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Review: The Greatest Showman is starry-eyed with silly, simple joy of being a musical

PUBLISHED: 08:22 26 December 2017

Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Twentieth Century Fox

Roll up and rock out for director Michael Gracey’s foot-stomping musical, the passion project of Hugh jackman, based on the topsy-turvy life of circus impresario and master of shameless self-promotion, P.T. Barnum.

Zac Efron as Phillip Carlyle and Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Twentieth Century FoxZac Efron as Phillip Carlyle and Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

The Greatest Showman (PG)

***

Two of Hollywood’s defining genres, the musical and the western, went out of fashion around the same time.

In the 1960s, big-budget musicals were the equivalent of comic book movies today. But at the end of that decade, they started to flop and ever since then, just like the western, every attempt to make one has been a revival/ a deconstruction/ a reinvention/ the dying gasp of the genre.

La La Land was a reinvention of the deconstruction of the musical, but the Greatest Showman, a musical about circus pioneer P.T Barnum, is something a bit stranger and a bit bolder: it’s a movie adaptation of a Broadway musical, that was never a Broadway musical.

Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum and Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum, the wife of P.T. Barnum, in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Twentieth Century FoxHugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum and Michelle Williams as Charity Barnum, the wife of P.T. Barnum, in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Older readers may remember the 1980s Broadway/West End musical Barnum, with Jim Dale and Michael Crawford in the title role. This is not that musical.

This is Hugh Jackman’s passion project which he has been trying to get made for nearly a decade: a proper musical with a new book and nine new songs in an age when movie audiences are accustomed to having their musicals pre-packaged, pre-heard, pre-hummed and with nothing left to chance.

As a boy, lowly tailor’s son PT Barnum (Ellis Rubin) falls head over heels in love with Charity Hallett (Skylar Dunn), who comes from a wealthy family that looks down upon PT and his clan. Regardless, romance blossoms and PT (now played by Hugh Jackman) asks for the hand in marriage of Charity (Michelle Williams), who doesn’t care about the riches offered by her parents.

The couple raise two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), and PT vows to provide for his family by establishing a museum of living curiosities including bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey) and high-flying trapeze siblings WD and Anne Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Zendaya).

The show fails to curry favour with powerful newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), who labels it “a primitive circus of humbug”. Regardless, Barnum looks to expand with investment from a new business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who is smitten with Anne.

Zac Efron as Phillip Carlyle and Zendaya as Anne Wheeler in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox FilmZac Efron as Phillip Carlyle and Zendaya as Anne Wheeler in The Greatest Showman. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film

Before being assigned his Wolverine claws, Jackman was primarily a song and dance man and Barnum P.T is an obvious role for him because he is a born ringmaster, a man whose instincts are constantly to throw his arms open and invite audiences to enjoy the show. The film follows his lead.

The story is a largely fact-free rewriting of Barnum’s life as a brisk series of big dramatic gestures, while every song is a belter, a show stopper, so catchy you assume you’ve heard it before. It’s difficult to put on a show when you’re showstopping it every few minutes and its frantic fury to keep you entertained doesn’t leave any time for depth.

The last musical to feature a big top was Moulin Rouge, a much more accomplished and knowing enterprise. But while that smug monstrosity was like being waterboarded with glitter, Greatest Showman is starry-eyed with the silly, simple joy of being a musical.

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