Original movie musicals are a risky proposition. Without the backing of a Broadway run, fresh-out-of-the-box song-and-dance films have often flopped. Think Francis Coppola’s One from the Heart (opens in new tab) (1982) or James L. Brooks’ mangled I’ll Do Anything (1994). So credit former commercials director Michael Gracey and star Hugh Jackman for pursuing The Greatest Showman, a glitzy feelgood musical based on the life of 19th-century circus impresario P.T. Barnum.
Of course, it helps that La La Land (opens in new tab) proved you can have an original musical without in-built audience recognition and still have a (mega) hit. Wisely, Showman snagged the talents of songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won an Oscar for their La La Land songs (and also a Tony for their high-school-set show Dear Evan Hansen). Coupled with the charismatic Jackman as Barnum, and a script co-written by Dreamgirls (opens in new tab) director Bill Condon, it should be a no-brainer, right?
Well, not quite – though it’s hardly the fault of Jackman, who oozes Barnum-like showmanship from first frame till last. The story picks up as Phineas Taylor Barnum marries the woman of his dreams, Charity (Michelle Williams), despite her parents’ objections over his lowly status. With their two children to support, Barnum – an inveterate dreamer – sets up the American Museum of Curiosities, a flop exhibition that almost leaves him bankrupt.
When it’s suggested that live acts may be more intriguing, he begins to gather “oddities” – like his bearded lady (Keala Settle), a three-legged man (Jonathan Redavid) and dwarf performer Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), better known as General Tom Thumb.
Also joining the troupe is skilled trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Spider-Man: Homecoming (opens in new tab)’s Zendaya), although it’s Barnum’s partnership with the (fictional) playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) that really helps establish his circus nationwide. There’s further expansion when he visits England, meets Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin, playing her like a braying mule, in a very odd sequence) and sets his eyes on opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), ‘the Swedish nightingale’.
A packed bill, then. Trouble is, Showman is a bit too calculated to really engage. From the romance that blossoms between Anne and Phillip to the ‘be anything you want’ message, it’s got a Hollywood-by-committee feel to it. True, the numbers are slick and polished, and the songs by Pasek and Paul (including The Greatest Show and From Now On) are infernally catchy, but it’s all far less relatable than the edgier, more ragged world of La La Land.
As for the characters, they’re largely two-dimensional, particularly the female ones – Williams for one is left with little to do other than look radiant. Barnum’s exploitative side also makes him problematic as a protagonist you can fully root for. Still, if you’re after glittery, undemanding entertainment, Showman gives a solid performance.