|Directed by||:||Michael Gracey||Produced by||:||Laurence Mark, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping||Story by||:||Jenny Bicks||Starring||:||Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya||Production company||:||Chernin Entertainment, Seed Productions, Laurence Mark Productions, TSG Entertainment||Country||:||United States|
“The Greatest Showman” and the Far More Fascinating Real Life of P. T. Barnum
Isuppose there’s a sort of poetic injustice in the fact that “The Greatest Showman,” the new musical (which opens today) based on the life of P. T. Barnum, the long-famed “Prince of Humbug,” should be largely fabricated out of synthetic cloth. Not all of it is utterly unappealing—in fact, there’s one through-line to the story, greatly amplified from a nugget of an idea, that’s quite moving and that exudes its authentic emotion in a rousing song and a hearty production number. One of each. But the movie purports to be about Barnum, and, while some of its broadest strokes match up with those of his life, many of the major details, ones that make Barnum a fascinating and appalling historical character worth making a movie about, are elided in favor of movie clichés.
The story of Barnum is in large measure a New York story—his American Museum was on Broadway and Vesey Street, a corner that I pass almost every day on the way to The New Yorker’s office—and Barnum’s rise to fame is intertwined with the turmoil of the young city, which turns out to serve the movie’s plot without offering much in the way of urban flavor or historical resonance. Curiosity about Barnum’s life (sparked not by the movie but by a footnote in an edition of Melville’s “The Confidence-Man,” a novel not without its own Barnumesque echoes) sent me to his memoir, “Struggles and Triumphs,” which gives life to a voice and a round of activity that aren’t heard or seen in “The Greatest Showman.”