The Greatest Showman is a phenomenal film that brings past and present together in a raucous, glorious symphony of discord and resonance.
When characters speaking to one another or miming out a scene just aren’t enough to convey the depth and potency of a situation you turn it into a song. Disney made a mint off this concept for decades, though they certainly didn’t invent it.
Theater has been in the know for centuries — how else would opera have come to be? Rodgers & Hammerstein, anyone?
“Where words fail, music speaks” – Hans Christian Andersen
Today’s musicals are a celebration of this theatrical mechanic that so effectively taps into the hearts and souls of audiences, playing on imagination and creating a sort of middle-world between the tangible and the fantastic.
“Musicals don’t get enough credit for being so surreal. It’s like an alternate universe.” – Ezra Koenig
Think of a stage performance like Wicked. When Elphaba gets up there, high above both stage and audience to belt out “Defying Gravity,” can you honestly say there isn’t something gripping you deep in your chest, tugging you along as she hits those last three high notes? There’s an almost kinetic energy that takes hold, not only of the actors on-stage, but the audience as well.
Movie musicals, though they can’t touch the vibrancy of a live performance, nonetheless sometimes manage to appropriate that same sort of electricity and that’s what The Greatest Showman does so well. The very first number, “The Greatest Show,” is like a whip-crack that bites at your spine, perking you up and drawing you in.
And what a ride Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Keala Settle, and the rest of the crew have in store for us!
It all begins with a young boy who has a dream (very The Illusionist-style) who falls in love, sets off to make his fortune, and slowly starts bringing his dream to life.
“I have found my heaven in musicals. When I watch a musical, it makes me believe life is still beautiful” – John Woo
From start to finish, The Greatest Showman is a treat for the child in us who grew up singing along with princesses, pirates, and mermaids. There are a few musical numbers that stand out from the rest, however, capturing that magical electricity of the stage.
They made me catch my breath and lean in toward the screen, wanting to be part of it.
Here are my top two… tell me yours in the comments!
One woman singing. That’s it. But what a dynamic and powerful scene Jenny Lind’s (Rebecca Ferguson/Loren Allred) performance gave us!
There are some high-stakes stories being told throughout the scene, all of which reach a sharp moment of revelation towards the conclusion…
Onstage, Jenny keeps looking back at Barnum (Hugh Jackman), challenging, flirting, and beckoning. We’re watching her fall in love with him … and his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), sees it. Her sudden consternation is gut-wrenching, though she reigns it in. She trusts her husband. After all, whatever this red-headed singer might feel, there’s no way Barnum would betray the love they had shared since childhood … right?
Barnum has his own little story during this scene. The close-ups show a man in the grasp of ecstasy. In his look you see his belief that all his dreams are coming true before his eyes — no longer is he just the purveyor of cheap tricks, but a sponsor of culture and true artistry. He’s done it at last! It’s a poignant moment that is, unfortunately, shared not with his wife (the one for whom he’d worked so hard for), but Jenny. It’s ironic that the instant when Barnum believed he’d achieved his greatest success would set up the conflict which would cause his downfall.
In the back of the theater — the standing room — Phillip (Zac Efron) joins the circus performers. He takes Anne’s hand, physically embracing the connection they’d shared in silence until now. As the music rises you think there might be hope for them, despite all the odds stacked against them. But then they’re seen by one of the high society couples and the moment is broken. Carlyle drops her hand in embarrassment, like it was a hot iron, and Anne storms off, rejected.
The beauty of the scene isn’t so much the song — though it’s spectacularly performed — it’s the slow burn of these little dramas playing out on the sidelines.
Though the ensemble numbers are the most enjoyable (hats off to “From Now On”), I have to rank “The Other Side” above them.
This is such a fantastic use of the replace-chatter-with-song mechanic! What gets accomplished? Barnum convinces Carlyle to join him. That’s it. Nothing more. This is a 5-ish minute scene with only the purpose of establishing the business relationship between the two men.
So why is it such a phenomenal number?!
Because it’s like we’re watching a live stage performance — probably the scene that comes the closest to imitating the feel of it.
The Bargain is a fictional/dramatic plot element that has a long and prestigious history and it’s used to great effect by Jackman and Efron. They wheel and deal, haggling for all their worth. You can see the shrewd calculation blended with humor on their faces, coming out in gestures and tone. In this space and for these few minutes they’re given the chance to be stage actors, and they’re enjoying themselves with all their hearts.
They use the whole space — the bar, the stools, peanut shells, tables, and shot glasses. Even the barman, practically a prop himself, contributes to the evolving scene. The set is filled with the energy of the two men and sets off the sparks of that special electricity intrinsic to live theater.
© 2018 Sarah Easley – All Rights Reserved.