Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman doesn’t burden itself with much historical accuracy or being a full-fledged look at its title subject. Its pleasures are of the surface level variety. At one point, a stuffy critic begrudgingly tells P.T. Barnum that his show has succeeded in bringing joy to people. So does this musical in many moments.
Hugh Jackman is Barnum, an endless promoter who grew up poor and never forgot how he was treated by New York’s elite. He marries his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams), who came up with wreath and privilege. After some career misfortune in the 19th century era Big Apple, Barnum develops his greatest idea: a stage experience featuring society’s freaks. This includes a bearded lady (Keala Settle) with a beautifully booming voice and a dwarf (Sam Humphrey) who dresses as a general. He teams up with playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who also hails from the aristocracy but feels more at home among these outcasts. Phillip also finds love of the forbidden kind with the show’s trapeze artist (Zendaya).
While Barnum finally finds the financial success he’s longed for, it doesn’t buy him respect and that’s a consistent through line in the screenplay. Both the wealthy class and hecklers who lurk around the theater believe the freak show atmosphere is a disgrace. Barnum tries to combat this by touring with famed European opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Both his family and circus employees feel the neglect.
The brisk 105 minute running time features 11 song and dance numbers that move the plot along, often in montage fashion. Even a cursory Wiki read of Barnum’s grand life reveals that Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon’s script aren’t making a biopic. Like the man it’s about, this picture is style over substance. The message of inclusion and acceptance is unmistakable and frequently touching. Most importantly, the musical numbers (from the team behind La La Land) produce plentiful happy feels.
With his theater background, Jackman is more than well suited to play the man in the top hat. He’s the focal point in many of the song and dance interludes. Yet it’s “Rewrite the Stars”, a gorgeously choreographed sequence with Efron and Zendaya, that proved most memorable for me.
A stuffy critic could gripe that a rewrite should have explored more of Barnum’s real existence. However, the joyous vibe while I was watching is enough to justify admission here.
*** (out of four)