This story first appeared in the January 2018 edition of The Hilltop.
Who was the man behind the Barnum and Bailey Circus?
You won’t necessarily find an accurate depiction in Michael Gracey’s, “The Greatest Showman.” Critiqued for its unrealistic portrayal of Phineas Taylor Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman, and the time period it was set in, the film did not receive a positive reaction from critics, who gave it a 55 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it was loved by fans, who gave it a 90 percent rating.
But was Gracey really trying to show us who Barnum was? I don’t think so. It was a film meant to dazzle and amaze audiences like Barnum and Bailey’s Circus did.
Set in the mid-1800s, the musical follows the story of a young, poor and idealistic Barnum who marries his childhood sweetheart and makes a name for himself by opening a circus where people of all sizes, shapes, colors and talents are on stage.
But it isn’t supposed to be a detailed account of Barnum’s life; rather, it is an artistic interpretation.
Instead of telling us about the Civil War, it fights against the feelings of hatred toward the African American community at the time through a love story between a black trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler, played by Zendaya, and a formerly wealthy, white playwright Phillip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron.
Instead of trying to anger and offend audiences, it creates a message that even children can understand about how to treat one another kindly.
In real life, Barnum was a fraud and an obsessive businessman. He bought an old woman who was a slave and falsely claimed she was George Washington’s nurse, so people would pay to see her.
While the movie left out some of these details, Barnum is not portrayed as a sympathetic character. He is a fraud. He backstabs his friends. He leads people on. He is obsessed with his work and making money. He makes life difficult for his family, and he is completely self-centered.
The message is clear: don’t be like the Barnum that exists through most of the film.
One of the most powerful elements of this film, however, is its emphasis on having and pursuing dreams. The film encourages people to take risks and pursue their dreams, even though they might fail.
Dreams come alive more than anywhere in the soundtrack and choreography, which is its greatest strength.
Whether it’s Charity Barnum, played by Michelle Williams, and her husband dancing on the roof or Carlyle, and P.T. Barnum negotiating through song and dance in a bar, the musical aspect of the film is creativity at its best.
The creativity starts with the opening credits, which immediately capture our attention and leave us wanting to hear the rest of “This is the greatest show” for the rest of the film.
No actor lacks vocal abilities either. Jackman — after making us wait almost six years after he played Jean Valjean — finally graces us with his voice again.
Keala Settle leaves all in awe after hearing her award-winning song, “This Is Me.” Efron, with his return to the music scene, and Zendaya sing perhaps the most heartbreaking and beautiful ballad of the movie while incorporating the trapeze into the choreography.
And, of course, there is Loren Alldred’s vocal masterpiece “Never Enough.”
While it is rather irritating that she’s an opera singer who is an alto, after listening to her song, it is hard to stay upset.
“The Greatest Showman” is worth watching, but not because it accurately portrays history. It is worth watching because it re-creates the sensation that the circus brought many people until its closure last year. It is art, and it seeks to teach audiences valuable lessons from Barnum’s life.
Gracey made a rather disturbing and out-of-date story relevant to our time.
The film seeks to address not historical concerns, but present concerns about diversity, feminism, love and even the state of the film industry.
It pokes fun at the critics who relentlessly critique it. It reprimands racists, sexists and anyone who refuses to celebrate humanity.
It warns against adultery and upholds the importance of loyalty to one’s family.
We should be aware of the truth and protect ourselves from being naïve, but we should not discredit something as worthless because it takes creative license. We can learn lessons from anyone, even someone like Barnum.