‘The Greatest Showman’ brings Barnum back to life

The Greatest Showman album remains #1 on iTunes and has reached this spot in over 65 different countries. It has also reached #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, contributed nine songs to the Spotify Top 200, and won a Golden Globe.

Photo by: Fair use photo by 20th Century Fox

The Greatest Showman album remains #1 on iTunes and has reached this spot in over 65 different countries. It has also reached #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, contributed nine songs to the Spotify Top 200, and won a Golden Globe.

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On April 30, 1980, a new musical took to the Broadway stage. For years, people had enjoyed the wonders of the Barnum and Bailey circus, which though it may have changed over time, still held the same magic as when it began.

What many people didn’t know is where this circus actually did begin. It started with P.T. Barnum, a family man in the mid-1800s, who left his job as a shop owner and formed what was later termed “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

The musical Barnum tells his story, and for two years on Broadway and many years after, it dazzled audiences from all over the country with its music, bright colors, emotion, and showmanship.

Today, a new musical has taken its place, but not on Broadway—it instead plays in movie theaters. The Greatest Showman is based on the very same story, but with new music, new characters, and a modernized presentation. However, it still has the same captivating elements as the original musical.

The Greatest Showman is one of the best movies of the year without a doubt, even though critics (and the Academy) would say otherwise. This is interesting, considering there is a critic character in the movie who continually claims Barnum’s show will fail, even though the fans adore it. This seems to be happening with the movie as well. But the fans are right and the critics are wrong for three reasons: the cast, the story, and the music.

First, the cast. Hugh Jackman, who plays the greatest showman himself, said that his own personality is probably more similar to Barnum’s personality than any other character he’s played. I think everyone knew going into it that Jackman was going to excel, and that may be the one thing on which fans and critics can agree. Jackman was the perfect actor for this role.

He is able to pull off the showman side of Barnum as well as the fatherly side, and he expertly balances the seriousness and playfulness of his character. He also is believable when he goes on tour with Jenny Lind, showing the audience how difficult it is for him but also showing how much he wants to go.

Jackman has previously acted in 39 movies, and yet he claimed Zac Efron was the veteran in this movie. While Jackman has sung in two movie musicals in the past, (Les Misérables (2012), Oklahoma! (1999)), The Greatest Showman was Efron’s sixth.

Now don’t get me wrong—I didn’t love him in this role. I think there are other people who could have done it better, such as Jeremy Jordan, the actor originally playing Carlyle before Zac Efron was called in to get a big name. Efron’s acting wasn’t great, but it was good enough to let his singing and dancing carry him.

The rest of the cast was great as well. Zendaya didn’t have as big a role as I thought she would based on advertising for the movie, but it turns out she’s a pretty good actress in a addition to being a pop star. I loved Michelle Williams as Charity and Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lind. And who could forget Keala Settle, the breakout star who’s the main vocalist in the favorite for Best Original Song at the Oscars. She spearheaded the strength and power that the song (“This Is Me”) as well as the entire movie needed.

The cast was so important because the story needed to be supported by actors and actresses who would do it justice. Now I know people will argue that the movie wasn’t historically accurate. You’re right. Some of it was, and some of it wasn’t. And just to be clear, that’s true of any movie that’s based on a true story.

The Greatest Showman, arguably, is different because it took more liberties than many typical true story movies. But here’s the thing. You can argue about its historical accuracy all you want. But in a movie like this, that’s not what matters.

Photo by: Fair use photo by 20th Century Fox
Keala Settle stars as the Bearded Lady in The Greatest Showman. She got the part after an emotional performance of “This Is Me” at a production with 20th Century Fox executives. Her powerful song was lauded with a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination.

What matters is that it’s a great story. If it stretched certain things, took some things out, or put some things in, that was the decision of the screenwriters, who were trying to make an amazing movie, not an encyclopedia.

This movie is a heartwarming story about loving family, breaking cultural barriers, and the power of musical theatre. And that theme is the purpose of the story. The Greatest Showman was created to celebrate theatre, which it does in dazzling fashion.

It was created to celebrate diversity, and it does this too in such a way that moves the hearts of audiences. And to those who would argue that’s it’s too uplifting and happy-go-lucky, I would argue that maybe we need something to make us feel good in a powerful way when so many movies today are sad or heartbreaking.

Here’s something to think about. At one point during the show, a critic tells Barnum that his show will fail because it is fake. As they watch the spectators exit the theater, Barnum responds, “Do those smiles look fake?”

Part of the reason this story is so beautiful is because of its soundtrack. The music, possibly more than anything, is what is going to make this movie into a classic.

The movie opens and closes with parts of the song “The Greatest Show”, which is my favorite song on the soundtrack. It hits you full force, and the way the orchestrations (Alex Lacamoire…remember him?) work with the melody is just perfect. It also works so well in its role as the first and last song, because it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot, but it both introduces young Barnum’s dream of becoming a showman and later provides closure to the story.

“A Million Dreams” (and also the reprise) makes me want to cry tears of joy. Interestingly, when the production was in its infancy and the producers were looking for songwriters, Pasek and Paul (who were relatively unknown at the time) approached them with this song. The team was hooked, and it’s easy to see why. It’s so simple and yet so unbelievably beautiful and powerful. It also works well in its role to transition from young Barnum (Ziv Zaifman) to Barnum (Jackman).

“This Is Me” won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song and is poised to win the Oscar in the same category. Keala Settle’s vocals bring to life the anthem of the entire show, celebrating individualism and diversity.

“Tightrope” is perhaps the saddest song in the show, but Pasek and Paul as well as Michelle Williams manage to convey this emotion in the most poignant and touching way. And let’s not forget to credit the rest of the team for using some amazing camera shots to supplement this and for creating the most shockingly heartbreaking special effect I’ve ever seen, which occurs exactly at the climax of this song.

The last song in the movie before the end of “The Greatest Show” is “From Now On”. This song is so powerful that in a production meeting to get the movie greenlit by 20th Century Fox, Hugh Jackman felt so moved that he defied previous doctors’ orders to not sing and belted his heart out. Enough said.

Photo by: Fair use photo by 20th Century Fox
Hugh Jackman is excellent in his role as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. He is supported by a star-studded cast, featuring Zac Efron, Zendaya, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, and Keala Settle.

If you’ve been counting, I mentioned only five songs, which meant I had to skip over the rest of the absolutely amazing songs on the soundtrack.

As I watched this movie, each of the three things (the cast, the story, and the music) created an unforgettable experience that absolutely deserves to be recognized as the greatest show.

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