One benefit a musical is afforded is narrative efficiency. As we see at the beginning of The Greatest Showman, entire backstories and a character’s drives and goals can be distilled into a single song. But narrative efficiency should not replace depth of characterization, storytelling, nor theme.
The themes at the heart of the songs in The Greatest Showman are not particularly deep or insightful. The power of dreams and acting on them. The power of individuality and being comfortable in one’s own skin. Tolerance of those different than yourself. A general distaste for upper class snobbishness. None of these concepts are ground-breaking. They serve the film’s intent, sure, but they don’t really sell the magic of the story.
This story, too, of Barnum coming from rags-to-riches through his invention of the circus, is not told with an adequate amount of depth or historical accuracy. The rose-tinting of this story is quite high. To some, that there is rose-tinting at all is an inexcusable act for this biopic subject.
Criticisms of these two points—theme and character representation—are entirely valid takedowns of The Greatest Showman. That musicals as a genre allow for more surface-level storytelling as a means of heightened theatricality does not cover up the lacking nature of The Greatest Showman.
This said, The Greatest Showman provides glimpses of entertainment in its almost two-hour runtime. A lot of the numbers have an overly modern pop sensibility to them that feels out of place in this period biopic, and numbers involving groups of people yield crowded shots and uninspired choreography.
However, the three songs involving just two actors—“A Million Dreams,” “The Other Side,” and Rewrite the Stars”—make for the best scenes in the film. These scenes are choreographed wonderfully, from the binge-drinking business meeting between Jackman and Zac Efron to the romantic entanglement externalized by Zendaya’s acrobatics. In isolation, these scenes are wonderful.
Lyrically, however, there isn’t a single song worth remembering, and none of them have melodies worth humming. They all read as showboating affair for Broadway-level singing talent. Then there is the strange subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson as a Swedish opera singer whose songs, instead of being opera, sound like Katy Perry pop anthems.
Sanitizing the real-life source material for the sake of showcasing acting and singing talent on-screen is one thing—both the acting and singing are quite good. But cutting corners under the guise of musical-genre simplicity leaves much to be desired from this already sanitized story. Characters are drawn as simply as the themes they espouse, and no amount of singing can hide this fact.
The Greatest Showman: C-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)