The Greatest Showman: A Review

By Ann Ross Westermann

Directed by Michael Gracey and written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, The Greatest Showman is an American musical drama film inspired by the story of P.T. Barnum’s creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Michelle Williams, and Rebecca Ferguson, the film was released December 20, 2017, and has thus far earned $266 million worldwide. The film received nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Musical or Comedy, and Best Actor Musical or Comedy for Jackman at the 75th Golden Globe Awards. One of the films tracks, “This is Me,” won Best Original Song at the Golden Globes and has been nominated for an Oscar in the same category.

Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

The film begins with Barnum, played by Jackman, as a young child, working alongside his father, a tailor. He becomes infatuated with one of his father’s client’s daughters, Charity Hallett, played by Williams, who is sent to finishing school by her father, but the young lovers do not let the distance between them keep them apart. They stay in touch through letters and eventually meet again in adulthood and move to New York, where they get married and raise two daughters.

After Barnum loses his job as a clerk at a shipping company, he takes out a large loan from the bank and purchases a museum he will go on to call Barnum’s American Museum. When sales are low, he decides to bring in something “alive” for the public to see, so he searches for performers, or “freaks,” as he calls them, to make his show come alive. He renames his business “Barnum’s Circus.” He furthers his name by partnering with playwright Phillip Carlyle, played by Efron, who falls in love with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler, played by Zendaya. While on tour with Barnum, singer Jenny Lind, played by Ferguson, falls in love with him but calls the tour off when he does not feel the same way.

When Barnum returns to his home in New York, he finds his circus on fire, his mansion foreclosed, and his wife and children back at Charity’s parents due to the released press about Barnum and Lind’s rumored relationship. Facing an impossibly expensive rebuild of his burnt-down circus, Barnum rebuilds his circus using an open-air tent by the docks, which turns out to be a colossal success.

The way the film portrays Barnum is not how his life actually played out. The real P.T. Barnum did found what became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He did move to New York as a young man with “a million dreams.” In 1841, he bought Scudder’s American Museum in lower Manhattan and reopened it as his very own “Barnum’s American Museum,” where he brought in live acts, such as a 25-inch tall Charles Sherwood Stratton and a bearded lady, along with a few famous fakes, like the Fiji Mermaid, a creature constructed with the head and torso of a baby monkey sewn to a fish tail and covered with paper-mache.

General Tom Thumb and P.T. Barnum. Photo courtesy of thehumanmarvels.com

While the film shows that Barnum entered the show business at a fairly young age, just recently married with two young girls, in reality, Barnum partnered with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson to produce a circus they named “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1881, when he was 61 years old.

Barnum knew that if he wanted to go into the circus business, he had to get people excited about his show, and he had to create something that people had never seen before. He paraded elephants through the streets of New York and provided a pre-show to his circus that drew the public in. The shows were consistently sold out. He would even bring his elephants out into his backyard of his very own Waldemere Mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when a train would pass by to catch the attention of the hundreds of passengers aboard. As Barnum said himself, “Without promotion something terrible happens… nothing!”

He began the circus because he wanted to see what he could do beyond his museum, which burned down in 1868, which is confirmed in the film. “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which became Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, lasted until May 21, 2017, with their last show in Uniondale, New York. Barnum became one of the powerhouses of the entertainment business in the 19th century and served an inspiration for many others.

Prior to seeing the movie, I did not know what to expect. I did not know much about the circus business and how “The Greatest Show on Earth” got its start. Having been a dancer for all my life, I was completely in awe of the music and the dancing the movie had to offer. Owen Gleiberman of Variety describes each dance number as a “hypodermic shot of joy to the heart.” Taking into account that it is a musical, it felt like I was watching a live show in the theater. The sets in each scene had so much detail and so much color, and each costume and character were designed in a way to take the audience back in time to the beginnings of this circus.

Having seen the movie twice and doing a bit of research about the actual show itself and how it began, I am now able to recognize some factual inconsistencies between the film and real life. “The Swedish Nightingale,” the stage name of Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer, toured with Barnum in America. The film suggests Lind accepted Barnum’s offer because she might have been interested in him. However, in real life, she actually accepted the tour because she wanted to raise money for many local charities back home in Sweden. Another key aspect to point out is that she is said to be an opera singer, hence “The Swedish Nightingale,” but her performance of “Never Enough” in the film was clearly sung in alto and is said by Dana Schwartz of Entertainment Weekly to be similar to “an Adele song by way of one of those songs they used to write for whoever won American Idol.

Britton Peele of Dallas News opens his review by stating that the film, “twists the truth for the sake of your enjoyment.” While the film did not, in fact, accurately portray history as it happened, it gave insight to the circus business and how it began. I think that despite what critics might have to say about it, it is important to look at the overall message that is sent to the audience.