Musicals seems to be making a slow resurgence in Hollywood over the last few years. Every year, there is at least one big musical which hit theaters during peak awards season… and they usually find themselves contenders. This year, the musical of the moment is The Greatest Showman.
The musical is a take on the life and work of problematic showman PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman) on his quest to make something of his life. The film co-stars Michelle Williams, Zac Efron and Zendaya. The Greatest Showman comes from director Michael Gracey with music from the La La Land musical duo Justin Paul and Benj Pasek.
To begin, as a historical figure PT Barnum is inherently problematic. The Greatest Showman deals heavily with the root of Barnum’s problematic legacy, being the concept of the “Side Show” and the use and exploitation of the performers. Unfortunately, the film’s take on the issue feels highly reminiscent of a classic musical in that it completely ducks the problematic topic. This seems especially concerning, especially when viewed through a contemporary lens. Furthermore, the narrative actually seems to embrace Barnum’s character, at times celebrating the man almost as a savior to the people in his show. History is not shy in tackling this topic, and the film’s avoidance of the subject shows a continuing problem with representation in popular culture.
However, is this a killer issue for the movie? Realistically, the answer is no. In fact, many viewers might not even notice it. Is it a highly problematic narrative aspect, yes. However, if you’re not interested in a deep dive below the surface, there’s a chance you won’t even notice it.
While The Greatest Showman is decidedly problematic, this doesn’t stop it from being a fun, lighthearted musical in the classical sense. The Greatest Showman feels like a relic of classic Hollywood, most definitely at home in the golden age. It’s bright, toe-tapping and joyful. You can’t help but like it (in some cases, against all better judgement).
The music is fun and upbeat as the narrative brings a wave of well-written songs. If you’re a fan of musicals in any way, you should most definitely check out this soundtrack. Every performer is given moments to shine. Songs like: “The Greatest Show”, “Rewrite the Stars”, “Never Enough” and “This Is Me” are garnering lots of attention. Keep an eye out for some of these songs come award season.
Probably the most exciting aspect of The Greatest Showman is to see Hugh Jackman return to his musical roots. Prior to his Hollywood breakout in the 1990s, Jackman cut his teeth in musical theater. He won a Tony award in 2004 for his portrayal of composer Peter Allen in the award winning musical The Boy From Oz. His take on Barnum seems like an exciting return to form for the actor. He throws everything he can into the performance and truly sells it for the people in the cheap seats. The ultra talented Jackman is the true star of the film.
The actors backing up Jackman up their game noticeably as well. Everyone thrives in their roles and shines in the musical performances. Zac Efron in particular stands out as another return to form. While the still young actor got his start in the as a part of the Disney High School Musical franchise, he’s spent most of his time in fairly “brotastic” comedies. It seems, despite his absence, Efron hasn’t lost his musical touch. Zendaya also puts forward another stellar performance. The fellow member of the Disney stable is a breath of fresh air as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler. She shares an adorable chemistry with Efron, and absolutely shines whenever they are together on screen.
Finally, Michelle Williams once again shows why she continues to rank as one of the critical darlings of her acting generation. While she is cursed with the role of Barnum’s long-suffering wife, she does everything she can to bring life to the usually passive character type. As such, she stands out as more than the shallow and simpering character these roles often become. Instead, Charity Barnum stands out as her own woman. She loves life as much as her husband. As such, she very much feels like a companion instead of the prototypical supportive wife.
Finally, the film brings beautiful set and costume design. The movie is an absolute treat to watch with a lush and vivid color palate. This looks like the best kind of period picture, glossy and well designed. The creative team does a stellar job bringing New York City of the 1860s to stunning and vivid life.
The Greatest Showman finds itself skirting an interesting line. As a critic, it’s difficult to like this film. There are some notable struggles which should be addressed. However, as a film and musical fan, this movie is an absolute joy. Fans of Hugh Jackman should definitely check out The Greatest Showman, showcasing the talented actor in an exciting return to his musical roots.
The Greatest Showman is playing at theaters around the country now.