Personally, I have not been too impressed by the grand Hollywood musicals that have caught the audience's imagination in recent years. I still stand by my disdain for Les Misérables and my indifference to La La Land. But in The Greatest Showman I finally find salvation.
The story revolves around an actual person, Phineas Taylor Barnum, a 19th century American showman, well-known for promoting 'human curiosities', and notorious for passing off hoaxes as the real deal. There is a fair amount of controversy around him today, about how he exploited the people who worked for him in his circus, and how he would do anything to make a quick buck. In the 21st century some things have changed for the better, and I assume someone like him would be much maligned today. But things were different 150 years ago and The Greatest Showman does away with any ethical commentary on this subject, being a happy musical and all.
This PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is simply a dreamer, an inventor, a creator and an entertainer. He's had a difficult life, but has made some money through hard work and is rewarded with marriage to Charity, his upper class childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), and two beautiful daughters. Still his heart wants more, and his ambition knows no bounds. He establishes a 'circus', gathering people with unique abilities and appearances (trapeze artists, a bearded lady, a dwarf, a man with full body tattoos, etc) and creates shows the likes of which New York has never seen before. Despite the success and stardom and controversy that he enjoys very much, he is still not accepted by the society he craves to be a part of. So, he brings in a partner (Zac Efron) from the higher echelons, gets invited to Queen Victoria's court at Buckingham Palace and associates himself with a famed opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), just so he would be accepted by the very elite who laugh at his upstart background. And in the process, he loses everything that had brought him real love and laughter. So will the wayward find their way back? Will our great romantic hero correct the wrongs he has done and will he find happiness again? The suspense, I'm sure, will kill you.
The storyline is razor thin, and extremely predictable, and moves through the expected twists and turns at breakneck speed. Plus every cliché under the sun is employed on the way. I mean there is an actual visual reference to the witch who offered Snow White a poisoned apple (but here she is a kind, misunderstood soul, much like Quasimodo). Sidenote: Hugh Jackman's younger self in these musicals really needs to learn to steal bread, without getting caught instantly!
But while the story may be simple, the presentation is exquisite. As in the case of La La Land the songs are all original and have been written for the film, but their staging is far more spectacular, almost as if the creators are waiting to be invited to re-write this for Broadway or West End. There is a blue-print in the choreography of some songs that simply needs to be applied to stage (watch 'A Million Dreams', 'This Is Me', 'Rewrite The Stars', etc and you will see what I mean). Every number is larger than life, thoroughly entertaining, and has the thump-thump that stays with you for days after you've heard it. Think of the melodies in the by-now-so-annoying Frozen, and now imagine them better. The singing too is pretty extraordinary. Everything I hated about Hugh Jackman's renditions in Les Misérables is gone, and every time he sings here, it is a joy to hear. One of my favourite songs (and it really is hard to choose) is 'The Other Side', which is a brilliant and very funny back and forth between Jackman and Efron, who by the way, shines as an actor, singer and dancer here. Zendaya plays Zac Efron's love interest in the film, and is also a great performer in every regard. Keala Settle's powerful voice really makes the backbone of all the songs she is part of. So, in some ways, Michelle Williams is the weakest singer here, and even she is very good. Or maybe it is Rebecca Ferguson who's the weakest singer, in the sense that she didn't sing her songs at all (playback by Loren Allred), which is a shame, because her performance is really very good. In fact everyone is great, even the two girls who play Barnum's daughters, or the two kids who play the young Barnum and the young Charity.
If you can't tell from my incessant gushing, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and the story has little to do with it (I would rather not think about the fact that some credibility has been given to the man, who probably exploited humans and animals alike for his personal gains). It is all because of the outstanding music and choreography that literally brought me joy for two full hours. This is truly the greatest show of the year.