The Greatest Showman

This weekend finds me at Gaslight Expo in San Diego. If you’re in Southern California, I hope you’ll consider dropping by this event at the Town and Country Hotel and check out all the great steampunk festivities. You can get more information at http://www.gaslightexpo.org

Recently, I had the opportunity to see the new musical The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman. I had been looking forward to this for some time. After all, there are few actors like Jackman who have the talent and the presence to be both believable action stars and great musical performers. What’s more, I’ve long been fascinated by P.T. Barnum. In many ways he defined showmanship. He had a complicated relationship with his performance company. It’s easy to dismiss Barnum as someone who exploited the “oddities” who worked for him (and anyone else, for that matter). Yet, if not for Barnum these people arguably would have had far worse lives in nineteenth century New York. What’s more, Barnum was a skeptic who called out people who preyed on others, such as William Mumler, who convinced many grieving people, he could capture the images of the dearly departed in photographs. Barnum showed it was simply a trick done with double exposures.

Overall, I enjoyed the show’s music. I thought the songs and dances were quite well done. Several times in the movie, I felt they were building up to a real confrontation between Barnum and his company, but it seems like the screenwriters sidestepped it and ultimately the company just seemed to rally around Barnum when he was at his lowest. Although I don’t really expect musical theater to be the most historically accurate medium, the musical strayed quite far from the true story. Among other things Barnum never had a partner at the American Museum, there never was a romantic scandal with Jenny Lind (although she did get tired of his constant exploitative marketing of her and left his company), and it took about 30 years from the time he opened his museum in New York until it burned down. The two daughters we saw in the movie would have had time to grow up in the time span portrayed.

When I first heard about The Greatest Showman, I was a little disappointed, though not altogether surprised that they didn’t simply adapt the much more historically accurate, albeit stylized, 1980 musical Barnum to the big screen. I haven’t heard a definitive reason this wasn’t done, though I can make some guesses. First and foremost, I imagine the music in Barnum probably didn’t seem hip enough for a modern movie musical. Even though it was released in 1980, the musical feels much like the musicals of the 50s and the 60s. I’m also guessing there were some rights issues. I gather the musical is still being performed and it just saw a recent revival in London. That said, Barnum makes the point that one could have made a more accurate movie musical than the one that was made.

Of course, one of the things that’s strongly emphasized to those of us who write speculative fiction is that we should do everything we can to allow the reader (or the viewer) to suspend their disbelief of the fantastical elements. For me, the history was less of an issue than the problem of the averted confrontation. That point actually is what made me look closely at the history. (That and not remembering that Barnum had a partner named Carlyle, which he didn’t.) With that in mind, I’ll close out today’s post by recommending two authors who get the history right to the point that they can sell you on a little humbug and pass off some razzmatazz.  They are David B. Riley and Laura Givens. I’ve had the honor of publishing them both together in a book called Legends of the Dragon Cowboys. In the book, you’ll meet Ling Fung, a wandering businessman encounters a Mayan god, crooked enterprises and Yeti, the Abominable Snowman. You’ll also meet Chin Song Ping, a scoundrel, gambler and trouble magnet who has no little P.T. Barnum in him. Why not check out a copy of Legends of the Dragon Cowboys today at: https://www.amazon.com/Legends-Dragon-Cowboys-David-Riley/dp/1885093837

The Midwest Book Review said, ” These two Western novellas are seasoned a dash of exotic adventure, featuring cowboy protagonists who hail from the Far East and pursue their dreams in the tough-as-nails frontier. Riveting from first page to last, Legends of the Dragon Cowboys is enthusiastically recommended for public library collections and connoisseurs of the genre!”

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