There’s something paradoxical about a 21st century film musical and even more so about “The Greatest Showman,” which is not the best or worst representation of what musicals are in 2017.
In 2001, Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” became the first musical to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards since 1979. In 2002, Rob Marshall’s “Chicago” became the first musical to win Best Picture since 1972. There was a flurry of writing about the return of the musical, which returned (see “Dreamgirls” (2006), “Hairspray” (2007), “Once” (also 2007)) and then disappeared and every few years since then it seems that every major musical (see “Les Miserables” (2013) and “La La Land” (2016)) is hailed as a return. But from where? And where to?
It’s no surprise that the new musical, “The Great Showman,” an intensely romanticised version of P.T. Barnum’s life as a producer, has been doing well at the box office. It’s a frothy, colourful, pop-oriented film, which softens the harsher edges of its central character and promotes a more idealistic, beautiful world. A critic recently decried the dangers of the film’s politics, which turn a blind eye to the ethical issues of its characters for a sanitised version, but this sort of frothy film is exactly what audiences would cling to in these uncertain times. But beyond the commercial potential and ideas of what the musical achieves, “The Greatest Showman” is a bizarre film.
I like film musicals. At their best, they are perfect distillation of the fantasy versus reality conflict of cinema. Music is an intrinsic part of humanity, but musicals take the reality of our relationship to music and bends it to replace speech in a way that is at once unreal and identifiable. When done right, the union can be awe inspiring. When done excellently, the mixture of realism with the fantastical is complex and rewarding. Although there have been multiple attempts at reviving the genre, a truly “original” musical is something of a white elephant. An original musical is a film that is not adapted from a stage play, or does not feature a collection of previously published songs but a film which features a series of original songs. With the exception of Disney films and the odd “Once” and “La La Land,” this idea is quite unusual in this time, which is a stark difference from the Hollywood Golden Age, when original musicals were intrinsic to the success of the studios. The composers of “The Greatest Showman” are the writing duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the lyrics for the Oscar-winning ‘City of Stars’ from “La La Land” and the Tony Award-winning “Dear Evan Hansen.” A musical begins and ends on its songs, and the music of “The Greatest Showman” is especially unusual in that it’s completely divergent from the film in key ways.
Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, P.T. Barnum was at the peak of his success as an American showman. Pasek and Paul have created a dozen pop oriented songs that sound like they come from the latest Bruno Mars album. Consider this: one of the key dramatic moments in Barnum’s life and the film concerns an opera singer who he captures for his show. This European singer will legitimise his circus act and give him credibility. But the key moment when she begins to croon her main number is made immediately bizarre for the fact that the song sounds like the latest from Christina Aguilera. I like Christina Aguilera. She’s a great singer, but her music is incongruous with the era in a way that’s quite bizarre. It’s a microcosm of the way that the movie just doesn’t know what’s happening within itself.
The word that marks much of the film is incongruity. It unfolds as an assemblage of different films. The costumes are generically period enough to be pretty but not exactly representative of the era to be legitimate. The initial crisis of the film is Barnum’s poverty, which becomes a key to his desire to impress, but the film is all surface–there is no interest in real psychological examination of anything. It’s in the pop focused nature of the songs. Pop music is pretty and compelling and can be excellent. But pop music is not musical theatre and pop music cannot carry a musical unless there’s something larger there. Let me harken back to “Moulin Rouge!” Luhrmann’s jukebox musical utilises pop songs like ‘Like A Virgin,’ ‘Your Song,’ and ‘Lady Marmalade’ to comment on the way that 1900 France was all about decadent bizarreness. The text of the film WAS the frothiness of the music. The anachronism was the point. Here, though, “The Greatest Showman” is earnest; there is no irony here, there is no winking. In the middle of the show when Barnum’s freaks burst into the pop hit ‘This Is Me,’ which is a version of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way.’ It’s meant to be a rousing number and the song is fun enough, but the development as plot made me roll my eyes more than anything. And yet it’s hard to dislike something with that much sincerity. What annoys me about “The Greatest Showman” is that it is very much the idea of musicals that persons who don’t watch musicals have. It is light and bubbly, inoffensive, and without much depth. Musicals can be complex, they can be dark, they can be gnarly, they can be more than just baubles. Barnum’s story has all the room for that, but this film does not. And what’s odd is that it seems to think it does. When the final and best number, come, ‘From Now On,’ comes, Barnum sings, “From now on, these eyes will not be blinded by the light,” the words seem out of place. This film hasn’t really shown us a world of suffering. The conflicts seem manufactured, the complexity is non-existent. And so, “The Greatest Showman” will sale across to box office success because it’s easy and it’ll be good for musicals in the sense that they’re making money. But really, in the sense of advancing the musical as a genre it’s not doing much. It’s just sitting pretty.
“The Greatest Showman” is currently playing at Caribbean Cinemas.