Ringmaster: Michael Gracey brings musical spectacle to the life of P.T. Barnum with ‘The Greatest Showman’

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Michael Gracey is the first to admit that The Greatest Showman is, “purely from a business perspective, not a sure bet.” A big-budget spectacle from a first-time feature director—that’s infrequent, but not exactly unheard of. What makes The Greatest Showman truly rare is that it’s not just a movie musical, but an original movie musical, one not based on existing songs or properties.

“If it’s a jukebox musical, at the very least you know people are going to like the music. If it’s based on [existing] IP, you know there are thirty years’ worth of audiences who are going to see the film,” explains Gracey. “When you’re investing enormous amounts of money in creating a film, you want some sort of security. And there is very little security in an original musical [with songs] written by two guys who, at the time, had done a Broadway musical that wasn’t a huge success… It wasn’t so easy when I first wanted to work with them, because everyone was like: ‘Who are these guys?’”

“These guys” are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. When they met Gracey, they’d just picked up a Tony nomination for A Christmas Story: The Musical. Two days after the meeting, they’d already written two of The Greatest Showman’s songs, one of which, “A Million Dreams,” made the final cut. Flash forward, and Pasek and Paul have become the reigning golden boys of Broadway, with an Oscar and a Tony under their belts thanks to their songs for La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen.

High-profile talent behind the camera was matched by high-profile talent in front of it: Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya and the greatest showman himself, Hugh Jackman. And now, eight years after getting The Greatest Showman’s script from Jackman, Gracey and 20th Century Fox are about to find out if their all-singing, all-dancing risk is going to pay off.

Regardless of its eventual box-office take, The Greatest Showman stands on its own as a bit of splashy, fun, crowd-pleasing entertainment, befitting both its release date—Dec. 20, right around the corner from Christmas—and its subject: P.T. Barnum, 1800s impresario and inventor of the circus.

Don’t let The Greatest Showman’s nonfiction roots fool you into thinking that Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks’ script presents, or intends to present, a straightforward, historical record of Barnum’s life. “P.T. Barnum wrote his autobiography multiple times, and he would burn earlier editions and destroy the plates, because he wanted to reinvent himself each time,” Gracey says. “I feel like this is the film that P.T. Barnum would make. He would cast Hugh Jackman as himself, even though he looks nothing like Hugh Jackman!”

At the same time, The Greatest Showman doesn’t shy away from the fact that Barnum is a “deeply flawed character.” You could call him a self-absorbed charlatan, and you wouldn’t exactly be off-base. (Though Barnum never actually said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” Gracey admits that it’s the sort of thing he would have said.) Jackman, then, was a necessary bit of casting: You need someone charismatic and fundamentally good enough that audiences root for Barnum to come out the other side of his personal struggles with his soul intact. Explains Gracey, “There are very, very few people who could play [Barnum] and do what [Jackman] does in this role.”

Factually speaking, The Greatest Showman hits the high points of Barnum’s life: Barnum starting a museum and filling it with human “oddities,” like the Bearded Woman (Keala Settle, a Tony nominee with a powerhouse voice) and the dwarf who would come to be known as General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). A visit to Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin) designed to boost his credibility among the snooty upper classes. A creative dalliance with superstar opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) that took him away, for a time, from his circus roots. In the spaces in between these historical anchor points, in Gracey’s words, exists “a healthy dose of imagination.”

The goal, Gracey explains, was to take the groundbreaking spectacle and popularity of the original circus and translate it—not completely, but somewhat—into modern terms, creating a sort of “fantastic fairytale version” of Barnum and his story. To that end, Jenny Lind belts out not an aria but the sort of “pop ballad Adele would sing.” The musical number that opens the film, “The Greatest Show,” has Jackman trying his hand at a “hip-hop beat.”

On the dancing side, the circus performers, led by ringmaster Barnum, strut their stuff in group numbers choreographed by Ashley Wallen. (Lest we forget, Jackman is no stranger to musicals, having toplined theatrical runs of Oklahoma!, Carousel and The Boy from Oz before starring in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables in 2012.) One particular number, a romance duet shared by trapeze artist Anne and Barnum’s upper-crust protégé Phillip, serves as something of a nod to Cirque du Soleil, sending Zendaya and Zac Efron soaring high above the circus floor.

Gracey notes that, with the exception of a few moves, all the actors did their own dancing. “They signed up for ten weeks, and they worked so hard at doing these really complicated sequences. There were a few moments where it was such a big drama point, such a big hit, that it becomes a stunt as opposed to a dance step. People did get hurt, though. Michelle [Williams] cracked one of her ribs” in a rooftop ballet-inspired number. “She was in a lot of pain.”

The musical numbers—dynamic, intricate, high-energy—are the most impressive part of The Greatest Showman. That’s why it’s something of a surprise to learn that they were the element of the film that Gracey was most confident about despite his lack of experience with anything near The Greatest Showman’s scale. That’s due to his background as a commercial director. Working on “musical-driven” commercials has been “a common theme running through my work,” he explains. “It was great to bring a lot of those lessons into the world of The Greatest Showman. Because it is my first film, I want to do it in a way that is unique and bold and memorable… I don’t want it to be what [audiences] expect.”

In a further concession to modernity, all the circus animals in The Greatest Showman—the odd handful of horses, elephants and lions—were created using CGI. “Myself as a filmmaker, and the studio, were always very adamant that the way we were going to approach this film was without any animals,” Gracey says. “No one wants to repeat the acts of cruelty that went on at the circus in regards to the animals… The public consciousness and the world, fortunately, have evolved since then. Even though we were showing what was true in the 1800s, the way in which we went about it was with a contemporary approach.”

That mix of old and new extends to Ellen Mirojnick’s costume design, which blends capes and tailcoats with more contemporary touches like Zendaya’s pink hair. In crafting the look and feel of the film, notes Gracey, “we would say, ‘This is what it was then. What is the modern equivalent to that?’ In terms of the wardrobe, we would ask, ‘What are the styles and cuts that are influenced by the 1800s? That you would see on the cover of Vogue?’

“You take the best of the old and the best of the new and you fit it in this pocket somewhere in between the two. And that pocket is what’s unique to this film. That visual and musical signature becomes The Greatest Showman.”