Picoreview: The Greatest Showman

Picoreview: The Greatest Showman: I am conflicted about The Greatest Showman.

I wanted to love it unconditionally. I went in prepared to. Unfortunately, I ended up liking it conditionally, perhaps because I grew up doing musical theatre and I have Far Too Many (Entirely Correct) opinions about what makes a musical work, and The Greatest Showman…missed a lot of them. I felt like it’s a musical by people who don’t fully understand how musicals work (which, given that the music was written by the people who did the IMHO excoriable La La Land, supports my opinion, although the fact that one of the screenwriters wrote the screenplay for Chicago does not), and it felt very much like a sophomore effort to me in terms of trying to achieve a timeless movie musical. I expected more, which would be…fine, if I couldn’t also see very clearly how more *could* have been achieved. I feel like they have half a good musical there and that they really didn’t know how to get the rest of it together.

I thought everybody did a splendid job in their roles. I loved watching Hugh Jackman sing and dance for us, and think he was totally robbed at the Golden Globes. My dad was blown away by Zac Efron, whose voice is so good it made me feel badly for Jackman a couple of times, even though Jackman did just fine. (Efron’s a better dancer, too. And man, I *really* wish he’d gotten cast as Cyclops. He would have been So Good.) Michelle Williams did as much as she could with a very thin role, and Zendaya did more than that with her almost-as-thin role. I loved Keala Settle and I hope “This Is Me” wins the Oscar, and oh, how crushing, I just found out Rebecca Ferguson didn’t actually sing the Jenny Lind role. A woman named Loren Allred did. Aw, how disappointing, because holy smokes what a voice. I loved her song. Anyway, the point is that individually I thought everybody did a fine-to-excellent job in their roles; it’s not their fault the musical itself is desperately flawed.

Spoilers beyond the cut.

The pacing is awful. It’s better the second time because I knew what to expect, but it’s bad; the charming “A Million Dreams” montage apparently only goes on for about five minutes but it feels like five years, and slows the beginning of the movie down badly. But to make it worse they draw out a lose-my-job scene and then cap it with another rendition of “A Million Dreams”, so by the time they get to the upbeat “Come Alive” number they’re really starting the momentum all over again.

Ted pointed out they’d missed a *huge* opportunity with the lose-my-job scene for an all-out song-and-dance number that, with the staging, the colors, and the physical backdrop, they in fact essentially already have have set up in in the film. I actually think the entire job stuff should have been dropped entirely, because I think the entire ‘failure as a husband and man’ aspect was set up just by dint of what kind of story it is and could have been handwaved to a much greater degree to the benefit of the film’s pacing. But Ted’s right in that it could have been a terrific set piece, and if they’d done *that* it wouldn’t have slowed the pacing down nearly as much as it did. Ted also thought the “meet the oddities” scene should have been a song about not just the oddities finding their place, but also Jackman finding his. (By the time Ted was done with his thoughts I was like “you need to write a musical, man.” He said, “I don’t write music.” I was like, “MY SISTER DOES. Story by Ted Lee, screenplay by CE Murphy, music by Deirdre Murphy!!!”)

Post “This Is Me” there are three slow songs in a row, which also do nothing to help the pacing. Poor Michelle Williams needed more to do in there; her ‘torch’ song is not torchy at all, but merely wistful, and I think she and Jackman should have had a blazing row of a torch song instead, which would have not only sped up the pacing but given Williams a lot more to do than be the relentlessly generous supportive wife. Ted, nearly shouting with enthusiasm at this point, expressed how well that would have worked with turning Jenny Lind’s songs/scenes into a duet with Jackman, where at first he’s seducing her (vocally) to the idea of singing in America, and then how she’s seducing him (vocally) with her powerful voice (which, TBF, she absolutely does: Jackman’s performance during *her* performance is sublime), to end on an actual duet that falls apart. With a fight between Jackman and Williams between those, it would have added a huge amount of tension to their part of the storyline.

Also, don’t get me started on the bizarrely inconsistent costuming or the way Jackman aged thirty-seven years to Michelle Williams’ 25 in the space between the montage and the rest of the film, although their 12 year age difference is certainly not the most egregious ever filmed. @.@

In between all the fail, though, there really are a lot of terrific performances. Settle’s show-stopping “This Is Me” is, well, a show-stopping number, and I think the cinematography in it, especially, is absolutely gorgeous. They may have failed to get a lot of the show together by my standards/expectations, but those two big numbers, “This Is Me” and “The Greatest Show”, are the kind of slick production I expect from a musical.

I love Efron and Zendaya’s love song, “Rewrite The Stars”, which I found poignant and powerful and well performed. If Zendaya had had just slightly more to work with she would have walked away with that film, although I think she may be a good enough performer to *not* steal the show when she’s not supposed to. She was terrific, and she gave Efron a huge amount to play off. Really well done.

And then the end of the movie. *sigh* I mean, I get what they were trying to do. Jackman’s on a journey and they’re showing him content with his family life and all that, but a movie like this should not end on a literally quiet note. “The Greatest Show” should be the last number. All they had to do was rearrange it a little, so that we saw Jackman hand the cane and hat over, make his entrance at the ballet, and then cut back to Efron’s jubilant entrance at the circus and the big song, and it would have ended on the smashing upbeat number a musical should.

And finally, while this is not exactly the fault of the musical, in terms of a terrible choice for the listener, the soundtrack opens with the full rendition of “The Greatest Show” and ends on the fade-out from “From Now On”, which genuinely confused me the first few times I listened to the soundtrack, because I expected it to end on THE SAME NUMBER THE MOVIE DID. Eventually I realized what they’d done, and THEN I realized that in-film, “The Greatest Show” is meant to book-end the entire film, by which I mean: we are supposed to understand that the opening number is actually the same performance as the closing number, which I absolutely, utterly, totally did not get. I got, yes, that the opening number is At The Height Of His Glory, and then we see how he got there, but I truly did not understand it was actually supposed to be the same performance as the final number. It was only listening to it the third time when Zac Efron comes in that I went “OH WHAT WAIT OH I SEE WHY THIS IS ALL HERE AT THE BEGINNING IT’S BECAUSE IT’S THE SAME PERFORMANCE” and it was a terrible idea for them to do that. I mean, maybe I’m exceptionally dim about having missed that being what was going in in the film, but just in terms of the soundtrack it really needed to end on “The Greatest Show” because the fade-out is just…that. A fade-out. It doesn’t leave me with the uplifting delight that a musical’s final number should.

So, in short, I found it a frustrating combination of slick and fun and boggy and slow. I am, however, really, really glad it’s done so well, mostly for Hugh Jackman’s sake, because he loves musicals and really just wants to sing and dance for people and I’m genuinely happy this thing he’s put so much effort into has done so well.

Even if it’s a mess. :)