Original screen musicals are sufficiently rare nowadays that you have to credit any new one, even if it’s not terribly good, for its bravado, if nothing else. “The Greatest Showman” isn’t the first tuner about legendary impresario P.T. Barnum, wrongly credited with saying “There’s a sucker born every minute”—a Broadway extravaganza starring Jim Dale, staged in the fashion of a circus performance, ran for a couple of years in the early eighties. But while Michael Gracey’s movie is equally flamboyant, it’s unlikely to enjoy a similar degree of success. Opulent but flat-footed, and loaded down with a series of top-forty style songs that sound like rejects from “Frozen,” the movie insistently exhorts us to celebrate diversity while itself remaining obstinately commonplace.
After a prologue showing young Barnum (Ellis Rubin, lip-synching to the singing of Ziv Zaifman), the son of a humble tailor, cavorting with young Charity (Skylar Dunn), much to the distress of her snooty father (Fred Lehne), the script skips ahead to Barnum’s return after years of unspecified activity in the person of strapping Hugh Jackman, who swoops in and takes Charity (now Michelle Williams) away to be his wife.
Barnum struggles to find work in New York—he, Charity and their two adorable daughters are living atop a building, it seems—and so he decides to go for broke. Using some worthless bonds from his last job as a bookkeeper as collateral, he purchases a building and turns it into his museum of oddities, hiring performers like Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) and bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle)—as well as trapeze siblings W.D. and Anne Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Zendaya)—as part of a diverse group, all of whom he treats with respect. (Barnum’s actual first attraction, Joice Heth, whom he passed off as the 161-year old nanny of George Washington, is present in the crowd, but no mention is made of how he lied about her age, or had her body publicly dissected after her death.)
Despite the public’s embrace of his show—after a rough start, some brickbats from the press (represented by Paul Sparks’ critic James Bennett), and hostility from street thugs who despise his “freaks”—Barnum longs for more. He induces playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to become his partner as a way of attracting the city’s swells to the show—much to the distress of Carlyle’s parents, which becomes more severe after he falls for Anne, though whether they object more to her low-class status or the color of her skin is unclear.
After a visit to Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin) arranged by Carlyle, Barnum decides to take his respectability campaign further by sponsoring an American tour for renowned opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, with singing voice provided by Loren Allred), the “Swedish Nightingale.” That venture earns him the respect he craves but goes south when Lind—who here warbles not opera arias but generic songs straight out of today’s Grammy playbook—develops feelings for him and their relationship threatens his marriage. He also begins keeping his troupe at arm’s length in his striving for societal approval. To add to the debacle, the museum is firebombed in a struggle between the performers and street toughs, and Barnum and Carlyle have to struggle to find a way to return from the ashes. Can anyone say “circus”?
From the standpoint of history, of course, the movie’s portrayal of Barnum is what the actual man would have dismissed as humbug. Barnum was no champion of the downtrodden and marginalized; he exploited them mercilessly for his own gain. But one must set that unhappy reality aside and understand that the movie, co-written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, is intended simply as a celebration of American entrepreneurial chutzpah, perhaps the perfect parable for an age in which practitioners of similar hucksterism have ascended to high office (as if that were an entirely new phenomenon).
Even after one accepts that, however, “Showman” is far from great. Certainly the physical production is sumptuous. Nathan Crowley’s production design, Debra Schutt’s sets and Ellen Mirojnick’s costumes are all eye-popping if totally synthetic, and Seamus McGarvey’s camera swoops and swirls around them in a futile attempt to generate some joyful excitement. All of this is in service to Garvey’s apparent determination to emulate the style and pizzazz of Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!”—an unfortunate model—which thankfully at least does not extend to adding an exclamation point to the title. It’s understandable that a roster of no few than six editors were engaged to try to give the footage some shape; they succeed only fitfully.
The glitzy packaging, moreover, only accentuates the hollowness of the contents. The script eschews any hint of edginess in favor an unvaried celebration of Barnum’s supposedly semi-enlightened showmanship and the triumph of his attractions over the bigotry of the society around them; and the attempt to add swooning romanticism to the mix—not only in terms of Barnum’s lifelong love of Charity but in Carlyle’s love for Anne—is cloying.
Matters are worsened by the songs. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are currently among Broadway’s golden boys because of their score for “Dear Evan Hansen,” and their tunes for “La La Land” only added to the luster. But their work here is pedestrian, with banal lyrics extolling either the magic of imagination or the glory of self-respect conjoined with the kind of cookie-cutter melodies that blend into one another like a bland medley of current pop hits. Despite the fact that many of the tunes get multiple reprises, they all remain obstinately unmemorable; the result is like one of those old Broadway flops where, as wags used to say, you come out humming the sets. Adding to the depressing air is the overly aggressive choreography of Ashley Wallen. There are a couple of engaging duets (for Jackman and Efron, and Efron and Zendaya), but mostly it consists of group stomp-efforts that seem designed to bludgeon you into acquiescence to the picture’s on-the-nose messages.
Of course Jackman brings his patented swagger to the proceedings, but there’s a palpable sense of desperation in his performance, perhaps understandable given that this is a passion project for him; but it feels as though, like Barnum, he knows that he’s trying to put one over on you. Efron has a few nice dance moments, but mostly he underplays morosely, and Settle seizes center stage with aplomb when given the opportunity to belt out what’s supposed to be a show-stopper, but the supporting cast—even Zendaya, Williams and Ferguson—are given little opportunity to shine.
Reviews for “The Greatest Showman” were embargoed by the studio until opening day, never a good sign. In this case the marketers correctly assessed their merchandise. The film resembles the actual Barnum in being lots of empty bluster with only marginal payoff.