A pioneer of today’s visionaries and entrepreneurs who’ve revolutionized social life, the Steve Jobs or Jay-Z of his day.
Inspired by the legend and ambitions of America’s original pop-culture impresario, P.T. Barnum, comes The Greatest Showman, an inspirational rags-to-riches tale of a brash dreamer who rose from nothing to prove that anything you can envision is possible and that everyone, no matter how invisible, has a stupendous story worthy of a world-class spectacle.
Australian filmmaker Michael Gracey makes his feature film directorial debut with The Greatest Showman, a story that, in the larger-than-life spirit of Barnum, bursts into a boldly imagined fictional realm, one full of infectious pop tunes, glam dances and a celebration of the transformative power of showmanship, love and self-belief.
Michael Gracey directs from a screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and a story by Jenny Bicks, and braids together original songs by Academy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) with a multi-talented cast headed by Hugh Jackman to immerse audiences in the very origins of mass entertainment and mega-celebrities in the 70s … the 1870s that is. The result is a chance to enter the newly electrified world of America’s post-Civil War Gilded Age — through the viscerally contemporary lens of the pop culture just igniting then.
P.T. Barnum may have lived over a century ago, but for Gracey, he was a progenitor of our times. He sees Barnum as a pioneer of today’s visionaries and entrepreneurs who’ve revolutionized social life, the Steve Jobs or Jay-Z of his day. The film is a musical reverie, an ode to dreams, not a biopic. But at its center is Barnum’s conviction that the drudgery of everyday life is something you can bust through into a realm of wonder, curiosity and the joys of being proudly different.
Most of all Gracey hoped to key into the feeling of that moment of personal inspiration or acceptance when life seems grander than you ever expected. Says Gracey: “When audiences came to experience a P.T. Barnum spectacle, they were completely transported out of the ordinary, and we try to do the same in this film in a contemporary way.”
Adds Jackman, who devoted himself for years to bring the film to the screen: “It’s not exaggerating to say that Barnum ushered in modern-day America – and especially the idea that your talent, your imagination and your ability to work hard should be the only things that determine your success. He knew how to make something out of nothing, how to turn lemons into lemonade. I’ve always loved that quality. He followed his own path, and turned any setback he had into a positive. So many things I aspire to in my life are embodied in this one character.”
The Greatest Showman also touches on another idea of these times: that of chosen families built around allowing people to express who they are without reservation. “A big idea in the film is that your real wealth is the people that you surround yourself with and the people who love you,” says Gracey.
“Barnum pulled people together who the world might otherwise have ignored. And by bringing each of these people into the light he created a family who were always going to be there for each other. In the course of the film, Barnum almost loses both his real family and his circus family – but then you watch him discover that the most important thing he can do is bring them both back together again.”
“P.T. Barnum is what we would describe now as a disruptor. He thought life should be all about fun, imagination and hard work,” says Hugh Jackman of the man whose outsized persona he takes on in The Greatest Showman. “Back in 1850, America wasn’t as we know it today. You were limited by the family you were born into and your class. At the time, the idea of entertainment just for fun was considered almost borderline evil. But this only fueled Barnum’s fire to break away from this kind of mundane, hamster wheel existence. He set out to live the life of his dreams. And that is what he did.”
Born in Bethel, Connecticut in 1810, the real P.T. Barnum was as complex as his times, full of contradictory impulses, both humane and opportunistic. He had a natural flair for publicity and promotion and was already selling lottery tickets by age 12. Later, he won the hand of his far wealthier wife with his unalloyed aptitude for razzle-dazzle. After trying his hand at a variety of jobs, Barnum wound up in what he called “the show business,” where his imagination would have no limits. He soon revealed himself to be a genius at an enterprise that would come to define America: generating excitement and drumming up hoopla, catering with savvy to the public’s love of the spectacular, the wild and the outrageous.
Moving to New York, he became one of the burgeoning city’s most celebrated figures. There, he opened what would become a destination all the rage: Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway, stuffed with dioramas, scientific instruments, strange artifacts, a menagerie of exotic animals, a marine aquarium, theatrical performances and a slew of living “attractions” with fairytale stories attached — including the diminutive General Tom Thumb, the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, giants, bearded ladies, and many more. The museum soon led to global tours featuring the most beloved performers. Barnum then created a public frenzy for the never-before-heard Swedish Opera singer Jenny Lind – with a mounting buzz and hysteria rivaling that surrounding rock stars a century later. When Barnum’s museum burned to the ground, he came up with yet another fresh concept: the tent show known as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” an idea which would long outlive him and inspire America’s rise as the entertainment capital of the world.
While The Greatest Showman is not intended to be biographical and doesn’t adhere to Barnum’s factual chronology, Gracey emphasizes that it highlights several overarching realities about Barnum. “The important things that we know are true and wanted to reflect is that P.T. Barnum did come from nothing. He was there at the birth of advertising. And he was very successful and he did then chase after high society, because he felt that for all of his success, he was never one of them. He did bring out Jenny Lind from Sweden. His museum did burn to the ground and he went bankrupt not once but twice. So while we have creatively adjusted the story, many of the tentpole moments from his life are reflected.“
A Dream Comes To Life
When you think of Phineas Taylor Barnum today, what probably come instantly to mind is the three-ring extravaganza that long bore his name. But there is far more to his collosal legend than the circuses that have since evolved into a new era (an era that no longer parades endangered animals and human curiosities but is more about virtuoso athletic and creative performances). Barnum’s is the classic tale of a scrappy American trailblazer, one who pulled himself way up out of poverty to become not only a master of the brand new arts of image and promotion but also one of America’s first self-made millionaires and the godfather of mass entertainments designed to set free the imagination.
He may have been born into anonymity, but the whole world would come to know his name. When P.T. Barnum passed away in 1891, the Washington Post described him as “the most widely known American that ever lived.”
Later, Barnum would be erroneously credited with the infamous quotation “a sucker is born every minute,” which he never said. But he did say: “Whatever you do, do it with all your might.” This was the real appeal of Barnum in his day – he captured the resilient, risk-taking spirit of changing times. He also presaged more spectacular times to come as movies, stage shows and digital technology would continue his explorations of making the implausible and mythical feel real and achievable. It’s no wonder his story and persona have inspired numerous films – with Barnum being played by Wallace Beery in 1934’s The Mighty Barnum, Burl Ives in 1967’s Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon and Burt Lancaster in 1986’s Barnum.
Yet, it has been decades since P.T. Barnum’s increasingly visible impact on the modern world has received a fresh look. That thought struck producer Laurence Mark and co-screenwriter Bill Condon in 2009 when they were working together on the Academy Awards broadcast featuring Hugh Jackman as host. Jackman’s irrepressible love of all that goes into forging a dazzling show reminded them of Barnum.
Watching Jackman at work, Mark recalls: “I thought, wow, this guy’s the greatest showman on earth – and that’s when I went to P.T. Barnum in my head. Hugh is just about the only person in the world who could be both Wolverine and P.T. Barnum, actually. There’s just something in Hugh’s DNA that allows him to walk on a stage and take charge of it so easily, naturally and charismatically. I suggested to him them that we should make a musical about Barnum and it turned out, he was completely open to it.”
It was a fateful proposition. But it would take another seven years and more than a few twists and turns to turn what was then an ultra-high-risk idea – especially given that musicals capable of appealing to 21st Century audiences were then considered an extreme rarity — into the reality of a full-scale production replete with songs, choreography and an all-star cast. The process began with a sweeping screenplay by Jenny Bick, which excavated the period of Barnum’s rise to fame, from his childhood of meager means in Connecticut, to the romancing of his much wealthier wife Charity, to the founding of Barnum’s American Museum to his championing of one of the world’s first superstars: the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind.
Jenny Bicks (Screenplay/Story) started her career in advertising in New York City and went on to write radio comedy before she began writing for film and television. Her series credits include “Seinfeld, Dawson’s Creek and HBO’s Sex and The City. She wrote on Sex and The City for all six seasons, rising to the rank of executive producer. Her work on the series earned her several awards, including an Emmy Award, multiple Golden Globes and Producers Guild Awards and three WGA nominations. After Sex and The City, Bicks created, executive produced and show-ran comedy Leap of Faith, starring Sarah Paulson, for NBC and dramedy Men In Trees, starring Ann Heche, on ABC. She Executive Produced and Show-ran Showtime’s critically acclaimed The Big C, starring Laura Linney, for all four seasons. Her work on that show earned her a Golden Globe nomination and a Golden Globe and Emmy win for Linney. Bicks currently Executive Produces and show-runs Divorce for HBO. In the feature world, her body of credits include What a Girl Wants, and Rio 2.
Bick’s screenplay was an inspiring kick-off. Still, in keeping with Barnum’s adoration of the daring and outsized in all things, the filmmakers decided to go in search of even more music and more spectacle. That’s when Jackman suggested that Mark see if his friend Bill Condon – renown for his magical screen adaptations of Chicago and Dreamgirls – could add his own immense writing gifts in the creation of a musical for these times.
Bill Condon (Screenplay) is a celebrated film director and Oscar-winning screenwriter. Earlier this year his live action version of Beauty and the Beast thrilled audiences around the world grossing an astounding 1.2 billion dollars. Other recent projects include the drama Mr. Holmes, and, on stage, the celebrated revival of the musical Side Show, which premiered at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center before coming to Broadway.
Condon’s film adaptation of the Broadway smash Dreamgirls won two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes including Best Picture – Musical or Comedy. Condon directed from his own screenplay. Condon also wrote and directed Kinsey, for which he won the 2005 Best Director Award from the British Directors Guild. He also wrote and directed Gods and Monsters, which earned Condon an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Condon wrote the screenplay for the big-screen version of the musical Chicago, for which he received a second Oscar nomination. Condon also directed the two-part finale of the blockbuster Twilight film series Breaking Dawn, as well as The Fifth Estate. Born in New York City, Condon attended Columbia University, where he graduated with a degree in Philosophy. An analytical piece he wrote for Millimeter magazine brought him to the attention of producer Michael Laughlin. Condon subsequently co-wrote the feature film Strange Behavior with Laughlin, who also directed the film. The movie became a cult hit, leading to the unofficial sequel, Strange Invaders. Condon made his directorial debut with Sister, Sister..
In the meantime, Jackman had met Michael Gracey, who was rapidly rising as a commercial and music video director with an unusually creative, genre-defying edge. Jackman was determined to work with him on a feature, and he was sure the concept of The Greatest Showman was a match made in heaven for Gracey. That became even more clear once Gracey began pitching the ambitious film across Hollywood with a fervor that kept even jaded executives rapt.
Says Jackman: “Michael is cutting edge with music and storytelling. He was kind of a big deal already, and even though he hadn’t yet made a film, everybody knew about him. It’s also true that when Michael pitched the story of The Greatest Showman, he was better than I’ve ever been playing P.T. Barnum. Michael’s vision is incredible, but also, his determination is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There was no option for him other than this movie getting made.”
Gracey’s pitch encompassed 45 minutes of spirited storytelling, intricate concept art and songs. It’s part of what won him the deep trust of the producers, including Laurence Mark as well as Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping of Chernin Entertainment. “Michael had done so much impressive homework. He already had sketches and visuals and he spoke about the movie in the most passionate way,” recalls Mark.
It all hit home in part because Gracey truly and personally relates to Barnum’s belief in attempting to squeeze as much excitement out of life as possible. “I always say that to me one of the saddest moments in any child’s life is when they learn the word ‘impossible,’” the director reflects. “Barnum’s story is about not limiting your imagination, about using what’s in your head to create new worlds – and that’s also what directors do. You come up with something and then you spend years and years of trying to realize it, in a process that is full of heartache but also allows you to truly bring dreams to life.”
Gracey was also driven by a fully fleshed-out vision for the film’s aesthetic. He had in mind a Steampunk-like mash-up of the past and the future that placed Barnum’s story outside of period, in a kind of universal world where pop culture, romance and human connections always hold sway. He wanted some grit, but he also felt the entire film should be sprinkled over with a touch of storybook magic – to hark back to the shadows of the imagination that first inspired humans to suspend their disbelief.
Also vital to Gracey’s approach were the Oddities, the circus performers who due to a variety of uncommon physical conditions allowed Barnum to invite audiences to encounter living myths. Though such displays would no longer be acceptable in today’s society, Gracey explores another side of what Barnum’s performers experienced – the opportunity to escape hidden, marginal lives; the chance to inspire admiration and feel pride; and most of all the ability to provoke questions into just how narrowly we define “normal.” “The Oddities are people who are invisible to society so they’ve been kept behind closed doors,” explains Gracey. “And what our P.T. Barnum does is give these invisible people a spotlight and a chance to feel love for the first time. He tells wondrous stories in which they are not damaged but special. I think audiences will love the Oddities because at the end of the day, everyone’s an Oddity.”
He emphasizes: “There’s a line where Barnum says, ‘No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.’ That to me is the heart of the film.”
The Oddities definitely caught the attention of Zac Efron. He says: “I love that Barnum is full of love and dreams for his family but then he asks: how can I spread that love further? He does it by taking people who are not accepted by society because of the way they look or how they were born and allowing them to be celebrated and engaged with. He gives them a chance to show that no matter where you come from or who you are, none of us is really that different — we’re all just striving people. Barnum allows all the performers in his show to be proud of themselves.”
With Condon having added fertile new layers to the script, there was just one vital component missing: the ineffable, transporting stuff of the actual songs. For Gracey, everything hinged on getting that right. “The reason I love musicals is that when words no longer suffice, that’s when you sing. At your lowest points, when you’ve lost absolutely everything, you sing. And at your highest points of inexpressable joy, you break into song again. We knew we needed songs that could hit those emotional high and low points within this very special world,” Gracey explains.
Gracey intuited that the songs could counterpoint the period setting – rather than going back in time, he wanted songs that would make the characters and dilemmas urgently of-the-moment. After commissioning samples from dozens of songwriters, the team fell in love with the work of two then-fledgling newcomers: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. This was well before their play “Dear Evan Hanson” and years in advance of their Oscar®-winning work on La La Land. But what Pasek and Paul offered up was a collection of emotional, high-energy pop tunes that could be on the radio in 2017. “Benj and Justin showed a rare ability to combine rock, pop and the contemporary Broadway sound,” says Mark.
Adds Gracey: “What Benj and Justin created for this film is to me the best work they’ve ever done – and they’ve done some incredible work. They mix the contemporay with the classical seamlessly. They really giave the heart and soul of the film, those emotional highs and lows. They captured the spirit of it so perfectly. The songs they wrote are always taking you somewhere – each is a narrative in its own right.”
The music also was a magnetic lure for the accomplished cast. Says recording artist and actor Zendaya, who plays trapeze artist Anne Wheeler: “Benj and Justin are young and they’re fresh and what’s so cool about the songs is that even though our story is set in the 1800’s, their work feels completely contemporary, which I think makes it tangible for people now. It adds an element of magic,too. You’re in a period piece, yet there’s also pop songs and hip-hop dancing, which I think is really dope. It fuses Barnum’s time period with our own. I feel that every single line of the music reflects the soul of the film.”
Gracey was grateful for all who committed themselves – from the cast to the songwriters to the musicians to the incessantly creative crew who never stopped cultivating the vital details — to realizing his dream, which was built on the foundation of Barnum’s dreams. “The idea of doing an original musical is pretty much pure insanity,” laughs Gracey. “But the one thing that I will always remember and hold dear is all the people who signed up for this impossible dream – who believed in it and brought it to life.”