The Greatest Showman is the biggest movie success story of this century so far. With scores like 6/10 and just 2 stars from movie critics, it wasn’t expected to make much of a return on the whopping cost of producing it and yet audiences have loved it. In my opinion, it’s the music, and superb performance of it, which holds this film together. Big numbers such as ‘This Is Me’ and ‘A Million Dreams’ have captured the hearts of young and old with their feisty lyrics and singable tunes. Beside them however are more mature themes, both in the lyrics and the music, giving changes of pace which add an extra level of depth. ‘Never Enough’ and ‘Rewrite the Stars’ have soaring melodies and serious messages which are beautifully exploited by composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The remarkable songwriting elevates this film far beyond what the critics were expecting.
It seems the critics were expecting a film that would explore the extremely interesting true life story of P T Barnum. It would definitely be a story worth telling. We already have the stage musical Barnum (1980) which loosely tells the rags-to-riches version of the tale. Both it and the new movie ignore almost entirely the fascinating real life story of a man who was an author, publisher, philanthropist and politician. An influential figure in prohibition and the creation of prostitution laws, he was also very vocal about the abolition of slavery, famous for saying ‘A human soul, that God has created and Christ died for, is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab, or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.’ This attitude of inclusion may have made some significant contribution to his desire to rescue the people who became part of his show from being persecuted as freaks.
So, the film doesn’t touch on much of this at all and yet it is captivating and fabulous. The simple answer is probably ‘sometimes critics get it wrong!’