In any story about author, entrepreneur and showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, audiences should anticipate humbugs—and that expectation is fulfilled in The Greatest Showman. This entertaining musical, starring Hugh Jackman, relies mostly on legend. In its imagined rags to riches story, P.T. Barnum’s knack for self-promotion is outstripped only by his humanity toward his unusual performers, the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle), the Lucasie albino family, General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), and the African-American trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya). Flawed by a tacked-on subplot (with Zac Efron), and an inexperienced director, the movie will nevertheless charm young audiences.
Theatricality is an essential element of the musical biopic, but Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman, rumored to have a $100 million budget, looks like a Broadway show on film, not a movie musical. A static camera, usually at the wrong angle, works against the kinetic energy of production numbers. For instance, dancers’ feet and legs are often not visible, either because the camera is tilted up, or is in “God shot,” above the action. Not that the dancers are doing much dancing—mostly, they’re stomping. No choreographer is credited on the film, nor is there any choreography in evidence.
These shortcomings are redressed somewhat in the colorful production design of Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk), and in beautiful costuming by Ellen Mirojnick (First They Killed My Father). Solid acting performances by Jackman, and Michelle Williams as his wife Charity Barnum, carry the story. The wonderful songs, by Oscar-winning lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, (La La Land), especially the poignant “This is Me,” and the rousing “A Million Dreams,” will win over those skeptical of musical biographies—although some disbelief is warranted.
The Greatest Showman’s fairy tale quality captures the spirit of P.T. Barnum’s life (1810-1891), but the appropriately sly and beguiling Jackman, at 49, is too old for the part. The story begins with Barnum’s marriage to Charity when he was 19, and the purchase, at 30, of the Manhattan building that housed his American Museum of wax works, oddities, and later, live performers. Jackman, who looks his age, apparently skipped make-up. In a flashback, Barnum (Ellis Rubin) and his father are portrayed as poor tailors, but tailoring was only one of Philo Barnum’s skills. Like many white families who arrived in America before the Revolutionary War, the Barnums were landowners and farmers. P.T.’s family were among the founders of the town in Connecticut where he grew up. (Later it would be unified with Bethel.) As for Charity, depicted as a rich girl in the movie, her real life roots were so humble that the Barnum family at first objected to the marriage.
Portraying Barnum as a man who saw the beauty in his unusual and often disenfranchised performers is somewhat deceptive. While he paid his employees well, and educated the younger ones, many suffered from depression at having to be on display in order to make a living. If anyone conferred dignity on Barnum’s unusual employees, it was Matthew Brady, who is not a character in the film. When Barnum discovered postcards, a product he could sell at the museum and at the circus, he asked the famous photographer to produce images of many members of his troupe. Brady’s pictures exalted and ennobled the performers who others saw as freaks of nature.
The screenwriters (Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks) may have based their view of the showman (1810-1891) on the abolitionist sentiments he expressed while serving in the Connecticut House of Representatives later in life, but P.T. Barnum fans know that his first successful hoax involved his 1835 purchase of a slave woman. Barnum paid $1,000 for Joice Heth, claiming that the African-American woman was George Washington’s nursemaid, which would have made her over 100 years old. At one point, Barnum also hired a group of Kiowa, Plains Indians (who did not speak English), to appear in his New York show; he introduced them as “murderous monsters” and had them paddle canoes up the Hudson to publicize their appearance. Balancing his racist behavior is Barnum’s relatively liberal attitudes towards women whom he thought should be allowed to work.
The Greatest Showman’s next humbug is its portrayal of the relationship between Barnum and the famous “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Barnum brought Lind to the United States in 1850 and managed her tour; unlike the portrayal of their travels in the film, Barnum was with Lind for a short time, accompanied by his 17 year-old daughter Caroline. The movie depicts Lind’s early departure from the tour as the result of her unrequited passion for Barnum, but this is a falsehood according to Barnum biographer A.H. Saxon. The author interviewed Barnum’s descendants for P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man, and insists that although Lind and Barnum profited from the venture, Lind’s financial demands put them at odds.
Neither Ferguson, nor Jackman, nor the talented Michelle Williams, who lends much-needed warmth to The Greatest Showman, and sings “A Million Dreams,” have any vocal talent, and it would be a lie to say that Jackman can dance. Luckily, in keeping with the spirit of a musical, Ferguson performs a song instead of the actual Lind repertoire that included arias by Verdi and Vincenzo Bellini. Back-up singers and excellent orchestration of the songs and the score (by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese) provide cover for the actors. The outstanding musical talent in The Greatest Showman is Keala Settle who puts over every song, but especially her song, “This is Me.” She is also a talented stage actress making her film debut.
For biography fans, the truth is far more amusing than the legend—and this is especially the case with P.T. Barnum. In The Greatest Showman, Barnum needs collateral to purchase the building that would become his first museum, and he produces a phony document to ensure the deal. Actually, it was the legacy of Barnum’s grandfather, Ephraim Barnum, that closed P.T.’s negotiation with the seller. Ephraim was an inveterate practical joker, like nearly all of the Barnums. He willed to P.T. Ivy Island, five acres of the Barnum property; for much of his early life, the family encouraged P.T. to take pride in his substantial inheritance. When Barnum asked the building owner to hold the mortgage, he had already discovered that Ivy Island was a bog—but his willingness to risk the loss of an entire island was, to the naive landlord, proof enough of Barnum’s character. The showman paid off his debt in two years and, within a decade, became one of the richest men in America.