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Perhaps it’s a good thing The Greatest Showman embellishes its portrayal of Barnum & Bailey Circus, which shut down last May because of declining attendance. The musical, which tells the story of founder P.T. Barnum and his traveling show of oddities, may have the same glittery get-ups, midgets, and elephants, but the movie’s directors knew even the first freak show needs a boost of freakiness to work in 2017.
These days, we entertainment-saturated spectators don’t just want bearded ladies and midgets. We want them to sing and dance in splashy staccato sequences! We want forbidden love and coordinated gang brawls under the big tent—then everything set alight!
The real-life Barnum, who once sold tickets to the autopsy of a woman he claimed was George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse, would’ve agreed. In the span of a five-minute song-and-dance routine, we are slingshot through the childhood and early adulthood of Barnum (Hugh Jackman) as he cheats his way out of poverty, meets and marries childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams), and dreams up what becomes his first museum of curiosities. This is winsome theater, even if dotted with half-truths: When the museum flops (false), Barnum brings in trapeze artists (false), Monkey Boy (true), Siamese Twins (true), and an opera star he aggressively promotes before even hearing her sing (true).
Showman (rated PG for gang fighting and an attempted affair) moves so fast there’s no time to consider the half-truths, or that Barnum’s real circus may have exploited human deformity and disability for personal gain. Instead we’re held captive to a musical as light and sweet as cotton candy.
Audiences are unlikely to overthink the plot while dazzled by Zac Efron and Zendaya swinging from trapeze ropes and belting out their duet. Sure, future iterations will have to up the ante—maybe midgets will jump through hoops of fire while reciting Shakespeare?—but for now, this will do.