It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to meet The Greatest Showman at the circus show tonight! Who is The Greatest Showman you ask? Why, it’s P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a real life figure who is thought of having a complicated legacy at best (a good example of this is how he was a staunch critic of slavery but also heavily utilized blackface in his entertainment programs) and has now been recontextualized for the American musical The Greatest Showman as being a staunch advocate for the downtrodden and the oppressed. How does he advocate for such individuals? By creating a haven for them that he calls…the circus.
Before all of that though, P.T. Barnum is just another poor street urchin, the son of a tailor who has had to struggle for every penny that’s ever been in his pocket. He promises his future wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), that he’ll give them a glorious life full of riches and happiness. After being fired from his humdrum office job, he decides his chance at achieving that is by creating a new entertainment venture where paying customers can come and see unique individuals they’ve never even seen before. This means Barnum rounds up a variety of societal outcasts (including Zendaya as a trapeze artist and a bearded lady named Letti played by Keala Settle) to perform in his show.
This sort of inspirational rags-to-riches plot of outcasts banding together is heavily different from the reality of who Barnum was, and while it’s hard to entirely shake off the icky feeling of how the movie is reconfiguring a troubling figure from the past into a heroic individual (isn’t this how Christopher Colombus became such an untouchable historical icon for so long?), at least the heightened format of a musical means that it mostly feels like just another element of The Greatest Showman embracing the stylized tendencies baked into the very core of musical storytelling instead of awkward historical revisionism.
That’s not the only way this Michael Gracey helmed project fully embraces the world of musicals and what unique things they can accomplish. The Greatest Showman is a full-on musical, complete with elaborate dance numbers, grandiose sets & costumes and songs that are as big as any big top. Even better than its apparent love for musicals is how it actually has a strong roster of tunes at its disposal penned by the duo Pasek and Paul (they were responsible for the songs in La La Land as well). Aside from an unmemorable Adele-inspired track sung by a character played by Rebecca Ferguson, the rest of the songs are thoroughly enjoyable, there’s an infectious energy to a lot of these musical numbers that stems heavily from the inspired lyrics.
Best of the assorted songs have to be The Other Side, a tavern-set ditty wherein Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron get to dance their way through a Gene Kelly inspired song where lyrics get tossed out in entertaining rapid-fire fashion, and especially a showstopper empowerment anthem entitled This Is Me that dares anyone not to get up and feel inspired. Yes, The Greatest Showman sure does know how to make a lively & fun musical number which is why it’s shocking that notable stretches of the story, especially in the extremely troubled second half of the film where P.T. Barnum becomes heavily enamored with the world of high society, go by without someone breaking into song.
When the music goes away, what’s left in The Greatest Showman? Well, in the aforementioned second half of the plot, you basically get a so-so biopic drama that doesn’t really give any of its actors a chance to utilize their best assets. It’s here that The Greatest Showman becomes too fixated on a tired storyline that has Barnum become fascinated with living the wealthy life and touring with singing sensation Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), and since we spend so much time with Barnum away on the road touring, that means the best characters in the movie (the various circus performers and an endearing writer played by Zac Efron) are shunted to the background at best and more often than not entirely off-screen.
The characters themselves, especially P.T. Barnum, just aren’t strong enough to help make the weakly thought out drama all that engaging and I kept waiting for the fun musical numbers to come back. Also hindering the film is how it treats the performers in Barnum’s circus, many of whom never get fleshed out as people and two of the most notable African-American characters (played by Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in the story seem to just show up on-screen so they can be demonized by not nice white characters in order to show how woke the nice characters are. For a movie whose entire core theme is about humanizing the downtrodden, The Greatest Showman does have a problem with frequently only using the oppressed as props instead of people.
On the opposite end of that spectrum, one reason the musical number This Is Me works so well is because it’s such a successful realization of that previously mentioned pivotal theme of The Greatest Showman about lending a voice and perspective to the oppressed. These circus performers don’t belt out this tune to Barnum, they sing it to themselves as both strangers and people they trust shut them out and ignore them, it’s all about their perspective & their struggles. That’s why that particular musical number resonates so deeply. That’s the kind of musical number that helps ensure that The Greatest Showman works as agreeably enjoyable entertainment, especially if you’re a fan of musicals like yours truly, even if it’s overall inspirational message and the straightforward dramatic sequences occuring in between the various musical numbers don’t work as well as they should. Thankfully, there’s a whole bunch of highly enjoyable musical numbers (the tunes in this thing have been stuck in my head for days!) and some actors turning in fun work here to ensure your visit with The Greatest Showman is at least better than the traumatic visit to the circus I had at a young age (I had to leave only a few minutes into the show thanks to my fear of clowns, it was a nightmare!).