Photographed by Annie Leibovitz
Inside The Greatest Showman, the Most Magical Musical of the Year
Although Phineas Taylor Barnum ventured into politics, newspapers, and the lottery business, among many other more or less salubrious professions, during the course of his highly colored career, he unabashedly declared himself “ ‘a showman’ by profession,” adding that “all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”
For director Michael Gracey, the force behind the giant-hearted vision of The Greatest Showman, “Barnum was the Steve Jobs or the Jay Z of his time, the original impresario, the original showman.”
Barnum began his career in show business in 1835—shamelessly promoting a blind and severely paralyzed African-American octogenarian as George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse to a gullible, paying public—and he died in 1891.True to form, he had successfully lobbied to have a newspaper publish his obituary a few weeks before—so that he could read it.
Who better to portray this force of nature than the absurdly charismatic Hugh Jackman? “It is Hugh’s passion piece,” says Gracey. “He championed this film.” The two met eight years ago, when Gracey was shooting a commercial in Rio de Janeiro with Jackman. Gracey won the project when the clients assumed that as fellow Australians he and Jackman must be friends—and by the end of filming they were. “We just clicked creatively,” Gracey remembers, so much so that Jackman suggested that they do a film together.
“In the euphoria of a wrap party,” Gracey notes wryly, “every single celebrity says that.” Several months later, Jackman did indeed call to follow up on his promise.
Although Barnum was born to a modest farming family in Bethel, Connecticut, his ambition and talent “led to the birth of modern-day America,” as Jackman explains: “this idea that you could be who you want to be, that it doesn’t matter where you’re born or what school you went to. And Barnum used a lot of imagination and a hell of a lot of will and mongrel spirit.”
Barnum also “contributed to the invention of show business,” says Jackman, and created the idea of the modern megastar in the form of the winsome soprano Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale,” whose services he secured for a dizzying $1,000 a concert for 93 sell-out performances. Barnum’s promotional instincts ensured that Lind was a celebrity even before she landed on American shores in 1850: An estimated 30,000 fans were crowded on the docks to greet her. The saintly Lind—a woman who, Barnum reportedly said, “would have been adored if she had had the voice of a crow”—used her earnings to fund charitable projects. But this Showman’s Lind, played by Rebecca Ferguson, is a more complex character, and Ferguson adds nuance to the singer’s complicated professional and romantic relationship with Barnum in the film. (Barnum’s long-suffering wife, Charity, is portrayed by a fleet-footed, sweet-voiced Michelle Williams.) A parallel romance, challenging a different set of taboos, is spun by Zac Efron, as Barnum’s protégé, and an alluring, pink-haired trapeze artist played by Zendaya. “That girl is the real deal,” says Gracey. “She’s going to be an absolute superstar.” Jackman, who sheepishly admits he was tuned in to Zendaya by his daughter, calls her “one of the most incredible young people I’ve ever met.”
Efron, meanwhile, met Gracey at a general meeting several years before the project officially began, and they remained friends. The actor was sitting in traffic when Gracey called to tell him that he thought he finally had a part for him. “I wanted to pull over on the 405 and get out of the car and dance,” he recalls, and on film he does just that with Astairean panache.
Efron notes that his straitlaced character “lived by the rules.” When he meets Barnum, however, and then Zendaya’s circus performer—in an electrifying slow-motion moment—his life is transformed, and he experiences a “kind of satisfaction that isn’t monetary, isn’t connected to status, and cannot be handed to you. It’s inner joy.”
When Gracey was a child, his mother, Lorenda, took him and his music-mad siblings to every musical that came to town in Melbourne. Mrs. Gracey even kept a spare room where show-business people were welcome to stay. “It was an urban legend,” her son remembers, “accommodation for free and a hot meal waiting for you!” Gracey-family evenings were often spent singing show tunes.
But trying to pitch a musical in a franchise-oriented cinematic climate was “a fool’s errand,” he says. “There’s a huge part of the moviegoing audience who just won’t go to a musical, so there’s nervousness,” Jackman explains. “And we were at the hot end of the budget—I mean, this is Barnum; you’ve got to be over the top!”
But after seven years and a hundred or so pitches, Gracey found enthusiastic partners in 20th Century Fox, and the search for a songwriter was on. Many of the marquee names were considered, but it just so happened that Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, fresh from their delightfully retro Tony-nominated score for 2012’s Broadway adaptation of A Christmas Story, had retreated to Los Angeles to work on the songs for their upcoming musical Dear Evan Hansen. While there, they met with Gracey, and the pair was captivated by his storytelling. “He can sell you on a vision in such a beautiful way,” says Paul, who grew up near the Barnum Museum in Connecticut and recently found a grade school project on the impresario in his parents’ basement. “He told us a story he wanted to create—and why it would be a musical.” The writers raced home to work on two songs before Gracey was set to leave for London days later.
The director was convinced, and to help green-light the involvement of these fledgling talents, he told the studio executives that Pasek and Paul had “just won a Tony.” Gracey’s little white lie was prophetic: They have subsequently won not only a Tony Award (for Dear Evan Hansen) but a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, too (for La La Land). “Michael’s idea was that the musical material would be as precious and thought-provoking as the script itself,” says Efron.
“The music is a mash-up of musical theater and pop, and the choreography mixes contemporary and classical elements,” notes Gracey, and he wanted the movie’s aesthetic to mirror that. To this end, he worked with production designer Nathan Crowley, lighting maestro Seamus McGarvey, and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick to create a Pop-steampunk look that was not faithful to any particular period. Crowley channeled Barnum’s passion for the innovative technology and architecture of his era: the elevated train, Nikola Tesla’s early experiments with wireless lighting, the grand glass-and-iron structure of the Crystal Palace. The traditional, Great Expectations–brown period streets were abandoned for “modern color combinations” that bridged “the gap between our fictional musical” and Barnum’s period, says Crowley.
I experienced the vivid mash-up for myself in a soaring Brooklyn warehouse where parts of the movie were filmed. In various areas, the 1940s structure had been miraculously transformed into Barnum’s museum of wonders: a plushly appointed railway carriage, an evocative pub, a girls’ school dormitory, and even a miniaturized cityscape of old Manhattan. In the shadows, the brick walls were plastered with bold posters announcing the wonders within (and playfully advertising the names of cast and crew members). Even the makeup cases were wrapped in Victorian-looking packaging.
As Mirojnick recalls, Gracey similarly urged her to ignore constraining historical authenticity and instead create costumes with “the panache of a great fashion editorial.” Mirojnick “wanted it in sync with the fabulous modern music—Zendaya has pink hair, for goodness sake!” To help create this, Mirojnick drew on the help of master tailor Birta Gábor in Budapest and pieces from Marchesa, Reem Acra, and even Kleinfeld bridal shop. And with many of the great Broadway costume shops tied up with epic productions (including Hello, Dolly!), fellow designers generously pitched in.
The rehearsal schedule was twice as long as many shoots, so “for everyone involved,” Gracey explains, “it became a passion project.” After Election Night, the movie subtly shifted. “It started as a movie about the power of imagination and will and never giving up on your dreams,” Jackman says. “It grew into a deeper idea that what makes you different makes you special.” “It’s an incredible privilege to make a film about inclusivity and acceptance,” adds Gracey.
One anthemic song—“This Is Me”—helps convey this message. It began, as Pasek and Paul recall, as “a little ditty” sung to a banjo accompaniment by “the Oddities,” Barnum’s unconventional tribe of performers. Some way into the production process, Gracey perplexed the songwriters by telling them that he wanted to turn this into the movie’s defining song—a fierce yet vulnerable number performed by the Bearded Woman, Broadway star Keala Settle.
“She had a little swig of whiskey” right before she performed it for the audition, Jackman remembers; then she “performed with tears running down her face.” I saw Settle deliver the song time and again (Gracey believes in getting it right), lifting the roof on set in that soaring Brooklyn warehouse.
For members of the cast and crew, these affirming moments came at various points. Mirojnick, who had limited time to prepare, found herself “moving along at the same speed” as the filming. “It was an inspired process, and although I never had these hurdles to leap over before, they were really freeing.”
Mirojnick’s breakthrough came when Jackman first tried on his ringmaster costume, created by master tailor D. Barak Stribling. “He became the character,” she recalls. “He’s an unstoppable force,” adds Efron. “So when you mix that passion with Michael Gracey’s, magic begins.”
Zac Efron Teams With Columbia Sportswear’s Gert Boyle for Campaign
Zac Efron is 64 years younger than Gert Boyle, but the pair share a starring role in Columbia Sportswear's upcoming campaign.
EFRON HITS A BOYLE-ING POINT: Gert Boyle has never seen one of Zac Efron’s movie, but she still gave the actor golden reviews after shooting a new campaign with him for Columbia Sportswear.
Efron “was the one on the payroll,” but he brought along his equally outdoorsy brother Dylan to help shoot a video that will break on the company’s site Aug. 15. “It will be on Facebook and all the other funny stuff that I don’t know about,” Boyle said Thursday.
Living up to her “One Tough Mother” persona from Columbia ads, Boyle wasn’t about to give away the premise of the short film. “What was the set-up? Well, we paid him,” she said. “You’ll just have to wait and see. It’s really funny. He and his brother come to say, ‘We’d like to test your garments,’ because we have this Tested Tough [seal of approval]. As a matter of fact, someone who works at Columbia called me to say to watch it, you had to bring a new set of underwear.”
As their social media followers can attest, the Efrons are genuinely into trout hunting, trail running, cliff jumping and other weekend warrior activities. (Earlier this summer, Dylan posted about how having two broken ribs, three fractured vertebrae and a fractured tailbone would not deter him from exercising. “The activity promotes the healing process both physically and mentally,” he posted.) The Efron brothers also know their way around Columbia’s home state since their Oregonian grandparents live in Bend.
Referring to the “Baywatch” star, Boyle said, “He’s actually from California. From what I understand, he was born there. You know there’s actually a big gap between his age and mine so I didn’t really know too terribly much about him until he started to work here.”
At 93, Boyle has 64 years on the actor and singer. That being what it is, Boyle sounded like a swooner after meeting the red carpet regular. “They were absolutely the nicest, most charming guys. I’ll tell you how nice he was. We did this commercial and then he sent me a letter that said, ‘Thank you so much for having had a good time doing this commercial and allowing him to do it. That’s class, huh?” Boyle said. “I thought that was really nice because we’ve done commercials with a lot of people — Macklemore most recently — and I’ve never gotten a note from any of them saying thank you for hiring us.”
Fan girlish as Boyle sounded she has yet to see “High School Musical,” “Hairspray,” “Dirty Grandpa” or any of the other 25 flicks Efron has acted in. “Isn’t that terrible? I’ve seen his picture in ‘Baywatch’ ads. But he is very nice young man so it was a lot of fun to do it.” But Boyle will have another shot at seeing his acting skills when “The Greatest Showman” is released later this year. That box-office musical with Hugh Jackman and Zendaya might be more Boyle’s speed than Efron’s next movie project – “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” in which he will portray the serial killer Ted Bundy whose victims included Oregon State University students.
Reached in her office at Columbia’s headquarters in Portland, the nonagenarian Boyle said she has no plans to retire. “My birthday is in March so I’m sort of halfway from here to there. I’m absolutely still working. That’s where you got me. I am sitting here at my desk. I’m here everyday. You know, it’s much better than staying home with a bunch of old people,” Boyle said.
Boyle’s son Tim, the brand’s chief executive officer, is within walking distance most days. For many years, the no-BS businesswoman held that same post, first taking it on at the age of 47 in 1970. As for whether she still runs the show at the $2.38 billion company, she said, “I’d like to think I did, but there are a lot of people here who think they do. But you know how it goes. The thing is if you yell loud enough, they’ll finally hear you.”
Boyle is also loud and clear about encouraging others to keep on working. “Absolutely — you just wait until you get to be 93 and someone says, ‘Hey, you know you’ve done this stuff and you have all this knowledge and we don’t need you any more. Well, that’s a bunch of hogwash. You can learn something from everybody. And besides that, I have the advantage of part ownership.”
Out & About
FYI, this year's Annual Nautica Malibu Triathlon will take place on Saturday, Sep 16, 2017.
Via Dylan's IG stories... Looks like Zac will participate in the Malibu charity triathlon alongside Dylan & Conor this year again. pic.twitter.com/xiJpgafyeR— EHS (@ehs_wildcats) August 7, 2017
Zac at the Ed Sheeran concert last night in LA (via his IG stories) pic.twitter.com/L61yzfbkeC— EHS (@ehs_wildcats) August 11, 2017
Another concert pic from Zac's IG stories: pic.twitter.com/BNOpODgjaJ— EHS (@ehs_wildcats) August 11, 2017
Not embeddable: 'Baywatch' Blu-Ray Exclusive: Zac Efron & Dwayne Johnson Talk That Obstacle Course