“Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for,” Hugh Jackman sings in the trailer for the P.T. Barnum biopic “The Greatest Showman.” Whether that’s true will be determined when this cinematic circus comes to town on Dec. 20, but 20th Century Fox has put together a number of winning elements to hedge its bet on a risky proposition: an original musical period piece.
Mr. Jackman’s last movie musical, “Les Misérables,” opened on Christmas Day 2012 and went on to gross more than $440 million worldwide. Unlike “Les Miz,” however, “The Greatest Showman” is not based on a successful stage show, and it’s unrelated to the 1980 Broadway hit “Barnum.” Instead, the new film features new songs with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who earned an Oscar for “La La Land” and a Tony for the current smash “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Michelle Williams, who stars as Barnum’s wife, Charity, isn’t known for her musical skills but the actress has been nominated for four Oscars, mostly recently for “Manchester by the Sea.” The supporting cast also includes a pair of popular younger performers with singing chops, the “High School Musical” grad Zac Efron and the pop star Zendaya.
With a screenplay by the “Dreamgirls” and “Chicago” veteran Bill Condon and “Sex and the City” alum Jenny Bicks, “The Greatest Showman” projects a message of inclusion that may resonate with contemporary audiences. “They don’t understand yet,” Barnum tells a bearded woman played by Keala Settle (a Tony nominee for “Hands on a Hardbody,” from 2013). One can only hope he film doesn’t prove the most famous aphorism attributed to Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
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