers of radio actually told Mika's mom, ‘We can't get behind a man singing in falsetto that he wants to be like a woman,’ referring to the song ‘Grace Kelly,’ Mika’s big hit” in Europe.
“There’s there's rampant homophobia, not just in the record business but in the American media. It's better probably than it's ever been in America, but in Europe it's way less of a big deal,” said Wells, who spends part of each year in Stockholm, as his wife is Swedish.
“Radio is a very, very, very conservative format and it misses so much of the great music being made,” Wells lamented. Even in 2018, Wells still hears homophobic jokes in music writing sessions, which made him realize that gay people are one of “the last socially accepted” groups to make fun of.
It is an issue that “super close to home” for Wells, whose son is in a same-gender relationship. And it is another reason why he is proud that The Greatest Showman's soundtrack has reached as many ears as it has.
“Anything that can move that needle deeper into the red — that’s an audio term — I'm all for,” he concluded.