THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
Starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, Zendaya, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II,
Directed by Michael Gracey
Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon
Story by Jenny Bicks
Original songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Produced by Laurence Mark, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping
Executive producers, James Mangold, Donald J. Lee, Jr., and Tonia Davis
Director of photography, Seamus McGarvey
Production designer, Nathan Crowley
Costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick
Musical score by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese
“Every one of us is special and nobody is like anyone else.” “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else” —from “The Greatest Showman”
“The Greatest Showman,” a rollicking, absolutely giddy, upbeat, optimistic, wondrous, wonderful and infectiously fun and entertaining original movie musical biography of grand show business showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum, is quickly and easily notable on several quite positive levels: The film is simply one of the best movies of the year; the film is one of the better film biographies (even with a few, shall we say, creative liberties in the storyline) of Barnum (there have been several others through the years); the film is one of the best genuine family movies in ages (genuine in that everyone from little kids on up to the grandparents can go in, have fun, be entertained, and love this movie, without any worries about genre-specific concerns); the film showcases the outstanding singing and dancing talents of Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnam, and, along with his equally outstanding portrayal of Jean Valjean in the equally-excellent film version of “Les Miserable,” the movie gives Jackman yet another role of a lifetime; the film is a rarity genre movie for these times because it’s an actual original movie musical—something that, even with 2016’s “La La Land,” is still unfortunately a rarity at the movie theaters these days; and the film is the latest in a stream of high-quality, intelligent and overall excellent film biographies in 2017. Quite simply, “The Greatest Showman” is excellent and is highly recommended—for everyone—and the movie should be the blockbuster film of the 2017 holiday season.
P.T. Barnum may be primarily known as a showman extraordinaire—his groundbreaking American Museum in New York City, his support of the famous opera singer Jenny Lind, his embrace of the unique and different, his ability to bring new types of shows and attractions to the public, his groundbreaking use of tents for mobile shows, and his traveling circus show, and more—but, as the movie so beautifully displays throughout the main plot, story development and character development elements of the film, Barnum was also quite the caring, devoted and kind-hearted family man. He not only loved and cared for his beautiful wife and two daughters, but he also created a second family of performers who he not only supported and employed, but helped tremendously by bringing them out of the shadows and into the spotlight of fame and fortune—to their betterment and ultimate happiness. Barnum didn’t just employ his family of original performers, known in the 1870s as Oddities, and cast them aside like some show biz entities can coldly do—he embraced them, cared for them and defended them against protests (from close-minded idiots) during a time when the display of such people, with various physical and aesthetic differences, was new, groundbreaking and, for some idiots in society, an affront and challenge to perceived normalcy, standard conventions and conservative world views.
But that type of ignorant, close-minded attitude against people and show business was exactly what Barnum fought against—because he knew that beyond the few close-minded idiots who stupidly protested his acts, there were the people, the general public, the masses starving for new entertainment in the post-Civil-War, forward-moving, Industrial-age society of 1870s America—and Barnum knew exactly what they wanted—and boy, did he give it to them. “The Greatest Showman” thus tells the lively tale of how Barnum, this once-poor, once-cast-aside orphaned boy, rose from being a street urchin to being literally one of the most popular, well-known and well-loved men and entertainers in the United States and to becoming, well, the greatest showman—of his time or, really, any time. Barnum slyly gathered together a second family of original sideshow attractions—people attractions, that is, and simply presented them to a curious, awe-struck public: the Bearded Lady; the Large Woman or Large Man; the Tall Man; Tom Thumb, a little person; the Tattooed Man; the Trapese Woman; and all sorts of other uniquely-looking people who the public simply could not get enough of and who introduced the public to different people who were previously hidden in the shadows of society. Add some side, odd museum displays, some other unique attractions, peanuts, popcorn and some razzle-dazzle to Barnum’s show—and to “The Greatest Showman”–and you have the foundation for a great story about Barnum’s life, career and family—all of which form the basic story and plot elements of “The Greatest Showman.”
The film follows Barnum’s early years—his tragic childhood, in which he ended up on the streets and, at times, sold stolen newspapers to get some money—through his early, younger years when he formulated his ideas for what would become his main entertainment show business, through meeting his beautiful, patient and understanding wife, through the formation of his American Museum in New York City, his introduction of Lind to U.S. audiences (a big deal in the late 1800s), his various business dealings and ideas, his development of his circus and show family, and, most importantly, Barnum’s character development from a younger, brash and rash razzle-dazzle show biz center ring master of ceremonies and master showman to his later understanding of what’s really important in life—family, love and friendship. And when a showman of such immense energy, ego, charisma, talent and bravado can learn and change and come to understand what’s truly important in life, then you not only have a truly entertaining movie—but a movie with a heart, with feeling, with smarts, with understanding, and a movie with most important message that never gets old and always remains important—that all people need to be loved, embraced and understood—no matter what they look like or who they are; that family, friends and love always come first, even if they can be mixed with show business; and that every person is unique and special.
Quite fortunately for “The Greatest Showman,” and due to the extreme and varied and A-list talents of the movie’s cast and crew, the movie entertains and also teaches some important lessons—but without pounding people over the head with those messages.
Jackman portrays Barnum with all of the energy, charisma, style, talent and presence that he brought to his performance of Valjean in “Les Miserables”—all bright-eyed, charming, devious, sly, always thinking, always scheming, always looking for the next big show, the next big thing to entertain the masses. Jackman sings, dances and acts his talented heart out in “Showman,” and he provides a most solid anchor and foundation for the film. Fortunately, everyone else is up to the same level of energy—and the cast just shines in “Showman,” with not only their acting, but their dancing and singing, too. The dance numbers are, at times, quite complicated, original and impressive, and the actors are to be commended for rising to the tasks and presenting some incredible original movie musical dance numbers. They dance in circus rings, in bars, in museums, in circus-style settings, trading drinks, passing drinks, flying above, moving fluidly in wonderfully-choreographed routines. And the dancing is accompanied by yet another stellar original movie musical set of instantly-likeable songs by the same team that wrote the songs for—you guessed it—2016’s “La La Land,” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Pasek’s and Paul’s songs in “Showman” are even better, more accessible and more positive and upbeat than their also-great work in “Land.” The songs have memorable melodies, hooks, rhythms, beats and—naturally—lyrics. And they are incorporated into the story at the right times and places, and none appear awkward in the story timeline—which has occurred, of course, in too many stage and film musicals, even the better ones.
Pasek and Paul easily display in “Showman,” with that great set of original songs—several of which could be instant, modern-day radio hits (but they also fit into the late-1800s storyline in the movie)—that they are indeed the current Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe or Kander and Ebb. Besides writing a host of original songs for “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman,” Pasek and Paul also wrote the songs for the successful stage musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” So yet another bright spot with “Showman” is not only enjoying these new songs from Pasek and Paul while watching the movie, but also hoping that there’s much more original music to come from these two talented songwriters.
“Showman’s” first-time film director Michael Gracey, who made a name for himself with his work on commercials and music videos, infuses “Showman” with an overriding, over-arching mood of pure fun and entertainment—appropriate, of course, considering that he’s telling the tale of master showman P.T. Barnum. Gracey makes sure that everything in the movie—story, dialogue, acting, production design, art direction, costuming, make-up, camera angles and cinematography, and the musical score—contain, contribute to and maintain a consistent mood and atmosphere of fun, excitement, energy, razzle-dazzle and show biz savvy that even a man like, say, P.T. Barnum would appreciate. The film has an aura of magic to it—like the better Disney or Capra or Spielberg or Zemeckis or Donner fantasy films all have—and every details seems meticulously though-out, designed, created and presented—so the film maintains its same high level of show biz entertainment from start to finish. There’s never too much downer darkness or depression feelings or mood elements in the film that brings things down—even though Barnum had his share of downer setbacks—those protests, his American Museum burned down, he went bankrupt twice, and he even temporarily was separated from his wife and children. However, “Showman” is a positive film, with positive message, and Gracey, his producers—six of them–and his extremely-talented screenwriters—Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon—are all savvy and smart enough to present these setbacks in a more natural, even positive light—because Barnum surveyed his situations, figured out what was wrong, scraped and scratched to pull everything back together, re-united with his family family and his circus family, learned, changed—and came back just as strong, if not even stronger. That’s the type of movie “Showman” is—even the darker aspects of Barnum’s life are presented in a positive life as life challenges to work on, learn from—and overcome. In the end—and it’s no spoiler with “Showman,” as most people know Barnum’ story in general and it doesn’t spoil anything to reveal—Barnum persevered, survived—and thrived.
Gracey, Bicks and Condon (co-screenwriter Bill Condon, by the way, wrote and directed “Dreamgirls,” from 2006, and he also wrote the screenplay for “Chicago,” from 2002, and he also directed one of the biggest successes of 2017, Disney’s movie musical “Beauty and the Beast”) are also smart and talented enough to infuse “Showman” with a brisk, snappy pace, and the film is paced, acted, filmed, sung, choreographed and edited at a quick, slick, constantly-moving pace—not too fast, of course, but quick and slick enough to not just keep the film moving at an energetic pace, but also, again, to match the film’s basic, underlying show business theme. A movie musical about a showman and about show business should be bright, positive, upbeat—and should also move, be filmed and be edited at a fast pace.
And cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement,” from 2007; “Anna Karenina,” from 2012; and “The Avengers,” from 2012, among many others), also keeps things bright, positive and, again, appropriately show-bizzy and, at times, appropriately circus-style—his cameras are whizzing, flying, swooping, swirling, diving and panning and rising up and down throughout the film—but at just the right levels, not too show-bizzy, and in not too much of a “look at me” style—he uses inventive camera moves and angles to match the show biz and museum and circus settings—once again, for a story about show biz, and for an original movie musical, the cameras need to be moving in inventive ways, and they need to be displaying energy—and McGarvey succeeds at a high level. And his use of bright—but not too bright—colors, and late-1800s-style period colors and tones—appropriately suggesting a previous time, a certain time, a Victorian and Industrial Age time of change and innovation—are picture-perfect.
An original movie musical set in the 1800s must succeed on period details, and “Showman” shines in these areas, too. Sets, scenery, artwork, buildings, props—lots of props, carriages, homes, accessories in homes, street and office scenes, and the various museum and circus sets all display an overriding mood and feeling of another time, as they should, of course—with thanks to talented and veteran production designer Nathan Crowley. Crowley never fails—everything in “Showman” says and displays the late 1800s, show business—and the design regularly has a uniquely Barnumesque style. Crowley previously worked on “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight,” “Interstellar” and “Batman Begins,” among other films.
And the costuming is superb from costume designer Ellen Mirojnick—Jackman, and Zac Efron as his main business associate Phillip Carlyle, and the various high-society types in Barnum’s wife’s family and that family’s circle of friends are all decked out in classic 1870s Western-meets-city-folk suits and vests and hats and canes, all looking quite dapper—even the snobby, snotty, snooty blue-bloods associated with Barnum’s wife’s family and her wealthy family. The museum and circus performers are all decked out late-1800s circus-style clothes; street scenes include scores of period-appropriate costumes; and audience members, protesters and scores of others in various scenes are all costumed in rich, period-detail wardrobe that again, gives an aura of another time.
Jackman is ably assisted by a most talented cast. Zac Efron actually gives one of the better performances in his career as Phillip Carlyle, the initially-skeptical businessman who Barnum convinces to back his various endeavors. Carlyle, who could have chosen an easy, well-paid career as a straight-laced businessman, sees something in Barnum and his ideas, invests in Barnum’s business—and also learns and changes along the way. Carlyle learns that there’s more to life than just easy streets paved with gold, and he comes to understand, love and respect Barnum and his circus family. Watching Carlyle join Barnum in his ventures and learn about other lives and other worlds is a solid, enjoyable sub-plot in the film. And the rest of the cast performs equally well—Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife, Charity Barnum; Rebecca Ferguson as Lind; and the beautiful, sultry Zendaya as Anne Wheeler, Barnum’s trapeze artist, among others.
But, besides leading man Jackman, another particular actor particularly stands out in “The Greatest Showman:” the absolutely revelatory Keala Settle, who defiantly, proudly, respectfully—and forcibly and strongly—plays Barnum’s Bearded Lady, Lettie Lutz. Settle could have played Lutz in a comic manner strictly for laughs, but screenwriters Bicks and Condon and director Gracey are smarter than that easy-out. The filmmakers—and Settle herself—present and portray Lutz as a very real, very strong, very proud person who eventually becomes a leader and team captain-style member of the museum and circus family. Settle knows that Lutz is not just a Bearded Lady—she is a person, a person with feelings and emotions and wants and needs just like everyone else. Settle’s performance of Lutz is enriching and inspiration—during the course of the film, one forgets that Lutz is a woman with a beard, and instead one comes to feel for her, respect her, and cheer for her, as she and the other performers defend themselves and stand up for themselves. Adding to the positive performance by Settle is the fact that “Showman” is her film debut.
However, “Showman” is not Settle’s acting debut—she made her Broadway debut in 2011 in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” as Shirley and in the ensemble. She originated the role of Norma Valverde in “Hands on a Hardbody,” which ran on Broadway in 2013. She was nominated for the Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk Award and Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Additionally, she was awarded the Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway or Off-Broadway debut performance during the 2012-13 season. Settle also starred as Becky in the stage musical “Waitress,” which opened on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on April 24, 2016. She also played this role in the premiere production at the ART in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2015. And she played the role of Madame Thenardier in the revival of “Les Miserables” from March, 2014, to March, 2015.
It’s great to see a stellar film debut in an original movie musical, and hopefully “Showman” paves the way for more film performances from Settle—she deserves it.
So “The Greatest Showman” incorporates the talents of scores of A-list cast and crew members, and their superb collective work on the production, direction, writing and acting produces one of the best films of 2017—on all filmic levels. And that raises the subject of a most interesting film theme in 2017—several of the year’s best films are biographies. Along with “Showman,” four other films generally recognized as being among the year’s best—and shared in this particular corner of the reviewing universe—are also biographies—and all are highly-recommended: “Rebel in the Rye,” about writer J. D. Salinger; “Victoria and Abdul,” about Queen Victoria and her friendship with her devoted aide Abdul; “Marshall,” about the early-development career years of lawyer and judge Thurgood Marshall; and “Darkest Hour,” about Winston Churchill and his work on defending the United Kingdom during World War II.
How great is it that five of the best films from 2017 are biographies and true stories that not only entertain, but also tell historical tales and lessons that challenge, enliven, inspire and invoke actual deep thought and introspection about some of the more talented people in history. Filmmakers need to produce more such biographies in the future—the stories are out there, and they need to be told.
An odd, sad real-life note of despair does indeed bizarrely hang over the release of “Showman,” and that has absolutely nothing—zero—to do with the film itself: In May of this year, 2017, Feld Entertainment, the owners of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus—an eventual extravaganza version of the classic traveling circus and tent circus that Barnum created, and a circus that Barnum would eventually be a part of, and a traveling circus that carried Barnum’s proud name in its title for a whopping 146 years—abruptly and bizarrely ended the circus. Just like that—Feld ended it all. No temporary re-grouping or re-organization, no reduction in staff or traveling troupes (the circus had two traveling groups), no re-alignment or new ideas, no sale to another company or corporation, no merger with another company, no business plan with another company, no temporary suspension of the business with hopes of starting up again in the future, no possible singular location, no extended runs in Las Vegas or on Broadway, no announcement about any other possible plans for this endearing, enduring and uniquely original form of entertainment. This company just abruptly ended—out of the blue—one of the more fun, entertaining, fascinating, original and inventive forms of entertainment in the world—a circus loved and cherished by millions of people for 146 years. Feld officials said the circus was losing attendance and money and could not operate in a feasible manner any longer—but, again, the company officials didn’t talk about any alternative business plans or plans to save the circus—plans that were floated by everyone else in the world. Like the best dreams and visions of P.T. Barnum himself—perhaps there is some possible manner out there to resurrect and revive the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus with another company, another business plan, another format. Like P.T. Barnum, one can only hope that the circus comes back—the world needs the circus.
As often occurs with great films by talented people, the filmmakers’ own words can often express the inspiration behind the films. That is the case with “Showman,” as Jackman and Gracey, courtesy of the film’s studio production notes, provide some great insight into the making of the film and what inspired the filmmakers.
“It’s not exaggerating to say that Barnum ushered in modern-day America–and especially the idea that your talent, your imagination and your ability to work hard should be the only things that determine your success,” Jackman says. “He knew how to make something out of nothing, how to turn lemons into lemonade. I’ve always loved that quality. He followed his own path, and turned any setback he had into a positive. So many things I aspire to in my life are embodied in this one character.”
“A big idea in the film is that your real wealth is the people that you surround yourself with and the people who love you,” says Gracey. “Barnum pulled people together who the world might otherwise have ignored. And by bringing each of these people into the light he created a family who were always going to be there for each other. In the course of the film, Barnum almost loses both his real family and his circus family–but then you watch him discover that the most important thing he can do is bring them both back together again.”
“I always say that to me one of the saddest moments in any child’s life is when they learn the word ‘impossible,’” Gracey reflects. “Barnum’s story is about not limiting your imagination, about using what’s in your head to create new worlds–and that’s also what directors do. You come up with something and then you spend years and years of trying to realize it, in a process that is full of heartache but also allows you to truly bring dreams to life.”
And that’s as good a place as any to end this discussion about “The Greatest Showman.” Like P.T. Barnum himself, Gracey and Jackman and cast and crew deliver a film that simply brings dreams to life—and delivers some important messages, too–about respecting everyone no matter who they are; about being yourself and celebrating the differences among people in the world; about always pursuing your dreams and visions no matter what anyone tells you; about the importance of being original and creative and standing up for your ideas and ideals; and about always remembering and respecting the most important aspects of life—dreams, visions, hard work, respect, family, friendship and love.