Once in a while, a film takes everyone by surprise. The critics were largely underwhelmed by Michael Gracey's directorial debut and the early box-office figures weren't particularly special. But word of mouth helped turn The Greatest Showman into a sleeper hit and its soundtrack album keeps breaking records. Indeed, after spending 24 weeks at No.1 in the UK album charts in 2018, it is now the most successful soundtrack recording since Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965).
Several theories have been propounded to explain the film's appeal, with some pointing to its uplifting sense of feel-good escapism and others crediting the blend of individualism and togetherness that manages - like the songs that dot the action - to feel both contemporary and nostalgic. But a number of commentators have identified The Greatest Showman as a totem of Trumpism, as it completely reinvents Phineas Taylor Barnum by turning a disreputable huckster with a reputation for exploitation and racial stereotyping into a heroic champion of minorities and the marginalised who created an inclusive and accepting environment that allowed them to be themselves.
For those who still don't know it, the storyline centres on P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), who is raising daughters Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely) with his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams). when he loses his clerking job with a New York shipping company. Raising funds by duplicitous means, he opens Barnum's American Museum of Curiosities on Broadway to exhibit a range of wax and stuffed models. However, on the suggestion of his daughters, Barnum turns his attraction into a circus to showcase the distinctive talents of a cast of so-called 'freaks'.
In an effort to attract a better class of patron, Barnum enlists the help of playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who arranges for the company to meet Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. While in London, Barnum becomes bewitched by singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and offers to manage 'the Swedish Nightingale' if she comes to America. However, she starts to develop feelings for Barnum, just as Carlyle loses his heart to Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), an African-American trapeze artist who is looked down upon by his haughty parents.
Scripted by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, the narrative is somewhat unreliable as biography, as it not only tweaks the truth, but it also omits inconvenient facts that don't fit its thesis that Barnum was a showman who always had the best interests of his acts at heart. Despite being eager to present him as a child of poverty who triumphed in the face of adversity and prejudice, the screenplay ignores some colourful incidents in Barnum's youth, including a spell behind bars for a libel committed while he was editing his own newspaper in his twenties.
More understandably, however, there is no mention of Barnum's first exhibit, Joice Heth, a blind and almost completely paralysed slave in her late seventies, who was purchased for $1000, billed as 'The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World' and forced to pose for 10-12 hours a day as George Washington's 161 year-old nurse. When she died in 1836, Barnum charged admission to her autopsy, a shameful act of disrespect that the film-makers clearly didn't feel they could sanitise with a jaunty tune.
In fact, Barnum went on to become an abolitionist and this spirit informs the subplot involving a pair of entirely fictional characters, Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler, who cling together at a time when inter-racial romance was simply not tolerated in supposedly polite society. Phineas and Charity also endure some invented bumps in their own road to happiness (there was never a hint of a liaison between Barnum and Jenny Lind, for example), while the facts are often blurred in the backstories of bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and the diminutive Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), whom Barnum billed as General Tom Thumb. Barnum is presented as the saviour of these adult wretches when, in reality, he bought Stratton when he was just four and Lutz (whose real name was Annie Jones) when she was nine months old. But Barnum would not have objected to the movie taking such liberties, as he was always aware of the value of printing the legend (as Carleton Young so memorably puts it in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962).
An inveterate opportunist with boundless energy and a penchant for taking risks, Barnum seems like the perfect poster boy for the American Dream. Yet he is played by Australian Hugh Jackman, who kept faith with a project that was first announced in 2009. It was Jackman who insisted that visual effects artist Michael Gracey was afforded the opportunity to make his feature bow after they had worked together on a Lipton ice tea commercial. Moreover, it was Jackman in his role as co-producer who lobbied for the music and lyrics to be written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who had won a Tony for their score for the 2015 Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen, and the Oscar for Best Song for 'City of Stars', which was one of the highlights of Damien Chazelle's phantom Best Picture winner, La La Land (2016). The duo repaid his choice by winning a Golden Globe for 'This Is Me', which was also nominated for an Academy Award and resulted in Pasek and Paul being hired by Disney to write songs for the upcoming live-action versions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Aladdin (1992).
Speaking of Disney reboots, co-scenarist Bill Condon directed Beauty and the Beast (2017), while his wider musicals experience encompasses an Oscar-cited writing credit on Rob Marshall's Best Picture-winning Chicago (2002) and Dreamgirls (2006). He is also no stranger to biopics, having directed Gods and Monsters (1998) and Kinsey (2004), which respectively centred on British film-maker James Whale and American sexologist Alfred Kinsey. The former was adapted from Christopher Bram's novel, Father of Frankenstein, and earned Condon an Oscar. However, he also landed the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (2012), having been nominated for the same award the previous year for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1.
Among Condon's other credits are The Fifth Estate (2013) and Mr Holmes (2015). He also directed the pilot of The Big C (2010), which was created by his collaborator on The Greatest Showman, Jenny Bicks. Having started out writing for shows like Seinfeld (1989-98) and Dawson's Creek (1998-2003), Bicks created the short-lived series, Leap of Faith (2002), before working on all six seasons of Sex and the City (1998-2004). In addition to further small-screen credits on Men in Trees (2006-08) and Divorce (2016-), Bicks has also written such features as Dennie Gordon's What a Girl Wants (2003) and Carlos Saldanha's Rio 2 (2014). She even has a single acting credit, as Miss Haskell in Garry Marshall's Never Been Kissed (1999), after she was talked into taking a cameo while doing on-set rewrites.
Very much a film star in the classical mould, Hugh Jackman is a likely future contender for Cinema Paradiso's Getting to Know slot. But there are also other chances to become better acquainted with P.T. Barnum, although Wallace Beery's turns in Sidney Franklin's A Lady's Morals (1930) and Walter Lang's The Mighty Barnum (1934) are not among those currently available on disc. Some will recall seeing Michael Crawford on stage in the West End in 1981 in Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart's stage musical, Barnum!. But 'the Prince of Humbug' has also made a number of screen appearances.
Burl Ives was a larger than life Barnum in Don Sharp's sci-fi caper, Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon (1967), while John Ratzenberger cast the character in a whole new light as circus owner P.T. Flea in John Lasseter's Pixar animation, A Bug's Life (1998). The destruction of the American Museum is shown in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002), in which Barnum was played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths, while Billy Zane took the role on television in the 2017 'Freakshow' episode of DC's Legends of Tomorrow (2016-).
Unusually, The Greatest Showman was premiered aboard RMS Queen Mary 2 on 8 December 2017, just a few months after the final performance under the big top given by Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It has gone on to gross over $504 million worldwide, which makes it the third-most successful live-action musical of all time after Beauty and the Beast and Randal Kleiser's Grease (1978). Moreover, being something of a gamble in the Barnum tradition, it marked a triumphant return to musicals for Fox, which had helped bring about an end the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical with a string of expensive misfires, including Richard Fleischer's Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Robert Wise's Gertrude Lawrence biopic, Star! (1968), which had been the respective follow-ups for Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews to two Oscar-winning classics, George Cukor's My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music.
The critics either raved or raged about The Greatest Showman. But, while it may not stand close historical scrutiny because of its 'fake news' approach to factual accuracy, there's no doubting its credentials as a piece of polished entertainment, whose mix of song and spectacle has done much to revive the declining practice of family viewing. Now, what else can we tempt you with?