In the high school cafeteria of awards contenders, The Greatest Showman doesn't really have much of a place. It's not a jock, surviving on pure muscle (like The Post). Nor is it the charming nerd, like Lady Bird, or the cool kid smoking in the bathroom, like Call Me By Your Name. It's neither an underdog or a popular kid, which is why it's been such a disappointment for anyone who loves musical theater. (Hello, hi, it's me.)
The reviews of the movie have been middling at best. Despite Hugh Jackman's elephantine presence (he also produced the movie), it's been described as bland, pandering, and opportunistic. Ostensibly, The Greatest Showman is a story of personal triumph despite great odds and intolerance. Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, the circus ringleader, as he mounts his first "freak show" and circus. In the movie, Barnum is a visionary! He's an artist with a dream deferred all because people aren't that into freak shows just yet. He champions his "freaks," which include a bearded lady played by Keala Settle, as people that deserve to be celebrated. But, erm, he's capitalizing on them, and this isn't something the movie wants to discuss.
Musicals about the circus are actually a convenient way to discuss how business capitalizes on the novelty of outsiders — the musical Barnum tells largely the same story as The Greatest Showman, but it casts P.T. Barnum as an ambitious salesmen. (Not unlike Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man.) This version of Barnum sees the circus attendees as "suckers." He sings in the opening song, "There's a sucker born every minute." Similarly, the musical Sideshow opens with the song, "Come Look at the Freaks," a cruel reminder that freaks aren't there to be celebrated, but rather to be ogled. (The entirety of Sideshow is about the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were vaudeville performers.)
The Greatest Showman makes a meal out of something it doesn't fully explore, which is why it isn't as well-reviewed as perhaps it would like to be. Which is a shame, because it's an original musical produced by a major studio. The composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the Tony-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, wrote the score. The movie stars Jackman, a charismatic supernova, and Zendaya, an even bigger charismatic supernova. It should be a cool movie, but it's not. (This is not entirely my word — Variety called it "uncool" in its review.)
What's puzzling, though, is that by ignoring its underdogs, The Greatest Showman somehow became an underdog. According to Deadline, the movie finished fourth at the box office after its first weekend in theaters. It's been greatly overshadowed by that nothing film The Last Jedi, which received excellent reviews. Even Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is performing better.
And so, when The Greatest Showman album nabbed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 list, it felt like a triumph. This movie that Jackman painstakingly shuttled into theaters finally had a win, and it was big. The album knocked Taylor Swift's reputation from its number one spot. And it had the majority of the American public listening to a musical. A musical! I may dislike The Greatest Showman, but I cannot dislike its place on the Billboard charts, especially because it has the New York Post wondering if Jackman will bring Barnum to Broadway.
In the grand scheme of things, the underdog is actually the musical, an art form that still can't really escape its New York-centric confines. Though the Broadway box office took in $1.4 billion in the 2016 - 2017 season, a 5.5% increase from the previous year, it caters mainly to tourists and those with impressive expendable incomes. The average ticket price goes well over $150 these days. Hamilton sells its most sought-after tickets for over $800. Most people can't enjoy Broadway on a daily basis.
But! You can listen to The Greatest Showman on Spotify. Surrounded by music titans like Ed Sheeran and Swift, the album takes the form of the circus freaks it tried to portray in the movie. The music far outpaces the film, thanks in large part to Loren Allred and Keala Settle. In the movie, Settle's song "This Is Me," is a flaccid attempt at an inspirational rallying cry. On the album, though, it's effective. Listening to the album on my morning commute — a musical cast recording that's actually at the top of the Billboard chart — I could hear the beat of genuine movement.
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