BWW Review: Far More than the Sum of its Parts, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN is a Profound Tale of Banding Together to Finally be Seen
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN comes to the big screen with an impressive Broadway pedigree. From Tony and Oscar-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the film stars Tony winner Hugh Jackman and Broadway regulars Michelle Williams, Keala Settle, Eric Anderson, Will Swenson, and more. In addition, stage and screen scribe and director Bill Condon cowrote the screenplay with Jenny Bicks.
The resulting product has a distinctly theatrical flair, from its musical framing to its production number presentation, but somewhat surprisingly, the stars of the film turn out not to be the Broadway megastar or creatives above the title, but instead the supporting and ensemble cast members who carry the film's truly powerful and timely message.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN marries a more modern, pop sound and vibe to the well-worn tale of American showman P.T. Barnum. Jackman and Williams-- who plays Barnum's childhood sweetheart turned wife, Charity-- are very good as they chart Barnum's rise from a tailor's son (Swenson plays Barnum's father) to an unsuccessful business clerk to famed, controversial entertainment impresario.
However, while the film is ostensibly about that story, and both Jackman and Williams sing and dance quite well-- Williams is in much better voice than she was in her Broadway run of CABARET-- that plot is so familiar that it borders on cliche; the dreamer who fails to find traditional success defies the odds to do something that no one else believes in to find startlingly untraditional success. Not only has that story been told many times before on a macro level, but this exact story has been told in a musical before on a micro level. So, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN doesn't blaze any new trails when it comes to the story it is telling.
Instead, the transcendent power of the film comes from the community formed by the band of "freaks" that Barnum assembles; a group of outcasts who have otherwise spent their lives doing everything within their power to not be seen are finally given a platform to celebrate who they are, and perhaps more importantly, find in Barnum someone who believes in, and cares about, them as individuals.
While you could argue that first-time director Michael Gracey's approach to this part of the story is emotionally manipulative (a charge leveled at Pasek and Paul's DEAR EVAN HANSEN as well), what he is able to do is to frame this perspective in a way that it becomes not only powerful, but truly profound.
In all frankness, there really is no reason that this film should work. With an exception or two, the songs come no where close to the previous impressive work of Pasek and Paul, and the overt showiness (i.e. cheesiness) should render THE GREATEST SHOWMAN completely impactless. But, it doesn't.
The film's inherent "showiness" is, in fact, one of its greatest assets. The initial reveal of the circus, with the bearded lady, Tom Thumb, the Tattooed Man, and many others reveling in their glory, is the first of many moments in the film that very well might induce open sobbing in the theater.
The collection of misfits finally being seen for the first time in their lives feels very powerful in today's environment, and the film benefits tremendously from its relevance.
Another area in which THE GREATEST SHOWMAN mines modern societal connections is in the romance between Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler. Carlyle, played wonderfully by HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL star Zac Efron, is an aristocratic playwright who becomes Barnum's business partner. Wheeler is Barnum's African-American trapeze artist, played by Zendaya.
While the subplot of star-crossed lovers kept apart by racial and socio-economical differences is just as familiar as Barnum's rags-to-riches tale, the sheer honesty and compassion between the two actors elevates it from trope to the true heart of the story.
While neither Efron, nor Zendaya yet have Broadway credits under their belts, both show in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN that they have the skills to be stars on both the stage and the screen. Zendaya-- who is a former DANCING WITH THE STARS runner-up-- specifically shines in bringing grace and depth to a character that could have been a flat, cookie-cutter archetype. Also, well Efron is no stranger to movie musicals (HAIRSPRAY, in addition to the HSM franchise), in just her second big-screen role, Zendaya shows off vocal, dancing, and acting talents that should make her a star in whatever medium she chooses.
Speaking of stars of stage and screen, I would be remiss not to mention the awe-inspiring, breakthrough performance by Tony nominee Keala Settle. As Barnum's bearded lady Lettie Lutz, Settle's character often becomes the ensemble's de facto leader, speaking the hard truths to Barnum when he loses sight of what is truly important. It also helps that Settle's voice is simply other-worldly, and the richness and strength that it provides to the film are immeasurable.
Ultimately, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN thrives on the infectiousness of its heart and energy. Like its "freaks," the film is far more than the sum of its individual parts, and because of that, it becomes an incredible testament to the strength found when people who have been shamed into silence, finally find their voice and band together.
Check out the trailer for THE GREATEST SHOWMAN:
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Keala Settle, and is now open nationwide. The film is rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl.