The Greatest Showman | Michael Gracey | December 20, 2017
P.T. Barnum may be the progenitor of modern show business, but Hugh Jackman‘s portrayal in The Greatest Showman, the new movie-musical based on Barnum’s circus-centered life with original songs from La La Land duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, doesn’t do the real Barnum justice.
First-time feature film director Michael Gracey, working off a screenplay from Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, traces Barnum’s (Hugh Jackman) improvising showman roots from a childhood apprenticeship under his tailor father to a risk-taking huckster with nothing to lose (except possibly his family) after being let go from the accounting department of a shipping company. After securing a bank loan using some of the now-bankrupt shipping company paperwork as collateral, Barnum opens a museum of oddities (a la Ripley), but after a suggestion from one of his daughters and recalling an encounter with the stunted Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), he recruits a diverse group of societal rejects – including Charles, bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and brother and sister trapeze duo W.D. and Anne Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Zendaya) – and reworks the museum into a daily circus performance, which increases Barnum’s standing and notoriety in mid-1800s New York and around the world.
As a movie musical, The Greatest Showman follows the familiar story of a man gambling on fame and success, but historical details central to the plot and themes muddy the waters. The spectacle and modern flair are favored over authenticity and accuracy. The mid-1800s setting (as well as the passage of time) isn’t fully specified, and given Barnum didn’t start in the circus business until he was in his 60s (which – among other details – Hugh Jackman isn’t), it just feels like a period musical on a grander scale with some drastic liberties taken – namely compressing Barnum’s 30-someodd years of curiosities and circus arts into a several-year-long-period, changing the names of or amalgamating the troupe members, and excising his political background and the more unsavory elements of his early show years. It’s a family-friendly musical, so on go the uplifting rose-colored glasses.
Also given that setting, the themes of racism and classism are prevalent throughout The Greatest Showman. Upper-class playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) is essentially disowned over joining the circus as Barnum’s partner as well as pursuing Anne. Barnum both rubs his success in his father-in-law’s (Fredric Lehne) nose while enjoying the fruits of his labor after a gala opening for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson; singing voice – Loren Allred) and shuts his performing troupe out (lead by Lettie Lutz). However, these details aren’t well-handled. The interracial relationship feels shoehorned in and underdeveloped, and the Barnum-Lind plotline is obvious and inaccurate. And speaking of family, the film does try to flesh out the lives of Charity Barnum nee Hallet (Michelle Williams) and their first two children (Caroline and Helen), but results in their overall plot arc moving from a supporting family to “Don’t miss the ballet school recital!”
Musically, The Greatest Showman is a mixed bag. Jackman’s voice is solid – and maybe one of the few who isn’t Autotuned. Speaking of, the original songs in the movie are pop-y and just too modern for the mid-1800s setting. Granted, it’s not the same as, say, “We Will Rock You” in A Knight’s Tale … but take a listen to “The Greatest Show” (the title track) and see for yourself. While I appreciate the originality in the soundtrack (with some assistance from John Debney and Joseph Trapanese’s imperceptible score), it just oozes modernity – too much for a musical set some 150+ years prior.
If you’re seeking out a truer glimpse into the life of P.T. Barnum, I’d suggest looking elsewhere, like the Barnum musical or the 1999 TV movie. While The Greatest Showman does have its moments, it doesn’t fully capture mid-1800s New York, Barnum’s life, and the circus. And on the bright side, no animals were used or harmed in the making of the film – not counting the obviously CGI elephants.