“The Greatest Showman” illuminates the big screen with the same flash and furry film’s subject lit up the big tents when his circus came to town. It leaves the audiences feeling good and signing the catchy tunes that carry this modern musical through its 1 hour, 45 minute runtime.
The story follows entertainment impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum’s rise to fame. It begins with a young P.T. Barnum (played by Ellis Rubin), poor and parentless, dreaming of making it big and elevating himself out of poverty, and it takes viewers to the expected conclusion of everyone living happily ever after. Along the way, it highlights the trials and tribulations of Barnum’s efforts to bring a new form of entertainment to society and the personal issues such a quest brought to him and his family.
Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman) is presented as a lovable swindler. His ability to promote and sell his cast of characters had paying customers coming in droves to see his show, even if he exaggerated some of the claims the show made. His loving wife, Charity (played by Michelle Williams), stood by his side through everything, even when the show initially flopped and his headquarters and playhouse was burned to the ground by an angry mob that did not appreciate his brand of entertainment.
In the film, Barnum is able to penetrate high society with the help of playwright Phillip Carlyle (played by Zac Efron). He furthers his reach by bringing famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind (played by Rebecca Ferguson) to America to perform.
Barnum needed this help because society in the 1800s wasn’t very open to his performers, which included a black trapeze artist, a bearded lady, a tattooed man, a dwarf, and an assortment of other “oddities” as Barnum himself referred to them in the film.
Though there are moments when the viewer may not think the movie is going to turn out as expected, it follows the neat and tidy formula of everything turning out for the best. When Barnum and his wife become estranged, the audience can rest assured they will reunite. When the building burns down and everyone seems to be losing hope, Carlyle comes to the rescue and the modern bigtop tent Barnum’s circus is known for bursts into existence.
The story is family friendly (it’s rated as PG) and the music is fantastic. It is a different offering in a time when Star Wars. It has the type of soundtrack that you can listen to on repeat and not get tired of it . . . trust me, I’ve been doing that. At the theater upon my first viewing, I heard someone say they were going to see it for at least the third time. You get that kind of following with some of the major franchises, but not usually with a standalone film like this.
And that is what makes “The Greatest Showman” so special. It is a welcome respite from the negativity we currently face in these times of political unrest and social injustice. What’s more, though, is that this fantastically entraining film almost never came to be.
Jackman and director Michael Gracey fought to see it produced. According to Vogue’s Hamish Bowles, it took seven years for the film to find a home at 20th Century Fox. Then, when it came out in December 2017, it wasn’t well received. According to David Sims of The Atlantic, “it looked dead on arrival, making only $8.8 million that weekend. But the following weekend it made $15 million, almost twice as much. That’s largely unheard of in contemporary Hollywood, where big studios films are front-loaded (opened on a massive number of screens) and the first weekend is king.”
How did this happen? Word of mouth. The people who saw the movie told their friends, and they told their friends. And “The Greatest Showman” took theaters by storm. That’s the entire reason I went to see it. Sure, I like musicals, but I didn’t think a story about a professional exploiter was something I would be interested in. However, people were talking about it, and then I found myself in the theater. Now, I find myself wondering if I could go see it again sometime soon as I play the entire soundtrack on a loop, the music for which is written by Tony Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen” notoriety.
Beyond the fantastic music and the storyline that transports the viewer to a different place, possibly the most striking aspect of the film is the message it expresses.
The movie makes a strong statement regarding equality and acceptance. In the film, Barnum gives his “freaks” the ability to be themselves and be praised for their uniqueness. It takes a stance on race as well, depicted by the relationship between Carlyle and the black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (played by Zendaya). The movie portrayed Barnum as a man before his time, and it shows how he believed everyone can be a star. This all culminates in a powerful message of chasing your dreams and not letting anyone stand in your way. It is uplifting and strongly counters the notion that you have to fit into a certain mold to be successful. Even though I loved this movie due to the music, it was the messaging within that makes me want to urge everyone else to see it as well.
Of course, I’m sure this musical leaves out other aspects of Barnum. In fact, Jackie Mansky, writing for Smithsonian.com, suggests there was an entirely other side of Barnum that might not have been as pure. After all, at one point in his career “he purchased the right to ‘rent’ an aged black woman by the name of Joice Heth, whom an acquaintance was trumpeting around Philadelphia as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington.”
Barnum’s true past aside, “The Greatest Showman” is a magical film filled with an uplifting story, incredible music, stellar performances, and an overall message that speaks to the core of our society.
If you haven’t seen this film yet, make a date this weekend and go see it. You will be glad you did.