These two shows, while released a few years apart from each other, had much in common. Both had distinctly Pop-flavored scores and beautifully stylized visuals. Both were retellings of the lives of famous historical figures that had almost nothing to do with the reality of those historical figures’ lives, and both were able to justify that on the grounds that the shows themselves were all about the importance and validity of imagination and fantasy. And both were blatantly scorned by critics and yet succeeded in not only gaining sizable commercial success, but (unlike such genuinely undeserved hits as Young Frankenstein, The Addams Family, or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), the genuine affection and love of mainstream audiences.
Finding Neverland , a musical based on the award-winning film about Peter Pan playwright J. M. Barrie, was initially to feature a score by the Grey Gardens songwriting team of Michael Korie and Scott Frankel, but their score was deemed unsuitable and replaced by one from Gary Barlow. I have never heard the Korie/Frankel score, which some partisans of the team have insisted was vastly superior, but given their extremely severe Post-Sondheim songwriting style, I can’t really imagine their work fitting in well with this elemental, shamelessly emotionalistic material. I was skeptical at first that Barlow, a Pop singer-songwriter and the longtime frontman of the band Take That, could summon up the necessary atmospheric richness this material requires, but damned if he didn’t pull it off; the score is absolutely lovely and for the most part perfectly suited to the needs of the story.
True, there is an occasional moment where the Pop style feels out of place, such as “Something About This Night”, which is catchy but feels more like an Eighties Pop hit than an integrated song in this particular musical. But the ballads “Neverland”, “All That Matters”, “What You Mean to Me”, and “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” are marvelously atmospheric and do full justice to the emotional power of the story. The thrilling credo of imagination “Believe”, the defiant anthem that closes Act One, “Stronger”, and the joyous ensemble number “Play”, are some of the most stirring up-tempo numbers of the decade. And the sprightly tango “We Own the Night” and the sunny guitar ballad “We’re All Made of Stars”, if perhaps a bit less substantial, are also delightful.
The visuals were also stunning, with a series of exquisite stage tableaux culminating in the leading lady’s symbolic flight off to Neverland as she died, which made for one of the most moving climaxes in recent Broadway memory. Matthew Morrison made for a luminous original leading man in the Broadway production, and Kelsey Grammer performed the dual role of Barry’s American producer and Captain Hook with his usual charisma and elan.
The show’s only real flaw lay in the book. When it stuck to the serious elements, it was actually quite moving and told its story well, but the attempts at jokes were some of the worst ever seen in a successful show, about on a par with the humor in the Broadway version of Dance of the Vampires. Still, this did not remotely justify the contemptuous reception critics gave it, and I am grateful that, unlike many other wonderful shows in recent years, this one was able to overcome that stumbling block and find the success it deserved.
As for The Greatest Showman, a film musical telling a heavily fictionalized version of the life of P.T. Barnum, it had its work cut out for it, given that there was already a perfectly wonderful musical about Barnum’s life (Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s Barnum). It also suffered further setbacks because, even though its score was written by the hottest songwriting team on Broadway at the time, Pasek and Paul, it came out just after the televised version of the A Christmas Story musical had severely damaged the team’s reputation. But despite a poor critical reception and a disappointing opening weekend, it still managed to ultimately regain its momentum and emerge as a smash hit.
The script is a big, manipulative, cliché-ridden and blatantly unrealistic Hollywood fantasy, but it glories in it, and that is exactly the secret of why it’s so appealing. Granted, it has even less to do with Barnum’s actual biography than the earlier musical, but given that it is, after all, a movie about the value of imagination, the fact that it focuses on Barnum’s symbolic role in American folklore rather than the actual historical personage actually seems rather justified.
The stellar cast certainly helped. Hugh Jackman had the charm to make you like and believe in Barnum even through his mistakes. Michelle Williams was enchanting as his wife and true love Charity, and Zac Efron and Zendaya, as the star-crossed secondary couple, have both come an amazingly long way since their Disney Channel days. Rebecca Ferguson is capable enough as Jenny Lind, but the performance that really matters in that role belongs to her vocal double, Loren Allred, whose stunning belt makes the character truly alluring all while conveying the true depths of her dangerous obsession.
Pasek and Paul’s previous scores, like Dogfight and Dear Evan Hansen, had generally been in the more accessible vein of the post-Sondheim style practiced by the likes of Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, and Jeanine Tesori. This score, on the other hand, drew on the sounds of contemporary Pop music, resulting in a completely different sound from the team’s earlier efforts. It was also sufficiently far away from the brassy big-band sound of Cy Coleman’s musical to significantly alleviate any accusations of redundancy. Granted, it doesn’t remotely fit the period the film is set in, but while Coleman’s music sounds more old-fashioned to a modern audience, to an actual person from that time Coleman’s Jazz-based score wouldn’t have sounded any less alien.
The two biggest hits from the score were “The Greatest Show”, a thrilling, percussive kaleidoscope of a song that serves as the show’s framing device, and “This Is Me”, an explosive statement of self-affirmation that resembles one of the Pop-music self-esteem anthems popular in the early 2000s, only pumped up on steroids. Other high points include the ecstatic paean to imagination “A Million Dreams” for Barnum and Charity’s younger selves, the ravishing ballad of obsession “Never Enough” for Jenny Lind, and the sorrowful love duet “Rewrite the Stars” for Efron and Zendaya’s characters.
This movie is clearly going for more of a surreal, kaleidoscopic, Cirque du Soleil-esque vision of a circus than the earlier musical’s more brassy, splashy traditional one, but it definitely works on those terms, and the different style helps give the film its own identity. As I said, the movie has no connection whatsoever to either history or any other kind of reality, but it has that old-fashioned Hollywood magic, and it’s an extremely enjoyable viewing experience. I’ve heard people who argue that the film’s lack of historical truth somehow makes it unworthy, but, as Roger Ebert once sarcastically retorted to such people, that “is why a stone is better than a dream”. If you want to live in a world like that, and refuse to enjoy a magical piece of pure fantasy like this movie on those grounds, then frankly I pity you.