Hugh Jackman's newest film, The Greatest Showman, is an original musical about the life of P.T. Barnum. Turning the life of the circus creator into a musical has been an ongoing idea for some time, but it turns out that not everybody was on board with this version of the story. The film uses all original music written by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, but there was a time when some apparently wanted to see the film use popular songs, rather than original compositions, believing the audience would be attracted by the songs they already knew. According to director Michael Gracey...
There was a time when there was a lot of pressure to do it as a jukebox musical because then you know that people already love the songs. If you're using hit songs, you're halfway home. But Hugh and myself felt really strongly about creating an original musical with all original songs, and that one decision meant years and years and years of work trying to find the right people. When we found Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, at the time they had only done an off-Broadway show which were not the credentials that anyone felt confident about.
The jukebox musical, one that takes already established songs and repurposes them to fit into an original story, has long been popular on Broadway and some of those have been repurposed for the big screen. Something like Rock of Ages uses popular 80s tunes and is designed to resonate with an audience of a certain age and draw them in. You already know the music works, you just need to create a story that allows the songs to fit. In the case of a completely original musical, you have to win the audience over with the music. If the music doesn't work then the whole story will likely fall apart.
The other reason that pressure (from production companies overseeing things one would assume) to use popular music was probably there was that it means you don't have to spend time, and money, writing songs. The Greatest Showman is a movie that was in development for several years and based on what Michael Gracey tells Den of Geek, a large part of the reason for that was that it took time to find the right people to write the music.
It was probably all the more difficult to convince people they were making the right decision when the pair that were eventually chosen were not major names with a strong history in writing for musicals. On the plus side, everybody probably breathed a bit easier when Justin Paul and Benj Pasek won Oscars last year for their work on La La Land. Nobody will question their credentials again. The Greatest Showman is in theaters now.