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'The Greatest Showman': A Review

A High-Flying Success

As a huge fan of musical theatre, the moment I heard there would be a new musical movie I was already on the edge of my seat wanting to buy tickets. I then saw Hugh Jackman in the title role and my interest was piqued even more—I, admittedly, am a huge fan of his work. However, due to family commitments I was unable to go to the opening night showing and had to wait to see the movie. As the days went by, I began to think: am I gearing myself up too much for this? We’ve all seen time and time before, an excellent cast does not necessarily mean an excellent movie, and the more excited we are, the harder we fall. I tried to let myself down gently, to not think about the film I was so excited to see, to try and convince myself it would be mediocre at best so that when I’d seen it, it would either let me down a little or raise me up. I needn’t have worried so much. I was squirming with excitement in my seat despite my efforts—and The Greatest Showman (TGS) not only managed to deliver, it blew me away.

The entire feel of the film draws you in, makes the audience feel like they are right there with the people as we watch their stories unfold. The pacing is quite fast at times, but you don’t feel as though you miss a moment in their lives.

Firstly, we have the opening number–“The Greatest Showman.” TGS’s opening number grabbed attention from the moment it began. You felt as though you had just been seated at a live show, and were waiting with baited breath for acrobats to drop from the ceiling and a parade to come dancing down the aisle. The musicians (John Debney and Joseph Trapanese) did an amazing job of building anticipation as the beat leads up to the first lyrics—and what else were we greeted with but the smooth, seductive voice of Hugh Jackman as he practically purrs the first line: “Ladies and Gents, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for.” I had literal shivers down my spine, my eyes glued to the big screen as this seductive lyrical opening was intersected with a strong yet simple beat complimenting each other unbelievably well. The song quickens, and you are pulled into a bright and colourful circus performance dancing over the screen and you know in that instant that this beautiful scene is everything the characters desire, I myself wanted nothing more in that moment than to run away and join the circus. This song is split into the intro and the finale, which we will address later, but the introduction part slowly fades as PT Barnum looks at his own reflection and we are taken to the beginning of the story.

The son of a tailor, we see PT Barnum stand awkwardly aside as his father clothes a wealthy man whose daughter Charity is having etiquette lessons. The class difference is made crystal clear, but despite knowing there is a rift between them the audience is shown that they seem drawn to each other, that these two souls were meant to find each other. This leads into our next song, “A Million Dreams,” which has become my top motivational song. Through this song we see Barnum’s dreams, and how he and Charity are destined for each other—and we want them to be together. Starting with two children exploring an abandoned house, the montage goes on to show Barnum’s life after his father dies, leaving him alone. Charity has been sent to a boarding school, but they still manage to write and stay in touch despite the odds. Whilst this song covers a large chunk of Barnum and Charity’s life and courtship—from their childhood up to Barnum finding a job and whisking Charity (Michelle Williams) away to a small apartment in the city and right up to pregnancy—the audience still feels as though they watched every step. The problem with montages and songs covering large time spans is that it’s easy for the audience to feel cheated, but TGS avoids this by filling you with a sense of happiness as you watch how passionately in love these two are. The song is reprised shortly after by Barnum’s two daughters just after he has been made redundant, in a sweet melody that perfectly sets off that moment in which we know Barnum is about to act on his dreams—that "click" in his mind telling him that it’s time to make the world he promised.

Creating a new world isn’t easy, and Barnum’s way of getting the money he needs is a con that puts the audience on edge wondering if he’s going to be found out. Having seen his dream in bright shining colours living and breathing at the beginning of the film, Jenny Bicks (the lady responsible for the story) has still managed to keep in the underlying tension. Through starting TGS the way they did, the filmmakers have put the audience in PT Barnum’s shoes—we’ve seen his dream, we want to see it come to life, but we are forced to watch helplessly as his plan’s fail to take off. This leads to him bringing in human acts—the "abnormal" people society has shunned. Barnum inspires them to come out into the open, and through his song “Come Alive” the audience is shown a man who could sell ice to the Eskimos, and the people who put their faith in his dreams. The introduction of these people attracts a large audience, despite protests and poor reviews (one of which prompts Barnum to rename his venture "Barnum's Circus" out of spite). Once he has secured financial stability, and an extravagant lifestyle for himself and his family, PT Barnum sets his sights on bigger prey—the acceptance of the upper classes. Here we meet Zac Efron’s character, Playwright Phillip Carlyle (a composite character based loosely on James Anthony Bailey) and Efron and Jackman sing “The Other Side” as Barnum tries to persuade the other to join his endeavour.

Jackman and Efron’s performance in “The Other Side” was incredible. The pair worked well together and the song was an entertaining way to show their mindsets and negotiations without having to have a drawn-out spoken scene. I must, however, highlight the unsung hero in this scene as it was not the wonderful Hugh Jackman or the ever entertaining Zac Efron—it was the Bartender. The dancing Bartender was enthralling; his part in their dance was breathtaking. Each move transitioned smoothly to the next, giving physical form to the negotiation itself—the choreographer behind this scene is a genius. To the best of my research I believe the dancing Bartender is Daniel "Cloud" Campos, and I hope he gets the recognition and love he deserves because I could watch that one scene on repeat all day.

Back to the story, as Carlyle opens doors for Barnum. Barnum is introduced to Jenny Lind who he is immediately enthralled by, and wants to do a show with. Admittedly, I was disappointed upon learning that Jenny Lind’s singing voice is not provided by Rebecca Ferguson herself. However, Ferguson’s acting is flawless and it is nice to see a Swedish actress playing the Swedish Nightingale. Something that does annoy me greatly, however, is just how many people I’ve heard say they were disappointed that Lind was introduced as an opera singer but did not sing opera. I can only assume most of these people do not realise Jenny Lind was an actual person and, therefore, the character was introduced as the person she portrayed—the famous Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind. Not only would having her sing an operatic song have not fit the tone and style of the production, but it would also have robbed the audience of one of the most beautiful songs ever to be sung in just 100 words. “Never Enough” exposes the hearts of both Lind and Barnum, expressing their obsessive lust for more fame, wealth, and power. Lind was drawn to America through her lust for Barnum and wish to become the most famous and beloved singer in the world, having already conquered Europe, whilst Barnum rationalises his insatiable appetite by telling himself that he’s doing it for his family.

As Barnum celebrates his victory in drawing in the upper classes with Lind’s first American show, he shuns his former act, sending them away as though they were just a stepping stone to his newfound glory. This is where Academy Award winning song “This is Me” comes in, allowing the audience to revel in the circus performer’s new confidence and sense of belonging as they stand up proud despite the sting of Barnum’s treatment. He inspired them to be who they were without shame—and they no longer need his urging; they are proud of their accomplishments. This was the song used in the trailer to draw in the audience, but the fact you may have heard clips of the song before seeing the film doesn’t make it any less powerful and if you didn’t feel like getting up and dancing along already, you will as this song rises into its chorus.

In Barnum’s absence during his tour with Jenny Lind, we are treated to superb performances by Efron and Williams as we get a glimpse into the trials their characters face. Carlyle has fallen in love with black trapeze artist Anne Wheeler, played by Zendaya, but can’t get past the looks of disgust such a relationship is given from people who used to be his peers. When Carlyle is finally ready to ignore what other people think, he approaches Anne, but she is too afraid to be with him, part of her not truly believing he isn’t going to run away at the first sign of hardship. “Rewrite the Stars” is an inspiring love song that will have you rooting for them to be together before breaking your heart when she rejects him at the end. We have another example of genius choreography here, making the scene visually stunning whilst maintaining the intimacy of the moment. The use of the trapeze act highlights how they exist on two separate plains—when they are flying through the air they can be free in their love whilst when they hit the ground they are bound once again by the laws of man and society which say they cannot be together.

Meanwhile, Charity is left with her daughters, discontented where life has led her. Through her song “Tightrope” we are shown how she meant every word of her song before—she loves Barnum, and would follow him anywhere, even into the poverty that she wasn’t accustomed to. Now that he has secured wealth for her, she should be happy but cannot find happiness as it has come at too high a price—the man she loves is no longer around. She equates their situation to walking a tightrope. When Barnum is with her, it feels like an adventure and is worth the risk, but without him there she begins to wonder if he will catch her if she falls. The scene is beautiful, and watching Charity dance with the memory of her husband is enough to make even the most hardened heart ache.

Whilst on tour, we see Lind and Barnum have grown closer, and Lind makes a move on Barnum. To the audience’s relief Barnum rejects her, finally realising what he has left behind—but after her teary reprisal of “Never Enough” (the song now referring to Lind’s desire for more whilst Barnum has realised his happiness is elsewhere), Lind kisses Barnum in front of the paparazzi.

The film crescendo’s with tearing down everything Barnum has. The museum is set on fire, and Barnum arrives just in time to see it burn. Carlyle runs in to the burning building in search of Anne, and for a moment we think we’re getting a clichéd heroic love scene—but Anne emerges from a different direction on her own, and instead we see Barnum’s redemption as he runs in to retrieve Carlyle. Just as he enters, the building collapses, and I’m sure my heart skipped a beat. The timing and pacing of this scene is put together so well that if only for the briefest of moments you forget that the main character is going to prevail. You are on the sidelines again only this time you’ve tasted even more of Barnum’s success only to see his life ripped out from under him, because it doesn’t end there. Carlyle is pulled out and taken to hospital, and Barnum sits the next day amongst the rubble of the building where he has a heart-warming talk with the critic who has been giving him a hard time. He hears from the critic that Lind has cancelled her tour because of a "scandal"—not only has Barnum lost every cent, but suddenly we realise that the picture of him kissing Jenny Lind is on the front page of the paper, and Charity will have seen it. He returns home to learn that his house has been repossessed, and Charity is taking their daughters to live with her parents.

In all films you have moments that "rise’ and ‘fall." In musicals this is shown through the choice of songs and the order they are put into. The amazing thing about TSG is how it has created an atmosphere that keeps us on an amazing rise, falling only briefly to show us the deepest emotional moments of its characters before lifting us back up. Though a couple of songs begin quietly and build up into a rise (“A Million Dreams” and “This is Me”, for example), only two songs really end that way. “Rewrite the Stars” has its own set of rises and falls, whilst “Tightrope” maintains a quiet, sweet tone that creates a sense of empathy between the audience and Charity’s secret heartache. That is part of what makes this film so brilliant—the fact that the songwriters, story writer and director haven’t overplayed the emotional turmoil. By keeping the audience relatively high spirited, the falls make all the more impact—and that stays true throughout. The filmmakers just crushed everything we watched PT Barnum create, destroyed his entire world, but rather than having him reassemble it brick by brick, we are given a steady rise to the climax.

Anne sings a quiet, one verse reprise of “Rewrite the Stars” to Carlyle, confirming her love for him and willingness to trust him, after which he awakens and they share a passionate kiss under the shocked gazes of the hospital staff. Meanwhile, the circus performers find Barnum in a bar, and now it is their turn to inspire him. “From Now On” sees Barnum looking at pictures of his family, finally seeing that the excuse he had been using all along was the one thing he should have been focusing on—his wife and children. The song begins quiet as he reminisces, slowly building to a bouncy number that has the audience mentally exclaiming “Yes, Barnum, now you get it!!” Barnum runs to his family while the performers celebrate. Barnum finds Charity in the spot where we saw Barnum first tell her about his dreams at the start of the film, and whilst brief Jackman and Williams fill it with all the emotion needed to make it a satisfying reunion.

The film ends with the final verses of “The Greatest Showman,” in which we see Barnum’s complete circus in a tent, and he passes the Ringmasters hat to Carlyle so that he can retire and see his children grow up. Once again, the audience is lifted to an unbelievable high as the climax rises and explodes like fireworks.

Jackman has said that this film was seven years in the making, and I must say it was worth every second spent working on it. Everyone involved did an amazing job, and I only wish I could congratulate each one individually with a list of what I loved about their work—from the writing and productions, to costumes and set design. I must also pay special mention to Hugh Jackman’s surgeon who was ignored by the actor when he told Jackman not to sing due to a cancer operation a few days prior which required 80 stitches in the actor’s nose. Despite this, Jackman couldn’t resist showing what he had in the cast’s first get together which had taken eight months to arrange and had to run back to the hospital afterwards to get restitched. You should never ignore your doctor—and we hope Mr Jackman at least gave his surgeon a small box of chocolates to say sorry for disobeying doctor’s orders.

In conclusion, I am waiting with bated breath for The Greatest Showman to come out on Blue Ray so I can watch the film and its special features on repeat. We must remember to breathe, however, because we’ll be waiting until at least March 6 for the DVD/Blu Ray release. Until then, I’ll just have to settle for the incredible soundtrack.