The Greatest Showman

Time rewrites all wounds

O ne day, there will be a Donald Trump musical. Of this, I have no doubt. Actually, I believe there will be two Trump musicals, one scathing Hamilton-like reality-based bio-romp to explain the Orange Menace to a generation trying to figure out why they’re paying for our mess. And hand-in-hand with the derisive truth version, there will be a puff piece of surreal hyperbole which sees Trump as he sees himself – a glorious champion worthy of everlasting praise; this musical will happily reconstruct his disgusting one-track “leadership” and myriad shortcomings as assets.

I’m saying this because I’ve long thought of Trump as a modern age P.T. Barnum – narcissist, phony, shameless self-promoter, and the ultimate snake oil salesman. And no depiction of P.T. Barnum will ever be kinder than The Greatest Showman. Oh, P.T. was a devoted family man, equal opportunity employer, champion of all human rights and a fabulous performer in his own right, was he? Gosh, I must have missed that part among the history I’ve read. Of course, two striking differences between P.T. and Trump leap to mind, and no puff piece could ever resolve them: 1) P.T. Barnum was not born of privilege. Whomever promotes Trump as self-made is almost as great a liar as our current Prez. 2) No retelling of Trump could possibly avoid his sexism and bigotry. It’s possible to imagine P.T. Barnum as neither as this film kinda does, but even a generous reimagining of The Donald can’t get there.

None of the above is a criticism; The Greatest Showman is a great show, man. It’s a treat for musical lovers, a wistful reminder that life is better with song and dance, and a sad acknowledgment of how an entertaining biography can reinvent truth.

Phineas Taylor Barnum (Hugh Jackman) had a family before he invented a new one. The son of a bootlick, P.T. became smitten with the out-of-his-league girl of privilege. And the very moment he collected exactly two nickels to rub together (along with his adult Wolverine face), he returned for the girl. Charity (Michelle Williams) was equally taken and, hence, ran away with “Phin.” I gotta think there were some daddy-is-an-asshole issues for her, but the film doesn’t go there. In fact, one of the great virtues of The Greatest Showman is brevity – when the song about their future begins, the two are hand-in-hand strolling down the driveway in the direction of life. By verse one, they have an apartment; by verse two, they’re on rooftops doing laundry; by the end, she’s pregnant, and next cut, they’re back on the roof with two children. I hear that in the extended mix, there’s divorce, a custody battle, a sex change, an old-folks home, and then robots show up. Time moves fast.

You can’t fault a man for opportunism and P.T.’s big break actually comes at the expense of his menial job. When the company assets find the bottom of the China Sea, bossman hands P.T. a pink slip and, frustrated, the (now useless) deed to the fleet. P.T. immediately uses the deed as collateral to fund a museum of oddities. Gotta love the 19th century, huh? I hear you could walk into homes with a piece of paper vouching for your character and make away with the family jewels. Oh, you poor, silly saps. To misattribute a P.T. quote, “there is a sucker born every minute.” (I believe the quote is properly attributed to contemporary huckster/rival David Hannum)

The museum is dull. Not many museums are conjured with bank accounts in mind, but Phin has a grudge against his father-in-law that cannot be satisfied with attempt alone. His girls suggest the exhibits need life and P.T. agrees, collecting a diverse assortment of sizes and talents. The background here is almost completely irrelevant. The point to all of this is the empowerment of diversity through entertainment. Oh, and a romance – my favorite number in the film is a duet between Emcee-in-training Zac Efron and trapeze artist Zendaya. They sing of love’s possibilities in “Rewrite the Stars” while cavorting among ballast-weighted ropes. And in one of my favorite moments of 2017, Zac (or stuntZac as the case may be) scales some scaffolding and leaps into the streaming Zendaya as she soars by on rope. Fellas, seriously, how many takes were filmed until you got that right? You could give me 100 tries and I wouldn’t get it that smoothly.

I never really thought of Barnum as a champion of the forgotten, downtrodden, or generally displaced souls. –And, to be fair, The Greatest Showman doesn’t, either. After Barnum collects Swedish legend Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to show off for his FIL, he deliberately shuts out his giant, midget, dogboy, and collection of random employees. The film never returns to his moment of selecting the upper crust ahead of the … crust. However, this conflict does introduce the self-realization ballad of the film in “This Is Me,” which for the first time in my musical memory was sung by a bearded lady (Keala Settle). Wait, in Les Miz, was Éponine bearded for “On My Own?” Can’t remember.

Bottom line is I can’t say The Greatest Showman is fair to history, nor do I think there’s great appeal to non-music fans, but as a celebration of love, life, diversity, and song, you probably won’t see it done better in 2017. And Zac, pal, please examine your recent career choices; I know you want to be a comedic actor. We all do. But most of us can’t sing or dance like you. This is where you’re meant to be.

♪You know I want to
Probably just out of pride
Tell a joke or two
So don’t keep saying that I haven’t tried
You claim it’s not in my core
But agents have cast me in comedy
Like Baywatch doncha see?
Here I am at the start
So won’t you stop me if I decide
In Dirty Grandpa 3?

What if we rewrite my parts?
Say, ignore the comic line
Leave Jack Black to the farts
Give me a song so I can shine
It’s not up to you, or even to me
Get a screenwriting committee
Why don’t y’all rewrite my parts
Maybe the world won’t just hiss

Rated PG, 105 Minutes
Director: Michael Gracey
Writer: Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon
Genre:  Rewriting history … with fun!
Type of being most likely to enjoy this film: Fans of musicals
Type of being least likely to enjoy this film: Historians

♪ Parody Inspired by “Rewrite the Stars”

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