‘The Greatest Showman’ Facts You Probably Don’t Know
While based on a true story, filmmakers changed a few details about P.T. Barnum and his circus.
“The Greatest Showman” hit big screens in 2017. It went on to be a word-of-mouth success, earning a mind-blowing $400 million globally. Whether you’ve watched this flick over and over or you haven’t gotten around to seeing it just yet, these facts might make you want to find a comfy spot and take it all in. Word of warning: Be prepared to listen to the soundtrack on repeat. The songs are catchy, to say the least!
Jackman’s Passion Project
Hugh Jackman put his heart and soul into making this film. He was instinctively driven to take on the role because of the historical character’s impact.
“He made some people like the bearded lady, the three-legged man, Tom Thumb, who were previously pretty much locked in their family basements and people were ashamed of them,” Jackman told ABC News, “he brought them out in the spotlight and [made them] the most famous, most beloved people in the world.”
The film was in development for seven years. Jackman rehearsed for 10 weeks before production began.
Director Michael Gracey began his career as a visual effects artist. He met Hugh Jackman while they were making a commercial together. The two hit it off. Since they were both Australians, the others assumed they knew each other. Jackman embraced Gracey in a friendly hug and told him to play it off that they were best buddies, even though they’d never met before.
They got along so well that Jackman said they should make a movie together. Gracey didn’t take him seriously and was quite surprised when he received the script for “The Greatest Showman.”
Barnum Before The Show
In the film, P.T. Barnum had been laid off from his desk job when he decided to purchase a museum and pursue a career in entertainment. In real life, Barnum actually had a general store in Connecticut where he made the bulk of his income in lotteries — until lotteries were banned by the state. He also dabbled in real estate, newspapers and literature before purchasing the Barnum American Museum. He did not start his famed circus until he was 60 years old.
P.T. And Charity
When Barnum was just 19 years old, he married 21-year-old Charity Hallett. In the film, Charity’s wealthy family was not in favor of the match. However, in reality, it was the other way around. Miss Hallett was not a privileged young woman but a tailoress. Barnum’s family was against their marriage. His mother and other relatives felt he had not set his sights high enough. When they were wed in New York City, none of Barnum’s family members were present.
The Barnum Children
Young actresses Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely portrayed Barnum’s daughters, Caroline and Helen. In fact, P.T. and Charity were the parents of four daughters, Caroline, Charity, Pauline and Frances, who died before her second birthday. Although Caroline and Helen were shown as young girls when their father started the circus, Caroline would have actually been 20 at the time Jenny Lind toured the United States.
In the film, the museum fire began as the result of a brawl when protesters begin fighting with the performers they considered to be freaks. Although the museum did indeed burn to the ground in 1865, the origin of the flames was never determined. Because Barnum was pro-Union, it was thought to be caused by a Confederate arsonist. Barnum reopened his museum, only to have it burn down again three years later.
The film’s cast and crew experienced their own blazing building when the staged fire got out of control. Too much accelerant was used and the building burned to the ground. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Saying No To Bond
Jackman’s role as X-Men’s Wolverine was coming to an end when he received a call from producers casting for a new James Bond following Pierce Brosnan’s departure from the franchise. Jackman turned down the offer, worried that he would become pigeon-holed as an action film star.
“I always tried to do different things,” Jackman told Variety. “But there was a time between “X-Men 3” and the first Wolverine movie when I could see the roles getting smaller. People wanted me to play that kind of hero part exclusively. It felt a little bit claustrophobic.”
Originally, the film was going to be called “The Greatest Showman on Earth.” Although many associate the phrase “The Greatest Show on Earth” with Barnum, this title was not linked to the circus until much later. In 1871, P.T. Barnum teamed up with circus owners Dan Castello and William C. Coup. They ran what was known as “P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome.” The circus took place in Brooklyn under a tent. By the early 1900s, the circus began using the “Greatest Show” tagline.
Pasek and Paul
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are an award-winning team of songwriters. They had written the music and lyrics for the stage musical “Dear Evan Hansen” but were still relatively unknown in Hollywood when “The Greatest Showman” was in development. They auditioned for the film by writing a song sample, which became known as “A Million Dreams.” They say the song they wrote most quickly was “From Now On.”
“We were channeling [Jackman] as we were writing the song,” Paul told Playbill. “That happened faster. That moment of having him come back to his family—”
“It requires a bit more storytelling,” Pasek added.
“And that’s where we like to live the most,” says Paul.
The duo also wrote lyrics for most of the songs in the smash hit “La La Land.”
A Million Dreams
Speaking of the song that launched a soundtrack, the young man who played P. T. Barnum as a youngster did not lend his vocals to “A Million Dreams.” Ellis Rubin is the actor who portrayed Barnum as a child. He was cast largely due to his resemblance to Jackman. However, it was Ziv Zaifman, pictured below, who sang the love ballad between Barnum and Charity, to which Rubin lip-synced.
The power ballad “Never Enough” is sung in the film by Swedish opera star Jenny Lind. It represents the excitement she feels following her success in America. The song has been covered by numerous singers, both professional and up-and-coming, including Kelly Clarkson, Caleb + Kelsey, and Audri Bartholomew, who wowed judges on the NBC show “The Voice” with her rendition during her blind audition. “Never Enough” was the final song Pasek and Paul penned for the film, calling it their toughest one to crack.
Although Swedish-born Rebecca Ferguson, who played Lind in the film, has a musical background, she didn’t feel confident that she had enough experience to portray an opera legend when singing. Instead, singer Loren Allred provided her vocal talents for the song. Allred gained recognition on Adam Levine’s team in season three of “The Voice.”
“She is the most incredible singer,” Ferguson told Collider. “I’m an actress and that’s what I tried to do at least. There is a difference in being able to sing a tune and hold it and do a fairly good job.”
The Swedish Nightingale
A large facet of the movie was Barnum’s infatuation with Lind. In reality, theirs was strictly a business relationship. The opera singer was largely unknown in the United States and Barnum lured her with the promise of a fat paycheck. Although she was planning to retire from performing, Barnum offered her $1,000 per night for up to 150 nights of performances and was forced to sell nearly everything he owned. In the end, Lind donated her earnings to charity.
Barnum And The Opera Trend
Although the showman was synonymous with sideshow performers and curiosities, Barnum introduced the average American to high culture as well. Opera was not especially popular in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. Barnum helped change that when he contracted Lind to travel the nation with him. Following the Swedish Nightingale’s sensational tour that netted an unheard of $500,000 total, opera became and remained popular in the U.S. for decades to come.
Zac Efron’s Musical Comeback
The actor became a household name when he portrayed Troy Bolton in Disney’s “High School Musical” films. Surprisingly, his songs were dubbed in the first film, although he went on to sing in the second and third movies in the “HSM” series. In 2007, he sang again in his role of Link Larson in “Hairspray.” Efron chose this latest role as his musical comeback because of the message he felt it delivered.
“That was one of the most important things to get across with this role and one of the most profoundly important things that Zendaya and I wanted to both get across and felt capable of in this part,” Efron told CNN. “What else can you do through a musical other than spread love and communicate a message that you really care about?”
A True Trapeze Artist
Zendaya has performed as an actress, singer, and backup dancer for many years, gaining initial recognition for her role as Rocky Blue on the Disney Channel sitcom “Shake It Up” in 2010. She was able to add trapeze artist to her resume following her portrayal of Anne Wheeler in the film. She took her training seriously and performed all of the character’s stunts. There were no doubles or even safety nets used during filming, although the rig was much higher in the shoot than it was during training, which frightened Zendaya. As she was contemplating the performance, a costar gave her confidence.
“Hugh Jackman walked by,” she told Jimmy Fallon, “and he goes ‘Zendaya, you’re a badass.’ And I was like, take me up!”
No Phillip or Anne
As moving as their portrayals of multicultural lovebirds whose families did not approve of their relationship might have been, the truth is that Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler did not have a romantic, star-crossed connection. They couldn’t have, simply because they never existed. The fictional characters and their moving romance were created for the sake of the story in the film, much to the chagrin of moviegoers who rooted for the couple and hoped for a happy ending in real life.
The Bearded Lady
Although Phillip and Anne were fictional, many of the film’s characters were based on people who really were part of Barnum’s show. One of these was Lettie Lutz, known as the Bearded Lady, portrayed by Broadway performer Keala Settle. Lutz’s real-world counterpart was a woman named Annie Jones, whose life was marked by both fame and tragedy. Her parents placed her in Barnum’s New York exhibition when she was only a baby, as she was reportedly born with facial hair. She grew up in the business, becoming the most famous bearded lady of the era. Jones passed away from tuberculosis at age 37.
General Tom Thumb
Charles Sherwood Stratton, who went by the stage name General Tom Thumb, was another character in the film based on a real performer in Barnum’s show. However, unlike the movie’s depiction of a 22-year-old man who joined the circus, Barnum actually recruited Stratton (who was a distant cousin of the showman) when he was just a child. Although he was only 4, Barnum promoted him as an 11-year-old entertainer from Europe who was the smallest man alive. Stratton performed throughout his life until he died at age 45.
Barnum And The Slave
One of P. T. Barnum’s original acts was a woman named Joice Heth. The showman promoted her as a 161-year-old woman who had been George Washington’s family slave and his nurse when the first president was an infant. In fact, Heth was likely in her 70s. She was also blind and nearly paralyzed. At that time, slavery had been outlawed in New York. However, Barnum found a loophole that allowed him to lease Heth, who was still legally enslaved to a slaveholder in Kentucky, for a year for $1,000. Although the “act” helped launch Barnum’s career, there was no mention of Heth in the film. It is notable that Barnum went on to fight for freedom for slaves.
Testing The Brooklyn Bridge
Although Jackman’s character showed up on the back of an elephant for his daughter’s ballet recital, the actor, in fact, rode a mechanical device, which was replaced by a computer-generated elephant in post-production. Animals played a significant role in Barnum’s shows, though, and his 6-ton African elephant named “Jumbo” became a major draw. Jumbo was part of a caravan of elephants and camels that Barnum paraded over the Brooklyn Bridge only a year after it opened to help prove it was structurally sound. Sadly, Jumbo was accidentally struck and killed by a freight train during a performance.
The film portrayed a set of Asian conjoined twins who are also based on real-life performers in Barnum’s circus. Chang and Eng Bunker were conjoined twins born in 1811 in modern-day Thailand, which was then known as Siam. This is where the phrase “Siamese Twins” originated. After coming to America in 1829, they toured the nation and had some encounters with Barnum, although they largely managed their own careers. They eventually settled on a farm in North Carolina and married two sisters.
Born in the Netherlands and trained in Australia, Shannon Holtzapffel is the dancer and actor who portrayed Captain Constentenus, The Tattooed Man in the film. In real life, Holtzapffel doesn’t have a single tattoo on his body. The actual Constentenus was tattooed from head to toe, so Holtzapffel’s role called for a great deal of preparation.
“My tattoos were applied to my face every shoot day,” he told Dance Informa, “and we knocked my preparation down to around two-and-a-half hours consistently. I had to have semi-permanent tattoos on my neck and hands, which were reapplied every two weeks. This dedication saved, what would have been, another two hours in the chair. I lived with these tattoos for around four months! Method acting, anyone? My torso and limbs were a specially made two-piece mesh suit.”
The outfits worn by the varied cast were inspired both by authentic nineteenth-century circus costumes and by modern couture designers. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, who has won numerous awards for her designs in film and television, wanted to present a wardrobe that was fantastical, romantic and fashion-forward. She turned to a jewel-toned color palette and loads of Swarovski crystals.
“I love the light that they create,” Mirojnick told WWD. “Anytime I can use crystal, I just lunge, truthfully. I am really a crystal freak. I love it because it sparkles, it creates light, it lifts everything — the mood, your face looks better, everything looks better with sparkles on it.”
Barnum Was A Teetotaler
The film portrayed the showman as a drinking man, sharing champagne toasts and downing shots of whiskey. In fact, P.T. Barnum did not imbibe alcohol. The teetotaler was a prohibition advocate. He gave up drinking after hearing a lecture as a young man and spoke regularly about the evils of alcohol. He forbade drinking in his American Museum, although there are reports that his elephant, Jumbo, was a fan of beer and could drink an entire keg in one sitting.
Skin Cancer Surgery
Jackman experienced a bit of a health scare while performing the role of P.T. Barnum. After his wife urged him to have a growth on his nose checked out, he discovered he had a common type of skin cancer called basal cell carcinoma. He has since had numerous surgical procedures. Following one of these, his surgeon urged him not to sing until he was fully healed. He had 80 stitches in his nose when he opted to perform “From Now On” alongside the cast during a read-through. He had to be restitched following the performance.
James Anthony Bailey
Although Barnum and Bailey have become synonymous with the circus, James A. Bailey’s name was not mentioned in the movie. Bailey traveled with another circus as a boy and partnered with the Great International Circus in 1872. Initially, Bailey’s circus was Barnum’s primary competition. However, the two decided to merge in 1881. The combined show quickly became the most successful of its kind throughout the United States, thanks to the pairing of Barnum’s promotional abilities and Bailey’s astute managerial talents.
Greatest Show’s Last Hurrah
In 1907, the Ringling Brothers, who operated another circus, purchased the Barnum and Bailey show. They ran the two circuses separately until 1919 and then combined them into one large circus. A company called Feld Entertainment bought the show in 1967. From its humble beginnings in 1871 as P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome until 2017, the circus performed across the country. Its final performance was on May 21, 2017 in Uniondale, New York.
Barnum In Politics
Another aspect of Barnum’s life that was not delved into in the film was politics. The showman’s first foray into the political arena was in 1865 when he won a seat as a Republican in the Connecticut General Assembly. After two terms, he ran for Congress but lost to a distant relative also named Barnum. In 1875, he was elected as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. As mayor for only a year, he commissioned new street lighting, supported local African Americans gaining entry into trade unions, enforced liquor laws and worked to improve the local water supply.
P.T. and Charity Barnum had been married for 44 years when she passed away from heart failure following years of chronic illness. Barnum was in Germany when his wife died, and his grief prompted him to remain in Europe. Traveling to England to spend time with his old friend, John Fish, he began to spend time with Fish’s daughter, Nancy. Only a few months later, 63-year-old Barnum married the 22-year-old woman. Barnum suffered a stroke in 1890. On April 7, 1891, Phineas Taylor Barnum died in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where his memory is honored with a statue.