I am in no way dissing “The Greatest Showman” by saying that when it is available on DVD and streaming it is destined, even designed to be popular for sing-alongs at middle school slumber parties. Or that it is a good old-fashioned movie musical to take the whole family to, including grandparents and grandchildren, over the holidays. “The Greatest Showman” is differences-make-us-great personal empowerment tuneful fantasy inspired by impresario P.T. Barnum, who revolutionized entertainment flavored with unabashed hucksterism in the 19th century.
This highly romanticized and simplified version of PT Barnum’s life has the young Phineas (Ellis Rubin) the son of a poor tailor, very much in love with the daughter of his father’s wealthy customer. She is sent away to boarding school and he is left an orphan and has to survive on the streets, but they write to each other (an “I wish” musical number, of course) and when they grow up, he returns to her family’s mansion so they can get married. Her father warns that she will be back.
At first, Barnum (Hugh Jackman, in a performance that is itself the essence of showmanship) and his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) are poor but very happy and devoted to their two daughters. But Barnum loses his desk job and has to come up with some new way to support his family. To get a loan from the bank he presents documentation that falls somewhere between exaggeration and outright fraud, then uses the money to rent a warehouse and sets up a series of exhibits.
No one comes to see it.
And so, inspired by his daughter, he decides to add “unusual” people to the displays. Attitudes toward disabilities and differences were very different almost 200 years ago, and many people who were unusual — little people, women with facial hair, people with albinism, conjoined twins — had no opportunities for school or jobs and were abandoned or hidden by their families. In the world of this movie, handled with as much delicacy as is possible in the context of a big, brassy musical, Barnum tells them they were beautiful and promises to make them stars. If there are echoes here of the unforgettably eerie “we accept her, one of us” in “Freaks,” consider this a refutation, not repetition. At one point, when Barnum is successful, he wavers, not wanting his circus “family” to mingle with the society patrons. But he rejects Charity’s society family as well. And the circus performers remind him that once they recognized their beauty, he cannot take that away from them with the stirring anthem, “This is Me.”
And really, and appropriately given the subject matter, it’s the stirring anthems and the pageantry that this movie is about, not the melodrama of its thin storyline. Barnum tours with his star, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), straining his marriage. Barnum has a partner (Zac Efron), who falls for an African-American performer (a radiant Zendaya — can’t wait to see more from her in the next “Spider-Man” movie), straining his relationship with his family. And there are those in the community who are offended by Barnum’s performers.
But it’s just part of the show, there to give everyone a chance to sing and dance, with songs from the young Oscar and Tony Award-winning team from “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen.” There’s no attempt to be true to the period; another reminder we’re just here to have some fun, the closest most of us will ever get to running away to the circus.
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on December 20, 2017.