‘The Greatest Showman’ Isn’t Just The Next ‘La La Land’, OK

With every successful modern movie musical comes the predictive industry pieces: is the movie musical finally back to its studio system glory days? Though 2016’s La La Land took some heat for its simplistic take on the history of jazz, the bittersweet romance was a hit overall — critically, amongst audiences, and during awards season. So, does Hugh Jackman’s new starring turn as career entertainer P.T. Barnum owe something to the Damien Chazelle film? The latter may have warmed audiences to song-and-dance again, but The Greatest Showman isn’t the next La La Land. Not all musicals are created equal, nor should they be.

The vast difference between the two is evident in the first trailer for The Greatest Showman, which was released on June 28. But almost no information about the film — except for the various superstar and newcomer names involved — was available to me before I visited its Brooklyn set earlier this year. I had to wait until I walked into a repurposed Williamsburg armory to understand the scope of the project. And that turned out to be a full-size big top populated by dozens of costumed extras; real circus performers contorting their bodies, flying through the air, and throwing things that are on fire; world-class dancers; and Jackman at the center of it all, in the most resplendent, reddest tails you’ve ever seen. La La Land is about a brief relationship that helps two frustrated artists to flourish, but The Greatest Showman isn’t just about the origins of the Barnum & Bailey Circus — it’s about the birth of show business as we know it.

Jackman and The Greatest Showman have been a package deal throughout the movie’s lengthy development process. Eventually, Jackman was joined by Zac Efron as Phillip, a potential collaborator with stars in his eyes and family money in his pocket; Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife Charity; Rebecca Ferguson as his Swedish opera-singing discovery Jenny Lind, and an ensemble portraying Barnum’s “oddities,” including Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a sibling trapeze act. “What’s interesting about them is that they’re not oddities because they have an extra leg or horns or weird freaky tattoos or things,” Abdul-Mateen says on set, “but they’re black trapeze artists during the 1800s… that definitely would have been rare at the time.” The “heart” of the film, almost everyone the visiting press speaks to tells us, is the relationship between Barnum and the misfits he brings together.

Director Michael Gracey remembers the Wolverine actor bringing him the script — originally a straightforward biopic.

“I went back to him and said, ‘Look, if you’re really gonna put ‘The Greatest Showman above your head on a poster, you should really play to your strengths,'” Gracey says. “And I grew up seeing him in Australia doing musicals. So I said it should be a musical. And that really naive remark has cost me seven years of my life, because it is so difficult to do an original musical.”

Honestly, the director doesn’t seem to be too broken up about the time spent. He’s more eager to share the clips he has queued up for the assembled journalists and to get our take on them. He asks us to let him know, for example, if he’s achieved his goal of making the first time Efron’s Phillip sees Zendaya’s Anne as dreamy and world-stopping as “when Tony sees Maria for the first time in West Side Story.” When the clip stops rolling, we all murmur our entranced approval.

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