WASHINGTON, December 26, 2017: Just three days after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, a rumor spread among those crossing its 1,595.5-foot span that the suspension bridge was about to collapse.
12 people died in the resulting stampede.
And so, the bridge owners called in the services of entertainment impresario and “Prince of Humbugs,” P.T. Barnum, to prove the bridge’s safety. He marched 21 elephants, which included the famous Jumbo, and 17 camels across John Augustus Roebling’s engineering marvel, quelling the public’s fears.
The Prince of Humbugs
And it is the life of P.T. Barnum that is the subject of the delightful film “The Greatest Showman.” The film’s director is Michael Gracey who stars Hugh Jackman as the mercurial 19th-century promoter.
But those expecting the typical Hollywood biopic, ala Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” will be disappointed. From its start, you are made aware this is a re-imagined presentation of the traditional American movie musical.
The Greatest Showman: A promoter turns song and dance man
“Ladies and gents,” sings Barnum as the film begins, “… buried in your bones there’s an ache that you can’t ignore. Taking your breath, stealing your mind and all that was real is left behind.”
This is not so much a biography as it is a celebration of the surreal dreamscape of the imagination, whether it comes in the form of elephants from the mysterious and distant continent of Africa, aerial acrobats defying gravity or genetic oddities in the form of a bearded lady or the world’s smallest man.
A matter of imagination
When Barnum is let go from his job as an accountant at a shipping firm that has lost its fleet in a typhoon, he has little to offer his young daughter on her birthday but a showman’s pitch.
He presents a candle covered by a tin cup with holes cut into it.
“This extraordinary machine was originally created by Leonardo da Vinci four hundred years ago,” Barnum tells his daughter. “But the blueprints have been lost for centuries until just last week, on a stormy night, when a sunken pirate ship washed up on the shores of Nantucket… This is a wishing machine. You tell it your wishes and it keeps them safe till they come true.”
The youngster is dazzled as the spinning cup projects a twirling starscape on bedsheets hanging on a clothesline.
His daughters sing, “Every night I lie in bed, the brightest colors fill my head. A million dreams are keeping me awake. I think of what the world could be, wishing on the one I see. A million dreams is all it’s going to take.”
“A million dreams for the world we’re going to make,” their father assures them.
The Greatest Show on Earth
That dream world is confined within the walls of Barnum’s American Museum of Curiosities, which was one of the top attractions in New York City from 1841 until it mysteriously burned to the ground in 1865.
The film’s dance sequences are nicely choreographed by Ashley Wallen, with rousing musical compositions provided by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese and lyrics by Justin Paul.
That bearded sure can sing
Standouts in this film include Tony-Award-nominee Keala Settle, who plays bearded lady Lettie Lutz and sings the film’s show-stopping number “This is Me.”
And acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) and love interest and Barnum business partner Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), contribute a rousing aerial duet to the song “Rewrite the Stars.”
“The noblest art is that of making others happy,” said P.T. Barnum. And “The Greatest Showman” certainly delivers.
“The Greatest Showman” is now playing in theaters nationwide.