The Greatest Showman is an enjoyable musical. However, if musicals are not something you enjoy and you want a true historical representation of P.T. Barnum and the time he lived, this isn’t the film you’re looking for. If you want fun music, great sets and a good story, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
The reality of P.T. Barnum, his family and some of those mentioned in the film is much more mundane than what is envisioned. However, I think you could say the film is true to Barnum’s imagination.
Without giving too many details away, let’s go over some basics about the film.
The musical opens with P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) singing in what looks like a full fledged circus opening, but it abruptly fades into a scene depicting a young P.T. Barnum, dressed in rags, with his father, running work related errands. We quickly learn that P.T. Barnum comes from a poor background and no one is expecting much from him. Not long into the opening Barnum’s father dies and he has to quickly learn to take care of himself. The harsh reality shown here will drive the character through the rest of the musical.
If you are interested in the real life of P.T. Barnum, you’ll find that a similar harsh reality did drive him to work relentlessly, as he did experience the loss of his father as a teenager and went off on his own.
The Greatest Showman quickly builds to Barnum buying an old museum, full of wax figures, and branding it the Barnum American Museum. After little success with that and a clue from one of his daughters, Barnum starts his search for unusual acts.
In reality, many of these acts were bought, so again suspension of reality will be required of you. The situations Barnum finds people in, like the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle) and Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), are quite believable, as they would have been hidden away from society at the time.
Barnum has a hard time convincing people to join him, but as usual his persistence pays off. Though, you do have to wonder whether or not Barnum cares for any of them as people.
Much of the tension comes from Barnum himself trying to find his place and win recognition, as well as his performers trying to become comfortable with themselves. Barnum is constantly trying to find ways to appeal to everyone, including the upper class, who have always looked down on him. Barnum will drive most away from him, including his wife, before he really sees what’s important to him. It takes his museum burning down and a good talking to from his performers, but we end with a character that is secure in who he is and happy.
We also end with a great musical number set in a large tent, which brings to mind the image of the traveling circus many of us will be familiar with.
All in all, it’s worth a watch.