With his new musical ‘The Greatest Showman’ Hugh Jackman is cashing in the goodwill he’s amassed throughout his Hollywood career for a shot at cinematic immortality.
“I’m one of the very few actors who could have a chance of doing an original movie musical of this size,” Jackman recently explained to Yahoo Movies over coffee in a swanky London hotel.
“I’m aware that if I screw it up I’ll never get another chance again.”
17 years after ‘X-Men’ transformed Hugh Jackman from musical theatre star to Hollywood A-lister, the Aussie star has finally put his most iconic role behind him, sending Wolverine off into the sunset with his stunning superhero swansong ‘Logan’. Now he’s coming back full circle with ‘The Greatest Showman’, an original big budget movie musical, inspired by PT Barnum the inventor of show business.
Original movie musicals are rare nowadays (‘La La Land’ withstanding, more on that later) hence why it’s taken nearly eight years of development to get it off the ground. Jackman first started work on a Barnum biopic in 2009 with his Oscar-hosting producer Lawrence Mark but it was only after achieving closure with ‘Logan’ did the star have his ‘carpe diem’ moment.
“It was really three years later when the music started to come in and I thought ‘we’ve got something here’. That’s when the passion really started to go from there.”
Jackman, a Barnum scholar who professes to have read 37 books on the entertainment impresario, always knew his story was worth telling on the big screen. Born in 1810, Barnum rose from humble beginnings to become the most famous man in the world thanks to his travelling circus, and his pioneering work at the forefront of “show business”. Jackman likens him to the Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerburg of his day.
“In a way, it’s your classic rags to riches story,” Jackman said. “People know about Barnum as the guy who started the circus, but what people may not know is that in that time, what he created was considered almost criminal, degrading, disgusting.”
“He the man who really contributed to the birth of modern America. People think America was always the place of the free, where it didn’t matter where you were born, but that’s not true. When he was born, it did matter what family, what your last name was, where you went to school, all that really mattered.
“After Barnum, it was imagination, talent, and hard work [that] were the markers for success.”
They knew they had a rollicking story to tell, but it was first-time feature director Michael Gracey who struck upon the idea of telling it as a musical. Hugh met Gracey while shooting a Lipton Ice Tea commercial (featuring a huge dance number of course) in 2010. Hugh promised they’d make a movie together someday and, good to his word, he sent him the script for ‘The Greatest Showman’.
“I told Hugh, if you’re going to put ‘The Greatest Showman’ on the poster, you’ve got to play to your strengths. It should be a musical,” Gracey told us on the film’s Brooklyn set earlier this year.
“That naïve remark has cost me seven years of my life, because it’s so difficult to do an original musical.”
With the director in place, and a musical in mind, the next thing they needed were some actual tunes, which is where the stars (or city of them) really began to align for this movie.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (known together as Pasek and Paul) – the Oscar-winning ‘La La Land’ lyricists – were just jobbing songsmiths taking meetings all over Hollywood at the time in 2013 when the project wound up in their lap. A casual conversation during a meeting at Fox led the pair to meeting with Michael who pitched the movie to them with a “mood reel”, and they were immediately hooked.
“We thought it was amazing,” Justin told us in New York. “The fact that a movie musical was being made on this scale, with this grandeur, and with Hugh Jackman – we knew we had to be a part of this.”
“[Michael] was really clear about wanting a score that felt contemporary, that felt like a mix of theatrical and also pop radio music, but also finding a way to make those work together.”
Drawing from a wide range of influences “from Ingrid Michaelson to Kanye, and everything in-between”, the duo have written nine original songs for the film, each serving a specific story purpose. The songwriting duo, who completed work on ‘La La Land’ while simultaneously developing ‘The Greatest Showman’, collaborated closely with Michael, Hugh, and the whole cast every step of the way.
For ‘The Greatest Show’, the song which which bookends the movie, the pair worked with Macklemore producer Ryan Lewis to “create the beats”, and it’s this thumping showstopper that opens the recent trailer.
The trailer also reveals Hugh as Barnum in all his red-coated pomp and glory. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the razzle dazzle ringleader is his motley crew of circus “freaks” known as the Oddities.
The Oddities – including Tom Thumb, trapeze artist siblings Ann and WD (Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), Dog Boy, a giant, a strongman, and more – are the heart and soul of this movie, serving as Barnum’s extended family who accompany him on his journey to the top.
Standing front and centre in the Oddities is Lettie Lutz AKA the Bearded Woman. Drawing strength from 23-year-old Harnaam Kaur, a bearded British woman who recently signed with a modelling agency, Lutz is portrayed by 13-year Broadway veteran Keala Settle who landed the gig after impressing Fox execs at early readings.
After being bribed to perform by Gracey with a bottle of Jameson’s, Settle broke down during a grandstanding performance of Oddities anthem ‘This Is Me’ – the film’s big ‘Let It Go’ moment, also heard in the trailer – and former Fox chairman Jim Gianopulis stood up to hug her proclaiming: “you just booked your first major motion picture”.
“I got a phone call and an email from a lawyer saying ‘you just got a contract to do the film’. I was like, ‘what do I owe? Do I owe them money now?’ I was freaking out!” Settle shared with a huge bearded grin.
“I still don’t believe it. It’s crazy.”
“To me, it’s the greatest showbiz story I’ve been involved in,” Jackman added.
Playing the role of Barnum’s protégé, high society snob Phillip Carlisle, is Zac Efron, also returning to his musical roots. Efron performs two duets in the film, one in a bar with Barnum (‘The Other Side’) that leads in to the show-stopping moment (glimpsed in the trailer) where Carlisle meets Zendaya’s Ann for the first time. They later perform a duet together called ‘Rewrite The Stars’.
Their interracial romance would have been considered taboo at the time, and Hugh Jackman revealed that this subplot was introduced by ‘Beauty and the Beast’ director Bill Condon who was once attached to direct.
This theme really plays into the heart of the story, which is the pure idea of bringing previously unseen people out of the shadows, and celebrating what it is to be different. “This film is going to offer so many different opportunities for self-celebration,” ‘Aquaman’ star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II explained, “to celebrate one’s otherness, one’s quirkiness, and just being weird.”
With its buzzy cast, a barnstorming soundtrack (every song we’ve heard is a guaranteed earworm), and Hollywood’s leading song and dance man playing the world’s most famous entertainer, ‘The Greatest Showman’ looks like safe bet for Jackman and Fox, but we’ll know for certain when the film arrives in cinemas on New Year’s Day.