A more recent film based “loosely” on the life of P.T. Barnum. It’s actually not the first musical to be created about Barnum; there is a show entitled “Barnum” that had circus performers outside the door on Broadway. The film version starred a young Michael Crawford. The new 2017 movie stars Hugh Jackman (X-Men, Australia) as Phineas Taylor Barnum, Zac Efron (High School Musical) as his eventual partner, Phillip Carlyle, and Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far From Home, after she was on the Disney shows K.C. Undercover and Shake it Up). It features Rebecca Ferguson (Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen) as Jenny Lind [her singing was dubbed for the film since her singing chops were not quite what was needed]. Oh, and Charity’s father, Mr. Hallett is played by Frederic Lehne (Azazel/ The Yellow-Eyed Demon in Supernatural, and he was in the episode “Heart of Gold” in Firefly…so no one ever nice).
The film opens with The Greatest Show, Barnum in the middle of a circus ring, but it fades away to reveal the scene was a daydream; a young Phineas is standing in front of a red coat, waiting for his father. He accompanies his father to a large mansion outside of New York City where he makes a young Charity Hallett laugh. Her father reprimands him, but he quickly befriends Charity later, after she sneaks out. They explore an abandoned mansion, dreaming about the world they’re going to make with A Million Dreams. Through the song, life happens. Phineas’s father sickens and dies, Charity is sent to boarding school. Phineas is out on the street and has to steal to survive; he’s caught, but a malformed woman shows him kindness. The two children send letters to each other; but Phineas eventually leaves to make his fortune working the railroad. He returns when they’re grown to marry Charity. She eagerly accepts, but her father warns Phineas that she’ll return home; Phineas will fail and she’ll leave him. The duet dancing between Phineas and Charity is lovely. Phineas wants to give Charity a lavish life, but struggles to hold a job. They have a small apartment that leaks and he is dismissed from an accounting firm when it declares bankruptcy when its fleet of trading vessels all sink.
The Barnums have two adorable daughters, Caroline and Helen. Charity joins in their make-believe adventures. Phineas quickly cobbles together a “wishing machine,” a spinning lantern for his daughter’s birthday and the girls reprise A Million Dreams, which gives him an idea. He uses the document on the shipping vessels as collateral at the bank to buy a museum of oddities. It’s a rough start, until Helen and Caroline suggest he needs something “alive.” Phineas begins gathering acts, like the dwarf Tom Thumb, and the bearded lady, Lettie. There are the trapeze siblings, W.D. and Anne Wheeler, a tattooed man, a fat man, a giant, a “dog boy.” Phineas plays up their oddities to make them “sensational.” “They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to love you.” Patrons start pouring in, “dreaming with your eyes wide open,” and the show starts to Come Alive. Phineas dons his red coat. The show transforms from a museum to a circus, the word courtesy of a critic.
The profits allow Phineas to purchase the old mansion he and Charity explored and gift Caroline with her dream ballet slippers. Young girls can be harsh, and look down on Caroline for her father’s business. She wants to quit. Phineas also wants to attract a higher clientele for his show and approaches young Phillip Carlyle. Phillip has the name and reputation amongst the upper-crust, but drinks to forget his horribly produced plays. Phineas takes the young man to a bar to offer him a job on the Other Side and a life of freedom. “But you would finally live a little/ finally laugh a little/ just let me give you the freedom to dream a little.” Phillip eventually agrees and will gain ten percent of the profits. He considers himself a junior partner; Phineas calls him an overcompensated apprentice. And Phillip is instantly taken by Anne.
With the success of his circus, protestors gather. Those who gleefully pointed out the freaks for Phineas now demand they get off the stage. Phillip counteracts this by getting the circus an audience with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. There, Phineas meets Jenny Lind, a world-famous opera singer. Still aiming high and hoping for even more renown, he convinces her to tour America. She stuns crowds with Never Enough. Though with the upper-crust about, Phineas doesn’t want his circus family visible; he shuns them to the back standing room for the performance. Phillip briefly takes Anne’s hand, until he is spotted. Anne walks away. And Charity sees the awe that her husband stares at Miss Lind with. After the show, he refuses to let the performers enter the reception, after he’s embarrassed himself with Charity’s parents.
Instead of taking the back way out to the street, the circus family lets themselves be seen by the fancy patrons, declaring This is Me. They deserve love just like everyone else. But Barnum sees none of it. He decides to take Jenny on tour, despite the fortune it will cost, and leaves Phillip in charge of the circus. Phillip tries to make up his faux pas to Anne by taking her to the theatre. Then his parents spot him and try to shame him for being seen with a dark-skinned woman. If that is his place, to shun her, he wants none of it he tells his parents. He catches Anne readying to practice her trapeze act and declares they should Rewrite the Stars; “nothing can keep us apart.” But Anne knows what it will be like for them, the looks and derision they will have to endure and at the end, walks away.
While her husband tours with Jenny, Charity wonders if anything will ever be enough for Phineas. She warns Phineas that he doesn’t need everyone to love him; just a few good people. She muses she’s walking a Tightrope and we see how everyone tries to get along without Phineas as he lives the high life. Charity still plays with Caroline and Helen; Caroline continues her dance lessons. Phillip tries to take center stage, but has already told Phineas that the audience comes for his craziness. And Phineas has finally reached the top; public acclaim. And now, there is nothing holding him to Jenny Lind. He wants to leave the circuit and return home. Jenny threatens to quit; it won’t hurt her reputation if she leaves, but it will leave Phineas in financial ruin. “If you’re careless with other people, it will bring ruin on yourself.” She cries a bit during her performance of Never Enough and at the end, kisses Phineas on stage, cameras flashing. It’s her goodbye.
At the circus, the protestors are back and refuse to leave. W.D. backs Phillip and a fight breaks out; the whole circus crew facing off against the protestors. One throws a lantern backstage and starts a fire. Phineas arrives to greet his girls and sees the fire engines race to the circus. Phillip is trying to get everyone out, but no one has seen Anne. He races back into the flames. Anne runs out from around back. Phineas runs in after Phillip and the roof collapses. For one horrifying minute we fear the worst. Then Phineas emerges with Phillip in his arm; the young man is taken to the hospital. Anne follows and murmurs the refrain from Rewrite the Stars.
Sitting in the ashes, the critic admits to Phineas that the people loved his show, even though it was not to his taste. And sadly has to inform Phineas of Jenny officially quitting the show, and the scandalous kiss on the front page. At home, Charity is returning to her parents; the bank forecloses on their house. She’s not even terribly upset about Jenny; it’s the fact that Phineas didn’t make the decision with her. The circus family joins Phineas at the bar and urge him to not give up on them. He brought them out of the shadow and gave them a place, gave them a family, a home. They want that home back. From Now On, Phineas will be different; he won’t take what he has for granted. He returns to the Hallett’s mansion to face his father-in-law, who once again tries to keep the showman from his daughter. But Caroline and Helen helpfully point out that Charity is at the beach. The couple reconciles; all Charity has ever wanted is the man she fell in love with. She doesn’t want or need the fancy life Phineas envisioned. Phillip also wakes up in the hospital, slightly surprised to find Anne sitting at his bedside. But she happily kisses him. In front of the whole room.
Unfortunately, the bank will not loan Phineas money to rebuild. But, Phillip was wise and kept track of his earnings and will lend Phineas the money. Except now they are full 50/50 partners. Even though he no longer has a claim or inheritance, he has joy and love in his life and work he adores. Instead of buying more real estate, Phineas figures they just need land, and a tent. The Greatest Show is back! During a quick break, Phineas hands his top hat off to Phillip. The young man is in charge now; Phineas will be watching his girls grown up. Phillip eagerly enters the ring and Phineas rides an elephant (always has to make an entrance) to his daughters’ recital (Helen is a tree while Caroline is the star). Phillip ends the show by kissing Anne.
The show, as is the norm with Hollywood, is not historically accurate. Phineas Taylor Barnum was not really a champion for outcasts. And quite honestly, he was a conman. But we don’t want to see that. Actually, from the trailer, I imagined a bit of a different storyline; I thought they would show Phineas championing for the outcasts. There are times I want to smack him in this story; mainly for his actions with Jenny Lind. He has a wonderful, supportive wife at home, and two girls who adore him and he leaves them. I was annoyed at first by the romance storyline between Phillip and Anne, but I’ve come to see that it’s a nice counterpoint to Phineas’s actions. Phillip tries to hold things together. And yes, he makes a few missteps, but he really wants to have a relationship with Anne despite society’s views.
And I absolutely adore the music for this film. I listen to the soundtrack and I want to choreograph a performance (I have ten years’ dance experience, but no real choreography experience, aside from what I fool around with in the privacy of my room). Greatest Show is an upbeat and fun introduction and conclusion. A Million Dreams is sweet within the show. Come Alive is another upbeat song. I love The Other Side with its underlying rhythm and how it was choreographed involving tables and chairs. Never Enough has its place, though I object that they had it dubbed. There are plenty of talented actresses who could have sung that part. And for an “opera singer,” the style is definitely not opera. Which I get, goes with their aesthetic to use more popular styles of music.
This is Me is just about the best song ever. Keala Settle is amazing. She originally did not want to play the role for the film, figuring they could hire someone else and she would help with rehearsals. But Hugh convinced her. Check out the behind the scenes videos of the first run through. And her performance on The Graham Norton Show. And the Oscars (seriously, this song should have won; they got robbed). It’s become an anthem for those who don’t feel like they fit in with society. “I am who I’m meant to be/ this is me.” (I have felt like that). I want to perform this song.
I’ve never been a huge Zac Efron fan, but I liked his performance in this film. Rewrite the Stars is a wonderful duet and the trapeze elements were beautiful. And Piano Guys do a beautiful cover featuring cello and violin; the violinist being Steve Nelson’s wife, Julie. They also do a piano cover of Million Dreams (watch the videos; they’re heartwarming). Tightrope is alright. And I like the chorus of From Now On and the dance that starts up. It’s performers having a good time.
I have read several fanfiction stories and the general consensus is to make the circus, the Barnums, and Phillip one big family; I am a sucker for family stories. And we like to pick on Phillip. There aren’t any that I specifically recommend; I think the fandom is new enough that nothing truly serious has developed yet. But they’re worth checking out.
Up Next: Les Mis