Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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
Meagen Fay was born and raised in Joliet, Illinois, studied classical theatre abroad, and served her apprenticeship in the theatre in Dublin, Ireland. When Meagen returned to the US in the late 1970s, she became a part of Chicago’s burgeoning ‘Off Loop’ Theatre scene. There she won several Joseph Jefferson Awards for her work, as well as being named ‘Best New Actress’ by The Chicago Sun Times for her performance in Hide and Seek at the Body Politic Theatre.
Meagen was invited into the resident company of The Second City by famed producer Bernard Sahlins and was again awarded a Joseph Jefferson Award for her work in the review entitled, Orwell That Ends Well which she also performed in New York at The Village Gate Theatre. In New York, Meagen went on to star with F. Murray Abraham and Peter MacNicol in The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, as well as appearing in Broadway and Off-Broadway Productions.
She began her television career in earnest as a regular on Carol & Company (1990) starring Carol Burnett, with later recurring roles on several shows including Roseanne, Malcolm in the Middle, and Two and a Half Men. More recent work in television includes roles in Shrink, Transparent,Agent Carter, and Big Bang Theory (as Bernadette’s mom).
In addition to her stage and television work, Meagan has appeared in 25 films. She recently played Mia’s (Emma Stone) mother in La La Land.
Meagen’s directorial debut of Jeffrey Sweet’s play, Kunstler, has won rave reviews. Kunstler is now at 59East 59 Theaters, and runs through March 12. This summer, play will be also presented at the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires from May 18 through June 10.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Having spent my entire adult life immersed in my career as an actress, I was surprised by several – seemingly out-of-the-blue offers to direct. In the interest of expanding my understanding and experience of the theater I accepted – and had a blast. The most engaging offer I received was to direct KUNSTLER for the NY Fringe Festival in 2014. Because of my personal connection to the material I was “all in” from the moment I read the script and knew without a doubt exactly what tone and texture I would bring to the show. To be able to realize it fully now at 59E59 Theaters – with sound, and light, and set is the realization of 3-year-dream.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I have always loved acting and have been so fortunate to be a working actress in Television and film but my first, and always, love is theater. It is where I began and where I always come home to. Being able to create in it is a full experience.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
As an actress I have always noted the directors who were of the most help to me and to a production – either because of or despite their various temperaments! So my training has been experiential.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
So far people have been very encouraging!
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I guess some people are surprised by my directing – but it has not precluded my acting – so I don’t think of it as a career change.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I realized I would have an acting career when I was in NY on Broadway. Everything after achieving that seemed a natural progression. As for Directing? I’m still waiting …
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Yes, I had to overcome my innate shyness as a person to be able to direct. You cannot have strong emotions and opinions about a set, a sound, an acting choice, a light cue, a piece of wardrobe and not voice them with full-throated conviction. It’s easier to be a shy actress and lose yourself in a role than it is to be a shy director – so I had to not be shy.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Acting! Sometimes I ACT like I’m a DIRECTOR! LOL!
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am always most proud that I have guided an entire team of designers, actors, and producers, and writers into my vision of a show — And seeing the show succeed for them all — I am extremely proud of that.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
If a project comes along that calls to you – trust your instincts. Honor the knowledge and talent of your team of designers, producers, writers, and actors – but never stop pushing for perfection and unification of expression – because that’s the job.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They’re not John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. But their marvelous performances in La La Land will remind you of those famous teams as they bring to the screen something magical. The singing and dancing are terrific, but it’s La La Land’s love story that carries the film.
Stone’s Mia is an aspiring actress who spends her days as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot, handing out lattés to the stars. Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own place, but pays the rent as a restaurant pianist. Their situations are sure to resonate with millennials, many of whom are underemployed in hum-drum jobs while continuing to pursue their dreams. In that respect, the film delivers a positive message – hold onto those aspirations.
The film gets off to an exuberant start with an opening that channels Grease. Stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway, motorists exit their cars onto the highway and dance (really dance, with flips, twirls, jumps and other acrobatic feats) while belting out a tribute to L.A., “Another Day of Sun.” Damien Chazelle, the film’s director, writer, and choreographer, shoots this dance number, and others throughout the film, in one long take, something we haven’t seen since the days of Astaire and Gene Kelly. Without taking breaks, the pressure is on the actors; Gosling and Stone rise to the occasion. Besides the dancing, Gosling’s skills on the piano (these segments are also shot without a break), are impressive. (Gosling learned to play jazz piano in a short space of time, much to the amazement of co-star John Legend.)
When those cars finally get moving, Sebastian honks at Mia and gets an obscene gesture in return. The second meeting is just as bad, but we know that sooner or later these two are destined to become a couple. Getting there is half the fun, with several dance numbers that are totally enjoyable while also advancing the story line.
Mia ditches dinner with her boyfriend, an arrogant corporate type, to join Sebastian at the theater. Together they watch Rebel with a Cause, one of several nods to classic Hollywood. The attraction between Mia and Sebastian builds slowly, lending a sweetness to their courtship, especially in their duet, “City of Stars.”
On the career side, we witness the frustrations for both Mia and Sebastian as the cards seem to be stacked against them. During one audition, Mia delivers a heartfelt performance, her eyes welling up, while the casting director takes calls and then quickly dismisses her. Sebastian is fired from his restaurant gig for playing jazz rather than traditional Christmas music. (The boss is played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy Award for his performance in Whiplash, also directed by Chazelle.)
Opportunities soon arrive, although not the ones Mia and Sebastian were expecting. Keith (Legend) taps Sebastian for his band. Despite Keith’s success, his choice of music, along with the band’s hectic touring schedule, creates a dilemma for Sebastian. Mia accuses him of selling out, abandoning his dream to settle for a well-paying job. She’s determined to pursue hers, renting out a theater to put on her one-woman play. Failing to fill the seats, she’s on the hook for the rental with nothing to show for her efforts – or so she thinks.
Stone’s expressive face is a joy to watch, particularly in one of the last scenes when she sings her way through an audition with “The Fools Who Dream.” She doesn’t have Barbra Streisand’s voice, but the emotion she shows in that performance reminded me of “My Man,” the final song in Funny Girl. It was a goose-bump movie moment. Gosling, too, is an irresistible presence on screen. He can, of course, act, as we’ve seen in so many of his past films. But watching him morph into a musical star is thrilling.
Will La La Land be an anomaly for Hollywood? Or will we see more original musicals? We can only hope.
Photo credit: Dale Robinette courtesy of Lionsgate