From humble beginnings to connoisseur of freakish fantasy, The Greatest Showman follows the journey of P. T. Barnum, creator of the Barnum Museum Circus and everything within it. Wrapped in Hollywood glitz, some may say the complexity and sharp reality of the real Barnum and his circus was washed out, but I say ‘Honey, it’s a musical not EastEnders.’
Side note: I despise musicals and did not realise that this was one until seats were claimed. Tears brewed, hearts broke and then mended as the underdog became dark horse. Needless to say, a musical has never made such an impact.
Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman in the same shot, is there any need to say more? An electrifying opening with the song ‘The Greatest Show’ that introduces what the circus will come to be, only to become a nightmare that resolves into the form of young Barnum. He stares longingly into his reflection which is projected on a ring master’s outfit in a shop window. Here we see the thirst of a vivid imagination reaching out for his dreams.
Dear Barnum was but a tailor’s boy who fell in love with a girl named Charity of the Hallett family, his wealthy egotistical employers. Orphaned and separated from his childhood sweetheart who went to finishing school things instantly became dull. However, the pair kept in touch through letters which Barnum resourcefully manage to get delivered each time. It is at the start that we see little clues about the personality of what makes a great entrepreneur. Barnum is a hustler who will do all that it takes for what he loves, resulting in his marriage to Charity as they mature. ‘A million dreams’ is the song that encompasses this section where on and off-screen characters can connect with. The beautiful melodies were sung from the infant voices of the young and hopeful.
Whilst on the streets, he encountered a disfigured stranger who fed him. This kindness allowed him to empathise for the bizarre, whom society had cast out. This gave Barnum (a recently unemployed job clerk with two children to feed and broken house) an idea to open Barnum’s American Museum filled with wax figures on a loan he hustled illegitimately. It flopped and things began to look down, before Barnum’s children inspired him to look for those ‘alive’ who can wow the audience.
Singing ‘Come Alive’, the song’s ambiguous nature expresses the dreams solidifying as well as literally bringing the museum to life.
After a flamboyant recruitment process (INCREDIBLY performed artistically to the song ‘The Other Side’), Barnum takes on Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) a successful upper-class playwright who falls for African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) but hides his emotions publicly to his parents due to the class divide. A bittersweet reminder of love that cannot be during a period where class and racial boundaries were prevalent. ‘Rewrite The Stars’ was a touching song sung between these lovers as they sailed together on a trapeze but eventually disconnecting. If the musical performance alone was outstanding enough, the artistry of circus acts calls for its own stage.
But it was never enough for Barnum. There is still a hunger to prove himself amongst upper society, who shunned his daughter for her poor roots during a ballet performance. Meeting Jenny Lind the ‘Swedish Nightingale’, a real opera singer who was prolific during her era, he convinces her to perform throughout America acting as her manager despite never hearing her sing. ‘Never Enough’ was her first performance that sparked the ferocious ambition in him to achieve even more. Blinded by desire, he shunned his troupe of performers from interacting with the rest of the aristocrats. His downfall deepens as Lind falls in love with him on tour and sets up a scandalous kiss in front of journalists when he rejects her. Returning home, he is left with nothing when the circus is burnt down by diligent haters of the unusual troupe and what the circus stands for.
What did he do? Self-pitied drinking and moping because that is what every successful showman does apparently. Until the circus comes to him and when belting ‘From Now On’ he realises, the circus was created as a blessing for his family and the outcasts. Rebuilt, he passes on the lead to Carlyle ending the film with his rightful place beside his family.
Compared to other musicals that were critically acclaimed, what appears to be a simple dilution of Barnum’s life and the circus may come across as a glorified Disney tale. The outcasts were real, the harsh upbringing, snobbery, blinded ambition, family, hungry imagination, naivety, racial exclusion, desire for a better life you were born into – these are all real elements each and every one of us can resonate with. The Greatest Showman is a story of embracing who you are, and using YOU and your persona to make change, and I for one, am thankful for that message.