It’s been quite a ride for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, hasn’t it? Just 13 months ago, you’d have needed to be a pretty hard-core theater nerd to recognize the names of this up-and-coming Broadway songwriting team. Of course, that was before their song lyrics got showcased in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (for which they won Oscars), and before the team’s own stage musical Dear Evan Hansen opened on Broadway to rapturous reviews and cleaned up at the Tony Awards. Now Pasek and Paul have written the music and lyrics to The Greatest Showman, a musical extravaganza based on the life of P.T. Barnum that opens today. And it’s a complete dud.
Hugh Jackman portrays Phineas Taylor Barnum, a tailor’s son who’s determined to spite the rich folks who used to look down on him by making a spectacular living for his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and their two daughters. After a series of abortive office jobs, he’s able to talk his way into a bank loan to set up a wax figure and natural history museum in Manhattan. However, on his daughter’s advice following some scant initial ticket sales, Phineas decides to bring in living performers and turn it into a circus.
This movie is conceptually flawed from the start. It presents Barnum as a dreamer who wants to transport his audience to a better world for a couple of hours. In reality, Barnum was a crook who purchased a stuffed monkey with a fish tail sewn onto it and exhibited it as “the Feejee Mermaid” and helped spread a hoax about a plant that would turn black people white. The film depicts him as an enlightened soul who puts performers of color on his stage when some audiences don’t want that. Indeed, Barnum did advocate anti-slavery causes in his career as a political reformer, but he also paraded these performers around as racial “grotesques” (his word) for white people to gawk at, much like the bearded ladies and little people in his circus.
Then again, the movie’s message is less likely to get through because the film is just bad. There isn’t a single good song in the film, and the musical selections often feel like numbers that Pasek and Paul rejected from Dear Evan Hansen, with their boilerplate rhetoric about how the misfits in Barnum’s circus have found a place where they’re accepted. The romantic subplot between a wealthy heir who writes Phineas’ scripts (Zac Efron) and a Latina aerialist (Zendaya) crumbles while it’s playing out. The whole plotline with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) is a blatant and fraudulent attempt to illustrate Phineas’ craving for acceptance into highbrow culture. Ferguson’s singing voice is dubbed by Loren Allred, and while she’s not a terrible singer, at no point does she sound like the world’s greatest opera star. Even if she did, it wouldn’t matter because Pasek and Paul couldn’t be bothered to write a real soprano aria for her. Jenny’s big number “Never Enough” sounds like it belongs in Celine Dion’s Vegas show. First-time director Michael Gracey strains to infuse this thing with magic and wonder, but the numbers stubbornly refuse to take flight even as the actors do just that.
This cast really deserved better. Jackman moves with feathery grace in his dance sequences, and he’s so well-suited to playing lightness and charm that I think he might have been miscast as Wolverine all these years. Williams has never done a proper musical film, and her careful enunciation of her song “Tightrope” will make you reflect on what a shame that is. Efron and Zendaya sound good together on their duet “Rewrite the Stars,” and you’d be better off shutting your eyes and just listening to them instead of being distracted by Zendaya twirling around on a trapeze.
The Barnum this movie gives us is little less than a whitewashing job, and in light of our political environment, now is a particularly bad time to be glorifying a big-talking con artist who’s willing to exploit people of color to get his customers’ money. The Greatest Showman stays true to its subject in a very perverse way: It’s a total fraud.
The Greatest Showman
Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, and Zendaya. Directed by Michael Gracey. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. Rated PG.