“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, step right up and see the Greatest Show on Earth!” The call of the circus ringmaster echoes the salesmanship of Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, the 19th century showbiz promoter who was one of the fathers of the American circus. Barnum’s career is the focus of “The Greatest Showman,” a movie musical that almost hits the bullseye.
Barnum (portrayed by Hugh Jackman as an adult, Ellis Rubin as a child) was the son of a tailor. The audience sees Barnum set his sights on pursuing an American dream of financial and social status. This drive ultimately leads him to create a world-renowned circus and grants him access to European royalty.
However, the pursuit will also cause Barnum to risk relationships he truly values. And, it will illustrate one of the ironies of the American dream- financial success doesn’t necessarily convey social standing, especially among the old money segment of American society.
“The Greatest Showman” opens with Barnum’s humble beginnings, introducing the boy and his friendship with Charity (Skylar Dunn as a child, Michelle Williams as an adult). The song “A Million Dreams” illustrates Barnum’s boundless imagination and also sets up a social class tug of war as Barnum and Charity fall in love, angering her wealthy father. Charity and Barnum marry but the dreams he hopes to achieve seem out of reach for the couple in New York.
After the company he clerks for goes bankrupt, Barnum uses non-existent collateral to open a museum of taxidermied animals and wax figures. The venture doesn’t prove successful until one of his daughters suggests Barnum add live displays. This starts him on a search for “Oddities”- people and acts that are considered unusual or bizarre. Soon Barnum has hired the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle), the Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.), and Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), plus traditional circus acts such as tumblers, contortionists, and a brother/ sister trapeze team (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Zendaya).
Rather than treat his Oddity performers as mere sideshow “attractions,” Barnum recognizes their humanity and feelings. This instills confidence in them, giving them the courage to perform. Audiences flock to both look at, and be entertained by, these performers. But, rabble-rousing haters also appear.
Barnum’s own desire for social standing will threaten his show when he decides to promote Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) instead of concentrating on his loyal troupe. These conflicts lead to two of the movie’s most dramatic musical numbers- Lind’s “Never Enough” (performed by Loren Allred) and the Oddities’ “This Is Me,” led with strength by Settle.
Award-winning songwriters Justin Paul and Benj Pasek have created heartfelt and inspiring songs which surpass their successful creations for “La La Land.” From the very first beats of “The Greatest Show,” to the heartbreaking lyrics of “Rewrite the Stars,” they’ve produced a memorable and captivating soundtrack.
Leading the way as Barnum is Jackman, a performer who perfectly fits the title role. In his career, Jackman has established film and stage credits which have earned him the reputation as a triple threat who can act, sing and dance. “The Greatest Showman’s” musical numbers let him put all three talents into play as he successfully channels Barnum’s flair for promotion.
Michelle Williams’ Charity balances Barnum’s enthusiasm with measured support and patience. Her voice beautifully fits songs such as “A Million Dreams” and “Tightrope.”
Unfortunately, the plot and camerawork of “The Greatest Showman” don’t always succeed as well as the film’s musical energy does. In real life, Barnum was always on the lookout for the next act to attract audiences. He had great success with the circus plus stars such as Tom Thumb, Lind, and Jumbo the elephant. The screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (“Beauty and the Beast”) brings part of these achievements to light but also fudges a bit on facts. For example, when originally hired, the real Tom Thumb was a young boy whose growth had been stunted, not an adult little person as portrayed in the film.
Also omitted are important historical links. Racism rears its ugly head when Barnum’s business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and African American trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya) fall in love. The film’s action supposedly takes place just after the Civil War, but that is never specified. Without the historic time frame, Carlyle and Anne’s love plays out more as a Romeo and Juliet struggle rather than a timely commentary on narrow-minded, senseless bigotry.
And, the film presents the angry mobs opposing Barnum’s shows as doing so due to fear and hatred of the Oddities. However, in real life it was Barnum’s eventual outspoken opposition to slavery which angered some of the bullies who tried to disrupt his shows.
Although first-time film director Michael Gracey and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey were striving for fluid camerawork in “The Greatest Showman,” the results are not always successful. Gracey’s background is music videos. Camera framing and movement which play successfully for a video don’t always convert well to the big-screen. There are moments when Gracey’s camera moves with the action. But, the view is as if the drama is unfolding on a theatrical stage.
To his credit, Gracey has assembled a talented cast. In addition to Jackman and Williams, Zendaya, Efron and Settle are all at the top of their game at singing and dancing. Zendaya and Efron, both Disney grads, are well-matched. Their “Rewrite the Stars” number expresses their characters’ passions and frustrations. Choreographer Ashley Wallen has creatively adapted modern dance moves and circus routines to the 1800s in a way that adds to the drama and expressiveness of the songs.
Capturing the expansiveness of the imaginings of a master showbiz promoter such as P.T. Barnum is a formidable task. “The Greatest Showman” provides glimpses of the spectacle Barnum’s genius concocted. Despite a few script and camera shortcomings, Jackman and his co-stars fully do justice to the invigorating soundtrack by Paul and Pasek, bringing the movie musical and the circus to colorful, dramatic life.