March 2023

The Greatest Showman (2017)

DIRECTOR: Michael Gracey

CAST: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson


Big lavish musicals have been brought back into vogue by critically-acclaimed recent entries like Les Miserables and La La Land, and The Greatest Showman, more-or-less based on the life and career of P.T. Barnum (with a healthy helping of dramatic license) keeps the resurgent genre going strong.  Those who are not fans of musicals are unlikely to be converted, but for those who are, The Greatest Showman is lavish, lively, and joyous, filled with infectious, crowd-pleasing song-and-dance numbers, well-choreographed and elaborately-staged, with a timely (if historically questionable) theme of inclusivity and celebrating humanity in all forms.  If you’re a fan of this kind of big Hollywood musical, it represents a trip to the theater well worth taking.

The movie’s claim to be based on a true story is a little flimsy, but we follow a fictionalized version of the origins of famed circus ringleader P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) from rags to riches (and repeatedly narrowly avoiding going back again).  Phineas Taylor Barnum comes from nothing but has big dreams and successfully marries above his station to his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams), to her parents’ disapproval.  After working—and having trouble holding down—a series of normal jobs to support his growing family (his wife and two young daughters), Barnum on a whim (and with a little deception) secures a large loan to open a museum of oddities.  But when his wax figures and taxidermy specimens don’t attract much interest, he decides he needs to liven things up and sets out to gather a collection of misfits and “freaks”, including bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and dwarf “Tom Thumb” (Sam Humphrey), along with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and various others.  Barnum’s carnival is viewed with disdain by some but becomes an overnight sensation, and he makes two high society allies: young well-connected heir Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who arranges an audience with Queen Victoria, and internationally-renowned opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), dubbed “The Swedish Nightingale”, whom Barnum convinces to embark on an American concert tour.  But complications arise when Barnum and Lind get a little too close, to the neglect of Barnum’s family and his “freaks”, and wealthy heir Carlyle and lowly trapeze artist Anne confront a forbidden attraction to each other.

While touching, albeit shallowly, on some serious themes, The Greatest Showman aims to be a life-affirming crowd-pleaser (a goal at which it is successful), and plays it safe narratively, avoiding going anywhere very dark or edgy.  This Hollywoodized “P.T. Barnum” is allowed to have a few negative qualities; he’s a slick-talking con man and a shameless self-promoter with a chip on his shoulder against those who have always looked down on him, and at one point shuts his “freaks” out of a high society gala where he’s hobnobbing with the social elite his alliance with Jenny Lind has gained him access to, but he’s considerably softened from the real Barnum, and his exploitative tendencies are downplayed.  The main character’s name might be P.T. Barnum, but The Greatest Showman is better viewed as a lightweight musical fantasy with a loose historical basis than a serious biopic or historical drama.

But audiences aren’t coming to this theater for a history lesson, they’re coming for big, rousing musical numbers, and few would deny that on that front, The Greatest Showman delivers forcefully.  The energy level is high, the cast is enthusiastic, and the choreography is expertly-staged.  While a couple numbers are drags, for the most part they’re lively and the tunes are catchy.  The music writing duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who previously won an Oscar for La La Land, aren’t concerned with period accuracy and infuse the songs with pop and hip hop influences geared toward 2017 audiences; many of the songs could play on the radio and sound right at home, broadening the movie’s musical appeal to wider tastes than, say, Les Miserables, and there’s any number of sequences bound to get audience members’ feet tapping and tunes stuck in their heads.  Highlights include an energetic Hugh Jackman/Zac Efron duet that includes choreographed bartending and dancing on countertops and tables, later an acrobatic romantic duet between Efron and Zendaya, and a rousing group number by the “freaks” led by Keala Settle’s bearded lady, “This Is Me”, that could easily be viewed as a defiant anthem for the transgender community or various other marginalized minorities in the present day (I doubt the timely nature of the movie’s message and lyrics are coincidental).  For the most part, the cast does its own singing, and all of their voices are strong (the exception being Jenny Lind’s singing voice provided by Loren Allred rather than Rebecca Ferguson).  The movie is gorgeously-filmed—the music might be cheerfully anachronistic, but lavish detail is spent making it at least look period-accurate—-and there’s some striking shots, like the “starcrossed lovers” moment when Anne swings on her trapeze high enough to lock eyes with Carlyle in the stands for the first time and they’re briefly frozen in time.  The story that strings the frequent musical numbers together is simple but good enough to move things along with a measure of feeling and a positive and relevant message about inclusivity and following your own heart, and there’s enough chemistry between Hugh Jackman/Michelle Williams and Zac Efron/Zendaya to make their romances simple but sweet.  This might not be an “actors’ movie”, but the cast dives in with aplomb.  Hugh Jackman might be best-known as Wolverine, but he’s equally at home in a flamboyant musical role, where he exudes charisma and panache (of course, this is hardly uncharted territory for Jackman, having also done his share of musical theater and been Oscar-nominated for Les Mis).  Jackman’s lively musical role here is pretty much the polar opposite of his previous role this year, the grim Logan.  Zac Efron is equally adept as a song-and-dance man (like Jackman, this is not new territory for the former High School Musical star), and Zendaya (getting a lot more to do than in Spider-Man: Homecoming) demonstrates a strong voice.  Michelle Williams is the weakest singer of the lot—though given how strong everyone else’s voices are, that’s not much of a criticism—but does an adequate job of holding her own.

The big screen Hollywood musical has been a tough sell since the flop of 1992’s Newsies (if not before), but the resurgence of big lavish productions like Hairspray, Les Mis, La La Land, and now The Greatest Showman have reminded us how rousing and crowd-pleasing a well-executed musical can be.  The Greatest Showman might not be a “great movie”, but it is eminently enjoyable for fans of the genre, and an infectiously uplifting and joyous experience that delivers the kind of elaborate spectacle that belongs on a theater screen.

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