“The Greatest Showman” is a revisionist period musical biopic that harks back to the old PG musical traditions and serves as the greatest showcase to date of Hugh Jackman’s stage presence and musical theater lead man leanings. For the younger crowd, the former Disney kids Zac Efron and Zendaya burst into song with a tender conflicted romance. This is a musical you can take your kids to and grandma, too.
“The Greatest Showman received three Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actor – Comedy or Musical for Jackman and Best Original Song for “This is Me”.
That’s a great start for the director, Australian Michael Gracey in what is his first feature film yet his inexperience shows with the sloppy lighting, even from the beginning sequence where the most important thing seems to be the golden buttons on a flashy red coat. When the movie opens, we get hints of the wonder that is to come: P.T. Barnum is under the bleachers taking us into what will be his most famous creation: the circus as it was once known and loved in a pre-Cirque du Soleil era.
Jackman made a splash across the Atlantic when he starred as Curly in London’s Royal National Theatre’s 1998 production of “Oklahoma!” which earned him an Olivier Award nomination. The full revival cast returned for the 1999 musical film directed by Trevor Nunn.
That was before he became Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s 2000 “X-Men” (and the beginning of a flood of hunky Australians crossing over to play hunky Americans).
While he may not have an Olivier yet, in 2004, he won a Tony for the hit musical “The Boy from Oz,” a musical about Australian songwriter and performer Peter Allen.
At the Oscars in 2009, Jackman had an opportunity to show his stuff in the opening number.
In 2011, Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris dueled as hosts in a great musical number at the Tonys.
With that kind of resumé, Jackman is a natural choice for P.T. Barnum. Although Barnum and Bailey Circus died a natural death seven months ago, closing forever due to changing times and increasingly hostile reception toward animal acts, the view of the circus taken here is squeaky clean, though low-brow in a good aw-shucks kind of way.
After the hook of the beginning musical number, “The Greatest Show,” the movie flashes back to give us motivation: Phineas Taylor Barnum is a young boy (Ellis Rubin) tagging along with his tailor father to the homes of the rich and hopelessly snobby. But he finds hope with the wandering eye of Charity (Skylar Dunn). Charity is suffocating under the watchful eyes of her parents, the Halletts (Frederic Lehne and Kathryn Meisle). Together, the two kids have “A Million Dreams.”
Their love grows and the adult Phineas returns as P.T. Barnum (now Jackman) and takes Charity (Michelle Williams) away from her scornful parents. Her father is sure she’ll be back but the Barnums maintain their dreams, even though P.T. ends up working in a dead end clerking job at a shipping office. The company goes broke–its ships ending up at the bottom of the ocean and Barnum has to find a way to support a family that has grown with two daughters (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely).Their desperation sets up his first con–with the purloined paper that seems to show ownership of a fleet of ships he gets a bank loan.
With the loan, he buys a building filled with waxed figures (historically, this would be Scudder’s American Museum), but when sales are low, he decides to add a few more interesting exhibits: human freaks. We’ve already been slyly introduced to a few of these, one having shown kindness to a young P.T.
This is a bit of fibbing. The real P.T. had a fraudulent “mermaid” (1842). What P.T. gathers are freaks: a morbidly obese man, a black bearded lady, a giant and a child dwarf. The fat man who at 500-lbs. is not heavy enough so P.T. adds a pillow to his midline and bills him at 750-lbs. The bearded lady gets a plunging neckline and her jiggling breasts during one particular dance number serve as the raciest moment of the whole movie. The child dwarf becomes Tom Thumb, a pint-sized general racing around on a horse to entertain the crowds. The real Barnum did have “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater.”
P.T. pulls these freaks out of hiding and into the light where they are no longer laughed at become a family (“Come Alive”), but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world has become politically correct. A few malcontents want them back in the closet and out of sight or at least out of their neighborhood. Before this powder keg explodes, there’s another fire being lit–the romance between to the silver spoon born playwright Phillip Caryle (Zac Efron) and black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). P.T. recruits Phillip to write for him and also give him high society cred. But from the start, Anne and Phillip have eyes for each other and that leads to a literally soaring duet “Rewrite the Stars.”
P.T. takes the freaks to meet the queen of England, Victoria,–which piques the interest the Anglophilic Americans–from all economic classes, but royal approval still doesn’t quell the crowd who wants the freak show out of their neighborhood.
While in Europe, P.T. meets Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), a beautiful soprano with lusty eyes that she fixes on P.T. He promotes her American tour and is finally welcomed into polite society. But he simultaneously spurns his former friends and neglects his museum of curiosities to promote Lind, who is the villain of this musical (although a newspaper critic is our first villain). This might be character assassination for Lind, but we also don’t see P.T. as a temperance speaker either (another way P.T. earned money but that would have been at odds with the bar scene).
P.T. will come to his senses in time to save his marriage, support his family and allow Anne and Phillip to lead a life together, but this is truly a revisionist fairy tale. This takes place before the American Civil War. The politics of race are skipped over, but one wonders if it isn’t politics that prevents one of the real scientific oddities from taking a more center-stage moment: the Siamese twins.
The Bill Russell (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) musical “Side Show” which opened on Broadway in 1997 was based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, The Hiltons were stage performers in the 1930s.
A duet between P.T. real scientific oddity, the Siamese brothers Chang (Yusaku Komori) and Eng (Danial Son) should have been a natural. In real life, Chang and Eng were famous before they hooked up with Barnum. Born in Siam (now Thailand) in 1811, they were promoted by a Scottish merchant, Robert Hunter, from 1829. When their contract ended with Hunter, they promoted themselves. By 1839, they settled in North Carolina buying a 110-acre farm. By 1843, they were married to sisters–Chang to Adelaide Yates and Eng to Sarah Anne. Tom Thumb debuted on the London stage and had an audience with Queen Victoria in 1844. The Siamese brothers, who by that time had adopted the name “Bunker,” were already married and for the straight-laced Victorians, the thought of their menage a quatre was shocking but so would some of the costumes used in “The Greatest Showman” for the women.
In “The Greatest Showman,” the Siamese twins are minor background players. They have no voice, they have no romance and they aren’t even named in the movie. Is this a Hollywood So White problem? Anne’s brother, W.D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) doesn’t get a girl. Some not so old traditions die hard. Writers Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon have re-written the Siamese twins and cast them as minor players. Nothing new for minorities.
Race, of course, was very much an issue during the 1840s. The American Civil War was two decades away (1860-1865). The real P.T. Barnum did speak out against racism on the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Barnum served two terms in the Connecticut House of Representatives. Still, in 1882 the U.S. Congress would pass the Anti-Chinese Immigration Act and later expand that to include other Asians.
The reason to see “The Greatest Showman” is for Jackman’s performance, for the Zendaya and Efron duet, for the pop music ballads (score by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese and lyrics by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek) the techno-pop dance numbers (choreographed by Mathieu Leopold). The script scrubs the outright fraud from P.T. Barnum’s endeavors in favor of emphasizing his white-lie cons by lovable and loyal rogues. Americans love a con man and this one is packaged in a PC pretty presentation.