Less than a year after the largest circus folded up its tent for good, we have a film that celebrates the spectacle of what was once the greatest show on earth. And portraying the iconic showman is the multi-talented Hugh Jackman, demonstrating the versatily to go from playing the immortal mutant Wolverine to dazzling us with his skills as a song and dance man. With this role the Austrailian actor adds to his impressive musical resume, which includes: Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (Golden Globe Award); Curly McLain in Oklahoma! (West End, London, Olivier nomination); and, Broadway’s The Man from Oz (Tony Award). In The Greatest Showman, Jackman occupies center ring as P.T. Barnum, who founded the show that became the Barnum & Bailey Circus, bringing to audiences a collection of off-beat entertainment that was as shocking as it was thrilling.
The Greatest Showman is not a biopic, instead spotlighting the high – and low – points of Barnam’s life and career. But the main theme focuses on Barnum’s philiosphy: “Whatever you do, do it with all your might.” A secondary, but just as forceful theme, is one of inclusion. Barnum’s shows brought together “oddities,” people who had been shunned by society because of their deformities, but soon formed a family, found a home, and stood together to fight those who continued to villify them. In today’s political climate, those feelings are sure to resonate with many in the audience.
Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman
The film represents a labor of love by those involved. Director Laurence Mark and co-screenwriter Bill Condon (along with Jenny Bicks) first came up with the idea after working on the 2009 Acdemy Awards broadcast and being impressed with Jackman’s performance as host. “I thought, wow, this guy’s the greatest showman on earth – and that’s when I went to P.T. Barnum in my head,” Mark said, according to the film’s press notes. Shortly after, Mark approached Jackman with the idea of playing Barnum and got him on board. Michael Gracey, who views Barnum as a visionary, the Steve Jobs of his day, soon signed on as director.
The song-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who had not yet gained fame for Dear Evan Hansen (2016 Tony Award for Best Original Score), or for La La Land (2017 Academy Award for Best Original Song, “City of Stars”), were hired after the team commissioned samples from dozens of songwriters. While the film is a period piece represented by the story, scenic design, and costumes, the songs (pop) and choreography (hip hop) are contemporary. The exuberant opening number, “The Greatest Show” features Barnum, dressed as the ringmaster leading the circus cast in the first of many dance numbers. (Viewers will be reminded of the energetic “Another Day of Sun” which opened La La Land.) It gets the film off to a rousing start.
Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut in 1810. As a young boy (played in the film by Ellis Rubin), Barnum helped his father, Philo (Will Swenson), who worked as a tailor. Although the youth caught the eye of Charity (Skylar Dunn), the daughter of one of his father’s wealthy clients, Barnum was acutely aware of the social hierarchy that placed his family on a lower rung. That rejection would fuel Barnum’s passion to succeed on a grand scale, especially after he marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and pledges to give her the life she deserves. For her part, Charity actually seems happy escaping her gilded lifestyle for a much simpler one where she cares for her two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), cleans their small apartment, and even hangs laundry on the building’s roof. Charity, however, isn’t oblivious to what she’s signed on for with Barnum. Williams, who has a lovely although not powerful voice, conveys those conflicted feelings in “Tightrope.” But Williams’ glowing presence serves as a counterpoint to Barnum during the dark times when he suffers setbacks.
After losing his boring job as a clerk (the company closes down), Barnum redoubles his efforts to follow his dream. Soon he’s operating “Barnum’s American Museum,” a solid brick building located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The attraction evolves from displays of objects to ones that feature the oddities: Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady (a terrific Keala Settle); Tom Thum (Sam Humphrey); Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.), to name a few. Director Gracey handles these characters with skill and sensitivity, allowing them to evolve from reluctant participants in Barnum’s circus to fully formed performers finding their rightful places in the show. Particularly impressive is Settle, whose solo “This Is Me” would have stopped the show on Broadway.
Barnum’s families – his personal one and his professional one – come apart when he becomes enamoured of the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, and convinces her to go on tour in the U.S. While Rebecca Ferguson, also Swedish, has appeared in many films, including The Girl on the Train, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, her role as Lind will certainly bring her the attentiion of a wider audience. Still, after such a build up of Lind’s talents, Ferguson’s performance of “Never Enough” falls short. The role required a singer whose stature was equal or larger than Lind’s. A Lady Gaga perhaps.
Zac Efron and Zendaya
Kudos to Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey for casting Zac Efron and Zendaya as the miss-matched couple who finally defy the odds and come together. Philip Carlisle (Efron) leaves behind his comfortable upper class life to join Barnum’s circus and almost immediately is smitten by Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler, a trapeze artist. Efron, who has acted in musicals since he was a child, is more than up to the challenge of singing and dancing opposite Jackman. He’s lost none of the boyish charm he once displayed when he starred in the Disney Channel’s High School Musical. Zendaya, another Disney alum (she current produces and stars in the channel’s K.C. Undercover, can now add high-wire antics to her list of talents. (She apparently did some of the scenes without a net!) This gal is one to watch.
The Greatest Showman is great entertainment, but it’s also a film about the power of imagination and what an individual can achieve with inspiration, dedication, and a lot of hard work. While younger viewers may not be familiar with P.T. Barnum, they will certainly appreciate this story and see similarities with the many creatives genuises whose ideas and inventions continue to change the way we live and work. It’s a story that never grows old.
Photos by Niko Tavernise courtesy of 20th Century Fox