I’m a big fan of the movie musical renaissance we’ve been experiencing over the past few years. You can tell I’m a fan, because I call it a “renaissance” even though we only get one of these big budget productions every year, discounting that magical time when both Annie and Into the Woods ran in theaters at the same time. You can also tell I’m a fan because I keep going to these movies, even though they’re… well, pretty bad, most of the time. Nobody complains about anything quite like fans do.
But that’s pretty much the way I feel about musicals in general. Musical theater has pretty much always been a style over substance genre. Put a gun to my head and demand I name five musicals that have more to offer than sparkly production values, and I’ll probably just say Hamilton five times and hope you don’t notice.
So imagine my surprise when I went to see The Greatest Showman the other night and discovered, to my absolute delight, that this movie musical is divinely and spectacularly… fine. It’s… it’s fine.
The Greatest Showman stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, a cancelled Silent Hills project… I mean, a devoted husband and father who struggles to keep his woman in the manner to which she has become accustomed by putting on shows, which employ all sorts of people who have been ostracized by society. Even though he takes his performers for granted, Barnum eventually recognizes that, through his circus shows, these men and women have found a place to call home and a group of people who accept them as they are.
And, look, I get that there’s significant value in advertising the theater as a place where all are welcome. It’s one of the things I love most about theater. I still get choked up a bit thinking about that time James Corden hosted the Tony Awards. I’ll even admit that using rare genetic conditions as a metaphor for the “outsider” status that tends to follow so many who find solace in the theater is, though a little clunky, not actually a bad idea. But there are definite issues with telling that kind of story using P.T. Barnum as your protagonist, especially when you consider that the people Barnum employs were shunned due to their physical abnormalities, like being a woman with a beard, or a being only three-foot-tall, or… being… black.
This is kinda messy, because P.T. Barnum was a real person with a… complicated relationship with race. The Smithsonian published a pretty detailed discussion of Barnum’s rise to fame, which involved fewer wax dummies and more slaves. One slave, in particular: Joice Heth, an elderly woman who, Barnum claimed, served George Washington. She was old, but not that old. Barnum toured with Heth, making his outlandish claims pretty much right up to the day she died. Then he sold tickets to her autopsy.
Seriously. That happened.
It feels like The Greatest Showman wanted to address Barnum’s early racism, but it didn’t know how to do so without making him more unsympathetic (and you don’t want to do that – Hugh Jackman needs to be sympathetic). So they decided to address racism by having Barnum’s partner, Phillip Carlyle, fall for one of the black performers, Anne Wheeler (played by Zendaya). Which would be a fine solution, I guess, if either of those people actually existed. Which they don’t.
This is why I have trust issues. In a year where there was so much debate over preserving our history, be it good or bad, that a movie “inspired by a true story” would try to ignore the less salient aspects of Barnum’s life. Especially since they probably didn’t have to.
See, Barnum eventually went into politics, where he appeared to regret his treatment of Joice Heth. He even argued in favor of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, 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.”
Where’s my movie about THAT guy? I’m picturing Lincoln, but with jugglers and The Tattooed Man.
The Greatest Showman does have some good stuff to offer, in particular a wonderful performance from Jackman and some of the best dancing I’ve seen in a film… pretty much ever. But I can’t help thinking that it’d be a stronger film if it were about Peachy Buckingham, pretty fictional circus boy. And then we could get a serious, Oscar-worthy film called Barnum: The Spectacle of Conscience. Starring Javier Bardem.