Since its heyday in 1940’s through early 1960’s the movie musical has fought an upstream and mostly losing battle to possess relevance with the viewing public. The Greatest Showman bucks the odds in the box-office but not with the majority of film critics. If I am forced to choose? While no Singing in the Rain, Sound of Music, or West Side Story, I will side with the viewing public and box-office results when judging The Greatest Showman.
At its heart, The Greatest Showman is a family friendly version of the P.T. Barnum story told in a 21st Century narrative using positive and bright optics that focus on celebrating diversity and people of all kinds. So the Bearded Lady (played by Broadway star Keala Settle) can and will belt out a powerful song.
The Greatest Showman benefits from its male leads Hugh Jackman (X-Men, Wolverine, Prisoners) and Zack Efron (Neighbors, The Paper Boy, Dirty Grandpa) being performers with true Triple-Threat skills (Sing, Dance, Act) and credits.
The screenplay for the Greatest Showman is solid mixing of traditional film and popular television. Oscar winning Bill Condon (Dream Girls, Chicago) and Emmy Winning Jennie Bicks (Sex and the City) are the films’ authors. The lyrics to the 11 songs are from the Oscar Winning team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (LaLa Land). The Greatest Showman is the Feature Film Directorial debut for Michael Gracey.
The Greatest Showman does not benefit from its female leads possessing Triple-Threat skills. While the performances from Michelle Williams, Zendaya, and Rebecca Ferguson are good, none are equals or superiors to their male-counterparts when a singing-dancing-acting number is presented. For example, the Swedish beauty Ferguson (White Queen, Mission Impossible, The Girl on the Train) has a heart-melting presence on screen. Ferguson does not dance and her singing is lip-synced by Loren Allred. It should be noted that Allred’s vocals practically steal the show in the The Greatest Showman. The Singer Zendaya can sing and dance but her acting is ridged and therefore must be the reason her screen-time and interaction with Zefron is limited. Williams can do only a serviceable job at dancing, a good job at singing and is a terrific actor.
While fun and enjoyable to watch The Greatest Showman is not intended to be a true or accurate portrayal of the life of PT Barnum. While many aspects are generally representative of Barnum, few if any aspects presented in the film would pass any serious scrutiny if historical accuracy is desired. For example, the Lind story-line in real life did not include romantic overtones and it was Lind who drove a hard-bargain contract and exercised its cancellation clause. The launching of the Circus did not occur until Barnum was in his 60’s.
What is missing for me in The Greatest Showman is not a true flaw, weakness, or production error. It is one of style and choice. The movie musicals judged to be the best of all time provided aspects their late 20th and early 21st cousins to not care to offer. First and foremost is the singing and dancing. In the movie musicals of the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s the singing and dancing felt as if it was live and performed in single take (which of course is not true). The song and dance routines between the leads was the focus of the film. The movies of this period were musicals that happened to be on film. Today’s versions are films that happen to include some music and dance.