AFTER earning widespread acclaim in the hugely successful Logan, reportedly his final turn as the DC Comics hero Wolverine from the X-Men franchise, Hugh Jackman returns to theaters as the legendary P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman, a heartwarming musical inspired by the life of the man who invented show business. (It opens on January 31 in Philippine cinemas.)Starting out life with nothing other than a vivid imagination and big dreams, P.T. Barnum was raised in a poor family but had the ambition and tenacity to achieve the impossible, while revolutionizing entertainment along the way. He was an optimist who famously declared: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” That was the philosophy he lived by and it is also the narrative of his remarkable life.
Magical and moving, it’s a rags-to-riches story about a visionary who transformed entertainment with his legendary circus. Michelle Williams stars as Barnum’s wife, Charity. Zac Efron plays his protégée and business partner. The film also features compelling performances by Rebecca Ferguson and Zendaya. Directed by Michael Gracey, with soaring music from Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the movie is infused with strong themes about imagination, acceptance and family.
Starring the Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe- and Tony-winning actor Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman follows Barnum as he embarks on his exciting journey together with his childhood sweetheart, Charity, who later becomes his wife. Also starring in the film is Zac Efron as Barnum’s protégée, Phillip Carlyle, while rising star Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, a pink-haired trapeze artist. Rebecca Ferguson plays the iconic 18th-century opera singer Jenny Lind, known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” who Barnum brought to America, where she became a sensation.
Starting out in his native Australia, Jackman made an impression early on in the films Paperback Hero and Erskineville Kings. His performance in the latter earned him an Australian Film Critics’s Circle Best Actor award. Jackman made his first major US film appearance as Wolverine in X-Men, a role he reprised in X2: X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand. He went on to star in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Jackman received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in Les Misérables, as well as a Golden Globe. In 2009 Jackman won an Emmy for his work hosting the Oscars.
Jackman’s credits include Prisoner, Real Steel, Australia, The Prestige, The Fountain and Kate & Leopold, as well as the animated films Happy Feet, Flushed Away and Rise of the Guardians. Onstage, Jackman received a Tony Award for The Boy From Oz. In 2012 he received a Special Award from the Tony Awards Administration Committee, recognizing his accomplishments as a performer and humanitarian.
Jackman’s next project is Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner.
What is The Greatest Showman about? It’s not a biopic but was inspired by P.T. Barnum.
I think this is the movie that Barnum would like to see about his life—with some added drama—because Barnum knew more than anyone that you have to create conflict and suspense for a good story. He knew how to tell a good story and that you can’t always let the truth get in the way to do that. Having said that, a lot of the things you see in this movie really did happen. Barnum was an innovator, or as we call people like him these days, “a disruptor.” He rewrote the book of showbiz. I don’t think there would be any reality TV if it weren’t for P.T. Barnum. In a way, he was the inventor of show business. Of course, there were shows before Barnum, but the idea of a show with mass appeal that made people happy was new.
There’s a great rapport between you and Zac, who plays your business partner. There’s a standout scene in a bar, which looks as though it was pretty challenging?
Zac and I got to know each other really well because we had nine weeks of rehearsals. We were rehearsing the bar scene for three weeks with glasses and all the hat swapping, hat flipping and dancing. Zac was great and, of course, it’s not his
first musical. He really knows what he’s doing on the set. I think audiences are going to love Zac in this film. I’m not just talking about all those people who discovered him in High School Musical (2006). Zac shines in this film and it’s going to be exciting for audiences to see him. And it was super easy to work with him. He’s a pro.
One of the big themes of the film is acceptance and diversity. P.T. Barnum famously brought “oddities” into his circus, people who were ostracized by society. Inclusion seems like a great message to be focusing on right now?
I totally agree. It couldn’t be more appropriate. If you think of some of the oddity shows around in that era, featuring people like the Elephant Man (Joseph Carey Merrick), they were held in back alleyways, behind hessian curtains and the people, the “oddities” were treated terribly. P.T. Barnum was inclusive and he made Tom Thumb the most famous person in the world.
Do you think it’s a theme that will resonate across the board with everyone?
I do. You know, Deb (Deborra-Lee Furness, Jackman’s wife) and I have teenage kids and I remember what it was like to be a teenager and, of course, I’ve been involved in the X-Men universe. So I understand that feeling of being isolated and lonely and feeling misunderstood, not knowing where you belong and not necessarily liking the things about you that make you feel different.
That is what this movie focuses on. What I love so much about the story is that Barnum makes it possible for these people who are being shunned by society to accept themselves. Even Barnum himself is struggling to accept himself fully. I think it’s something that adults and young people will relate to and it’s something that everyone has to come to terms with at some point in life. Apart from putting a smile on people’s faces, if there’s nothing else audiences take from this movie, I hope it’s that idea of celebrating who you truly are and not caring about what anybody else thinks. It’s about just being yourself.
The Greatest Showman is so entertaining. What do you think makes a great musical?
I think in the end, it’s all about great music. It’s got to be moving forward all the time and not just consist of 10 pop songs. You have to feel the characters moving and growing so that you’re emotionally involved with each song, which is very difficult to achieve. There’s some emotion that can’t be told or expressed just through spoken dialogue. You have to feel that the characters have no choice but to sing. I think when a musical really works, you buy into the premise of people breaking into song. I loved the idea of this musical because the story is full of larger-than-life characters and larger-than-life worlds. That really helps. This is the Mount Everest of moviemaking, combining the incredible disciplines of the music, the look, the visuals and the dancing. Each of those elements on its own is hard to pull off, but somehow they all came together in the film in a cohesive way.
Can you discuss the soaring music in the movie, which has a contemporary feel to it, even though it is set in the 1800s?
The basic theory behind the music is that if Barnum was alive today, he would embrace what is new and exciting. So the idea of doing old-school music didn’t feel right. For me, the film meant retraining my voice for two or three years and I went to a different singing teacher, which was very hard because I’ve had the same singing teacher for 10 years. But Justin (Paul) and Benj (Pasek) said, “I’d like you to see this person who works in the pop world.” I spent many sessions in the recording studio. (Laughs) I’ll tell you one story which is self-deprecating but true. I remember our director walking into one of our late-night sessions in the studio and he was listening to a tape I’d done. I’m in the booth and he comes on the microphone, and he goes: “This sounds incredible, fantastic,” with genuine surprise in his voice. I can hear the engineer saying: “Michael, there were a lot of takes”…and there were a lot of takes! (Laughs)