THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
About The Production (Continued)
LOVE IN THE AIR: THE PROTEGE AND THE AERIALIST
Though much of The Greatest Showman is drawn from the outlines of P.T. Barnum's
life, two fictional characters bring in fresh points of view: Zac Efron's
Phillip Carlyle, the sophisticated man of the theatre who quits his upper-crust
life to join the circus - and becomes Barnum's ringmaster protege; and Zendaya's
Anne Wheeler, the daring, taboo-breaking, pink-haired aerialist for whom Carlyle
falls headlong. Says songwriter Justin Paul: "Zac and Zendaya are a dynamo pair
for the ages. Zendaya is so powerful as a young woman and has such an amazing
work ethic. And Zac has that movie star quality that only certain people on this
earth have, but he's also just super-fun and has an outstanding voice."
Efron is no stranger to musicals, having come to the fore in the High School
Musical series and in the feature film version of Hairspray. But he is best
known as one of the fastest-rising screen stars of his youthful generation, most
recently seen opposite The Rock in the Baywatch reboot. Efron was instantly
attracted to The Greatest Showman as "a merging of worlds." He explains: "I love
that even though the story is set in the 1870s, there's a real modern
sensibility and it's about issues that mean a lot to us today. I thought the
script was incredibly creative and done in a way I've never seen before."
Carlyle also intrigued him. "Phillip Carlyle is someone who has grown up very
privileged, but he's not happy where he's at and he feels very sort of caged in
and jaded," Efron explains. "I think he's lost sight of who he is inside his
success, and he's searching for something more. Then he meets Barnum and he sees
that P.T. just doesn't care what people think. He doesn't follow the rules
society has set and he celebrates that same spirit in his shows. It's liberating
for Phillip and the beginning of a great friendship."
Michael Gracey was gratified by Efron's devotion to the project. "Zac came onto
this film very early and was a huge supporter of the film. He knew exactly who
Phillip is and how he wanted to play him. And it was amazing to give him the
chance to put back on his dancing shoes and sing for audiences. People don't
realize that his voice is so incredible. In the recording studio, he blew
everyone away. But most of all what Zac brought is a genuine rapport with Hugh.
They really clicked and they had that true element of friendship and the
mentor-student relationship. They pushed each other to their best."
For Efron, Carlyle's first experience in Barnum's circus is one of a man having
the haze lifted from his eyes. "There's just this burst of life that he's never
experienced. It's like he's opened a door and he's seeing the world with all of
its true colors for the first time. It's a real epiphany for him," he describes.
It becomes more than an epiphany when his eyes meet those of aerialist Anne
Wheeler; it becomes a romantic longing beyond words and outside the bounds of
the era's prejudices and injustices. Some of the most luminescent stars of
Barnum's shows were the trapeze artists - whose literally high-flying lives
sparked many to dream of pushing limits. In Wheeler, Carlyle sees someone brave
and thrilling, but the fact that she is African-American puts their love in a
prohibited zone at the very start.
Says Efron: "Although Phillip's feelings for Anne are completely real and
justified, they're also forbidden by society at that time and it's really sad.
That was a very different time -- though even today, social boundaries and
differences go on preventing love and preventing people from uniting with one
another. The big breakthrough for Phillip, I think, is that moment he realizes
that you don't have to live within the constraints that everyone else has drawn.
You don't have to follow rules that are wrong. You don't have to color inside
the lines. You can be your own person."
The character gave Efron the chance to get caught up in the kind of cinematic
moment that most inspires him. "Falling in love in a musical number on camera is
one of my absolute favorite things to do in the world," he confesses. "I'm not
ashamed to say it. I know it's pretend but when you get to live in that kind of
moment for a scene or two, it feels amazing. It brings you back to Gene Kelly
and Singin' In The Rain. Are there any better ways to express true love than in
Playing opposite Efron as Anne Wheeler is another fast-ascending young star:
Zendaya, the singer and actress most recently seen as Michelle Jones in
Spider-man: Homecoming. Zendaya knew right away the role was for her -
especially because Anne is a natural leader of the so-called Oddities." "To me,
Anne is very confident, very poised and very comfortable in her own skin, at
least when it comes to being in the circus. I think that's what the circus does
for all the Oddities. It allows them a place where they can believe in
themselves, where they can experience respect and love and have a safe space to
be who they are."
She too was drawn to the love story, especially because it was honest about the
obstacles inter-racial lovers faced for so long in America. "It's tragic that
Anne and Phillip's can't love each other in the way they long to literally due
to the color of their skin," Zendaya says. "At the time, it would have been
dangerous, so most of what they can do is just exchange looks. For Anne, it's
especially hard because she's dealt with racism all her life and now she's
slowly falling in love with the exact kind of person she always thought hated
her. But love is not something you control. Love just happens to you."
Zendaya dove into training, spending months working with professional
aerialists, gaining upper body and core strength and taming fear. "My body has
been through a lot, and I've had lots of bruises and soreness to show for it,"
she laughs, "but it's been so worth it, especially seeing Michael's vision come
to life. I never in my entire life thought that I would be flying around in the
air but I'm very proud of myself, because I tried my best and came way out of my
comfort zone. Now, I'm no longer afraid of heights!
Naturally, Zendaya looked forward to the singing and dancing, one of her life's
own great passions. She especially loved working with Keala Settle in the song
"This Is Me." "I know there are young women and young men out there who need to
hear that message - to hear that even if I'm bruised, I can be brave and I'm who
I'm meant to be. I found the words really cool," she says.
Though Efron has some movie musical chops, he notes that the dancing he and
Zendaya do on The Greatest Showman was on another level. "This was some of the
most technical choreography I've ever attempted in my entire life," he
confesses. "To prepare for it, I watched a lot of musicals. I watched Fred
Astaire, Gene Kelly, even Michael Jackson because of the way he always told a
story with his dancing. And then we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed -- and
then we rehearsed more!"
His favorite number is their star-crossed duet, "Rewrite the Stars." "It's not
your typical choreography and we do some pretty crazy acrobatics. Zendaya was
remarkably skilled at trapeze by this point and we were doing aerial stunts,
swinging around the room, not even using harnesses. Luckily, nothing went wrong
- and it turned out to be really beautiful and unique. I think of it as being
Cirque du Soleil meets Shakespeare in a way."
For Hugh Jackman, Zendaya was a thrilling addition to the cast. "She's a true
star, but also a true hard worker," he describes. "When she dances, even though
she's with twenty of the best dancers in the world, your eye goes straight to
her, and when she sings it is something so pure. When I did my sessions with
her, Benj and Justin would tell me 'try it this way,' but with Zendaya, they
just let her go."
The love story between Phillip and Anne also involves a 3rd party - Anne's
brother and aerial partner, W.D. Wheeler, portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen, II
(forthcoming Aquaman, The Get Down).
Abdul-Mateen was attracted to the story's themes. "To me, it's a story about
people in love with the possibility of being the most that they can be," he
says. "My character W.D. sees the circus as his chance to come alive and to
share his gift with the world, along with his sister."
Abdul-Mateen found a rich rapport with Zendaya. "W.D. and Anne are family and
they have only each other, so protection is a big theme between us," he
explains. "As trapeze artists, they have to trust one another and as brother and
sister, they always stick together."
When P.T. Barnum starts his American Museum, he goes in search of a cast of
characters who might inspire awe and astonishment and put museumgoers in mind of
fairy tale stories and myths. The Greatest Showman reveals this unusual group of
performers not as strange monsters but as unseen wonders, for the depths of
their humanity and the triumph of their self-expression. They include: Lettie
Lutz The Bearded Lady, Lentini the Three-Legged Man, General Tom Thumb, The Lord
of Leeds, Dog Boy, the conjoined twins Chang and Eng and the Albino Dancers.
Though the existence of such performers was not without major moral
controversies and ethical misgivings, Michael Gracey saw their stories as being
more complex and their experience worthy of exploration. Early on, Gracey took
all the actors portraying the Oddities aside and told them: "You are the heart
of the show. You should recognize this show is circled around who you are and
what you represent."
Recalls Keala Settle, who takes the role of Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Woman: "We
all kind of sat back and looked at each other, and it made me just swell with
pride and a lot of joy because it was giving us all a chance to step out, just
as P.T. Barnum gives people a chance in the film."
Settle is a Hawaii-born Maori singer and actor who took Broadway by storm in
"Hands on a Hardbody," for which she garnered a Tony nomination. She saw the
role of the anachronistic Bearded Lady as one that could speak to greater
acceptance in today's world. "Lettie Lutz is representative of several women who
become a part of P.T Barnum's traveling circus because of the rarity of their
physical disorders - which you see them turn into a beautiful thing that you can
celebrate. The story shows Barnum's world as a way for someone like Lettie to
find a home."
Though the idea of what constitutes an "Oddity" changes from era to era, Settle
notes that intolerance and self-belief remain battles in 2017. "It's the human
condition," she observes. "We're always striving to be a more enlightened
version of ourselves, so we don't always accept who we are in all of our
imperfections. What's beautiful to me is that this film celebrates how different
each of us is meant to be and the idea that whoever you are or whatever you look
like, you are created full of potential."
Still, when Gracey asked Settle to sing solo for "This is Me," she says it took
a bottle of Jameson to get her to agree to be so vulnerable and open. The words
struck a close nerve. "The song is very hard for me to get through," she
confesses, "because there are so many times that I don't believe it myself. I
had to kind of pull out away from it at times, and just think of the character
so that later I could see what I need to learn personally from that. There is a
strength that this character has that I don't have yet. But I also saw the
opportunity bring a soft side to her because that's who I am and I'm grateful
for that. 'This is Me' means so much to me as a song because it's about
something I fight every day."
Says Zac Efron: "Every single time I watched Keala perform, I was just
awestruck. She gives it her all every time and it's coming from somewhere
inside. Like she's no longer afraid of who she is and I hope that this movie
gets people excited about that. Her performance is inspiring and its badass."
Concludes Jackman: "Keala Settle is so astonishing that I don't think anyone can
ever sing that song again, because she owns it. It's a beautiful song that is
about owning who you really are with your head held high and it seems to
resonate with everyone who hears it."
BEYOND PERIOD: PHOTOGRAPHY AND DESIGN
As with the songs for The Greatest Showman, the design aesthetic hybridizes the
vintage and the new - hurtling the 19th century of P.T. Barnum into the future
we now live inside. Along with a team of dedicated artisans - including
cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Nathan Crowley and costume
designer Ellen Mirojnick - Michael Gracey established a look that is not
grounded in any particular era. Rather, it is grounded in the power of the
imagination of every era, bridging the gap between Barnum's times and our own.
His process kicked off with literally painting most of the film. Gracey
explains: "There's an incredible artist called Joel Chang who I work with on
everything I do. What he creates is much looser than a storyboard, yet it gives
a more cinematic view. Joel and I went through the entire film and he did a
painting for every single shot. Those pictures then became the starting point of
the work with Seamus and Nathan. It was a wonderful way to show them visually
everything that was in my head."
In a sign of more enlightened times, Gracey had another bottom-line in bringing
the 19th Century circus world to life: to capture all the pageantry and
showmanship that Barnum conjured without using any of the live animals that were
then exploited for entertainment. The VFX innovators at Culver City's Moving
Picture Company (MPC) created the majesty of the animals from the digital ether.
"It was really important to me to not have any live-action animals in this
film," says Gracey. "MPC did an incredible job making you believe in our animals
without any concerns about cruelty."
Seamus McGarvey, known especially for his transporting and award-winning work on
Atonement and Anna Karenina, loved the film's beyond-period approach. "What
Michael wanted is a vivid, contemporary vibe," he describes. "We all agreed it
should feel very relevant to the here and now - and we had great fun with that
idea, consciously using camera movements and colors you never see in period
films. We worked with digital cameras and a very modern, saturated palette.
There's also a humor in the design that gives it a twist -- it constantly defies
any notions of a stuffy period film."
Things got even more exciting when Gracey started showing McGarvey the
choreography. McGarvey knew he wanted to break away from the expected
movie-musical conventions, and to make the camera more kinetic, fluid and
inside-the-moves than usual. "The choreography is extraordinary and it is by no
means faithful to period dance of that time. It's absolutely modern so that was
my inspiration for moving the camera. I've loved the experimentation that the
choreography has afforded," he says.
Gracey and McGarvey even rehearsed the camera moves - all so that full
spontaneity could break out when the cameras were rolling for real. "The
extended rehearsal process gave us the time to try a lot of different ideas,"
says Gracey. "In that space, we could just purely be creative. Then, at
nighttime what we would go through that footage, get a few hours sleep and
return again, having learned a lot."
Shooting "A Million Dreams," the pressure was on. "We really wanted to open the
film saying to the audience, 'You're in for a show here. You're in for something
special,'" says McGarvey. He followed his instincts into playing with shadows,
the natural phenomenon that begat photography. "To show Barnum's childhood
imagination, we focus on his love of conjuring images out of nothing, out of a
candle casting a shadow across a wall, which is really the essence of all
entertainment," he observes.
Another favorite for McGarvey is "Come Alive." "This number transforms into
faster and faster movement, so we used a Steadicam that literally bursts in
through doors," he explains. "It's an uplifting, shout-it-out-loud song, and our
camera operator, Maceo Bishop, moved like a dancer with his Steadicam."
For shooting inside Barnum's American Museum, McGarvey utilized cranes. "We used
a 50-foot techno-crane, which can extend out quite quickly and retract back,
affording us the most dynamic shots. The camera is able to kind of envelop all
the dancers and it's very powerful emotionally on screen. It gives us height
when we want it, and allows us to plunge from high to low," he explains.
The buoyant feeling and aerial work of "Rewrite the Stars" put McGarvey in mind
of a Chagall painting. "I was thinking of Chagall's images of floating lovers,
so in love that they are seemingly filled with helium and weightless," he says.
"We also created a wonderful effect where Phillip and Anne are spinning around
on the trapeze and the camera is in the center of the ring spinning with them,
resulting in this lovely blur behind them. You have the feeling of the two of
them lost in their own connectedness."
Throughout the shoot, says McGarvey, Gracey kept telling him to "be brave, to be
dramatic and bold in the lighting." "His encouragement led to us always trying
different things we might never have otherwise tried," he explains.
To create maximum flexibility, McGarvey worked with multiple 65 mm digital
cameras, using the latest large sensors. "These sensors are a new development
and the images are extraordinary, not only for wider, epic shots, which now have
incredible detail and vivacity in the shadows, but also for close-ups, which we
could shoot in a way that reminds me of medium-format portraiture," he
describes. "The extreme wide shots let you witness the dancing in all its glory.
And then the close ups are really emotional. We also play with depth of field,
and with filtration by using this filter I call Glimmerglass. Digital can look
very sharp, but that is not what we wanted with this film. We wanted points of
light to kind of bloom and give it a romantic edge, almost like a varnish."
The design work of Nathan Crowley brought McGarvey into the intricate mechanics
of shooting detailed miniatures turned into a large-scale New York City. "The
film is set in the world of the imagination, so the miniatures fit with that
idea and it's also a part of embracing theatrical elements, another key to the
look of our movie," says McGarvey. Adds Gracey: "Miniatures are kind of a dying
art, but they're some of my most favorite shots in the film."
With all the complexity of the shots, both vast and intimate, much of the film
was pre-visualized. Yet even with massive amounts of prep, McGarvey says it was
vital to be open at every moment to random accidents. "If you are open to
accidents, sometimes great inspiration comes out of them," he says. "Even
unintentional blurs can create an unexpected dynamism. And that's the wonderful
thing about cinema - right through the editing and post-production you are
finding the best way to tell the story."
Production designer Crowley, Oscar-nominated for his otherworldly work on The
Prestige, The Dark Knight and Interstellar, also pushed his edges. Though known
for his innovative work with director Christopher Nolan (most recently on
Dunkirk), Crowley has never designed a musical. But he could not resist the
subject matter of The Greatest Showman. "The chance to create a large world
around the birth of the circus and the birth of what will become show business
was something phenomenal," Crowley says.
Right away, he leapt out into a hybrid Steampunk-modern-fantasy-pop-show vibe
that emphasizes the futuristic innovations of the 19th Century, from Tesla's
experiments with electricity to newfangled elevated trains. "I was interested in
the great emphasis on futurism at the time, with the big glass houses in New
York, London and Paris - and all the new societal possibilities being explored
through technology and the arrival of mass electricity," says Crowley. "Although
Barnum's museum actually opened pre Civil War, in our fictional musical we
pushed it just a bit into the Industrial Age, so that you have steam and gas and
electricity and you can really feel that spirit of rapidly changing times not
unlike our own."
Crowley envisioned a look that would not be nostalgic but instead re-animate the
past, to make it fully alive in 2017 as if via a time machine. "One of the early
things we discussed with Michael is the film looking like hand-tinted
photographs with a sort of surreal feel to it. We talked about then losing the
depth of field so that the color was vibrant and stylized."
He got his first chance to go out on a creative limb with "A Million Dreams,"
using 3-D printers in unforeseen ways. "The heart of that song is an abandoned
mansion that becomes its own fantastical, childhood world," Crowley explains.
"Since we created the ruined mansion practically, we had to come up with a way
of projecting surreal shadows across the set. So we turned to the 3-D printers
to make objects that can project a hand-painted animated image when you move a
light across them. The work on that sequence was almost sculptural, which made
it very, very interesting for me."
Gracey loved watching the design team merge cutting-edge and old-school
techniques for "A Million Dreams." He recalls: "For the rooftop scene, Joel
Chang painted a wonderful 360-degree backdrop and then Nathan and his incredible
team of scenic artists figured out how to lay out the enormous canvas. It was
exciting as painters don't usually get to create backdrops of this scale
"A lot of it was remembering how creatively things used to be done," continues
Crowley. "We were punching holes for windows and using ink so we could get a
backlit sky and lighting a giant moon from the backing. I think it adds a rich
romanticism to the whole scene."
That number also incorporates the striking, meticulously crafted miniature of
New York City. "The camera has to skim over 1800s New York with the Hudson River
in the background to Barnum's rooftop and we knew from the beginning we wanted
to do it with a miniature," Crowley explains. "I've been using 3-D printers for
a few years now and I find them super-exciting so we thought we'd just go for
it. We ran 8 printers around the clock to create about 500 New York buildings
and then we hand-painted each of them. It was very laborious but it was also
great fun to be able to control that shot so intricately."
The coup de grace for Crowley was the re-creation of Barnum's museum of wonders,
stuffed to the gills with taxidermy, wax figures, dioramas and live exhibits.
Located at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street (where a Zara store now
stands), the original museum featured a "natural history" display on the bottom
level, with a theater on top. To bring it back to life in a new way, Crowley and
his team built an extensive set in Brooklyn at Capsys, an old brick factory, now
owned by Steiner Studios. The scale of the building and the surrounding studios
served as a kind of updated version of the massive Hollywood backlot for the
design team. "The way Nathan used and transformed that entire space is so
clever," says Gracey. "Like Barnum, Nathan can picture beyond what a place is to
see the world it can be."
For Crowley the Capsys building could not have been more serendipitous. "It
allowed us to build a double height space," he notes. "I didn't want to have to
shrink the set so we took the red brick of the building and added a sort of
Victorian steel structure to it with a balcony that allowed us to put in
trapezes, high-wires and cameras without replacing the whole ceiling. On a
typical soundstage, we could not have looked up into the ceiling with the camera
as we do."
Crowley designed three increasingly dynamic phases of the museum set. Phase one
is the static museum filled with immobile displays. But phase two and three
bring in more live acts and circus performers who emerge from a majestic,
painted proscenium. The building also becomes home to the performers so that
when the museum catches fire (which happened in real life), it is devastating.
It is not only the loss of the performers' livelihoods, it also endangers their
More creative touches came on the number "Rewrite The Stars." "For that song, we
ended up doing a scenic moon on the floor using different-colored sand," Crowley
explains. "Rather than use paint, we painted with sand. And that was also
something I've never done before."
The film's climax sees Barnum's invention of the "big tent circus" (which was
erected in the Marcy Armory in Brooklyn) but Crowley hints at the coming arrival
of the tent earlier. "There are some clues of the tent in the museum set," the
production designer points out. "You start to see that classic, red-and-gold
motif as banners and rings come into this Victorian space. You start to see it
all coming together as you transition from what was a museum to the live
excitement of the canvas-top."
Among the dozens of historic locations utilized by the film are the Woolworth
mansion in Glen Cove, Long Island; Cedar Oak Beach in Babylon, Long Island; the
Prospect Park boathouse; the Brooklyn Academy of Music where Rebecca Ferguson
took the stage as Jenny Lind; the Tweed Courthouse; the Old Westbury Gardens on
Long Island; the Marshall Field Estate in Lloyd Harbor, NY and the James Duke
house on East 78th Street (now part of New York University).
The chance to shoot in New York lends the film something inimitable says Gracey.
"New York has a live-wire creative energy you can't imitate. And of course,
there's an incredible attraction to New York City for artists and so you have an
incredible pool of artists to draw on. Most of all, the locations were such
fertile ground for our cast and crew. New York has the spectacle Barnum loved."
Indeed, the opportunity to shoot the film in the city where Barnum originally
turned his imaginings into a world-altering reality had a galvanizing impact on
cast and crew. "I think it helped make the impossible feel possible," sums up
Gracey. "It was such an inspiration to be able to shoot in buildings that were
part of the city when Barnum was making his mark in it."
EMOTION AND HIGH FASHION: THE COSTUMES
Just as the production design team was liberated from period conventions, so too
was costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, an Emmy winner for Behind the Candelabra,
who says the costumes for The Greatest Showman were the creative challenge of a
lifetime. "We took a more fantastical approach with a look that is more like a
fashion spread," she says. "The goal was to put the audience in a fantastic mood
of romance and joy rather than aim at cold, historical accuracy. We not only
created a hybrid of time periods and looks, we actually tried to create another
Mirojnick, known for exploring the borders where art, fashion and film cross,
thrilled Michael Gracey with her outside-the-box designs. "Ellen worked
tirelessly to create a wardrobe that has elements that are sometimes
contemporary, sometimes period, sometimes high fashion and always colorful in a
way that can go beyond the world of the 1800s to excite modern audiences," says
There was not much prep time but Mirojnick relied on an army of talented
craftspeople who worked at top speed. Nearly all the clothes were hand-made for
the film (with a handful of purchased pieces, which were taken apart and
reimagined). "We created our own little 'miracle factory,'" says Mirojnick. "We
put together a really good team of shoppers, stitchers, cutters and tailors who
made our dreams come true. The motto for all of us was to keep taking risks and
try absolutely everything."
The first big test for Mirojnick was P.T. Barnum himself. "I love to design
men's clothes more than I love anything else in the entire world," admits
Mirojnick. "So to create a silhouette for Hugh as Barnum was a deep pleasure,
especially because he can carry everything and anything. He can just put
something on and become the character in ways beyond what you imagined."
Barnum's silk and wool ringmaster look, replete with a deep red jacket, was cut
and tailored to Jackman's torso by master tailor D. Barak Stribling. Says
Mirojnick: "It's not the typical squared-off ringmaster look. It's more the
shape of a coat that wraps around Hugh's body, accentuating his legs and dance
movements." As Barnum gains success, Mirojnick gave him a more dandy-ish,
peacock look, exemplified by the green-and-purple, windowpane-pattern suit he
dons when he meets Queen Victoria. The fabrics were actually all sourced from
current British menswear. "These are fabrics you could buy right now on Oxford
Street," Mirojnick notes. Mirojnick also created a blue velvet suit for the
ending of the film - its lush color chosen to compliment Jackman's eyes in the
most romantic of ways.
All the film's men were given body-conscious jackets, high-waisted, slim-legged
pants, closely cropped vests and tailored English shirts. "If it looks great,
it's right, was the only rule," says Mirojnick.
Zac Efron was another joy for the team to dress. "He has a graceful, dancer's
body," observes New York costume designer Patrick Wiley, "like Nureyev." When
Barnum passes the torch to Phillip, Efron sports an outfit that includes a green
velvet jacket, two different plaids, a white shirt and a red tie -- a look that
suggests carving out a freer future beyond the staid Victorian past.
Charity Barnum's look evokes classic romance in hues of lavender, pink and blush
- and features a silhouette that is a mash-up of styles from the turn of the
century to the 30s to 2017. A favorite for Mirojnick is Charity's dress for the
"Tightrope" number, which glows on screen with its crystal-pleated, powder-blue
chiffon. "It's an iconic look that could be Ginger Rogers or it could be in Dr.
Zhivago or any of those romantic solitaire moments of a lonely lady finding love
and beauty again," she says.
Diverging from Charity is Jenny Lind, whose style reflects both the liberating
grandness of the new world of mass entertainment and the timelessness of a
worldwide icon. "We felt Jenny Lind had to be highly dramatic. So with some
creative license, we pushed her limits to show how different she was from
Charity," explains Mirojnick. "They are two very attractive women, but they are
contrasts in drama and softness. Jenny's clothes are all very strong and
structured. There's not anything soft about her."
Lind's performance dresses echo the sophisticated lines of the House of Dior's
iconic mid Century New Look - which brought the hourglass shape to flowing
heights - mixed with dashes of the Golden Age of Hollywood. "When Rebecca sang
'Never Enough,' and I saw how Seamus lit that dress, I almost fell over. I could
not believe how gorgeous she was," recalls Mirojnick "That particular dress is a
combination of both couture and a couple of pieces found in the back room of a
Each dress was custom-fitted to Ferguson. "Everything was designed to reflect
Rebecca's beauty, the paleness of her skin, the redness of her hair. She just
wowed us," says Mirojnick. Ferguson was equally wowed by the work of the team.
Says Ferguson: "The costumes that Ellen created could be on the cover of Elle or
Vogue next month, they are that fashionable."
The costuming team was able to really let go with Anne Wheeler, the aerialist
whose outfits mirror whimsy, youth and defiant freedom. Her signature colors are
turquoise, purple, silver and gold -- a theatrical look that goes to the edge of
creativity without becoming garish. "We found that purple was a great color for
both Zendaya and for Yahya as W.D. They're a matched set, which is something
trapeze families have often done through history," Mirojnick notes. "That color
also suits flight. Michael then had the idea to add a fluid, lavender fabric
behind Zendaya to make her even more visually exciting."
Zendaya's dress for "Rewrite the Stars" has a vintage lingerie influence,
featuring a silk camisole and red briefs trimmed with lace and period buttons.
"It's purposely very difficult to place these outfits in any single period of
time. Instead, we hope one gets swept up in the emotion, the music and the life
of the characters so that you are transported to a kind of alternate world,"
says Mirojnick. "There's a fun innocence to Anne's rehearsal dress in that
number - it's both a nod to the past and to our present."
The costumes had that transformational effect on Zendaya. She says: "The
costumes are super creative and detail-oriented, but they also are an
inspiration for us to better understand our characters."
For Keala Settle's Lettie Lutz, Mirojnick looked to John Galliano's 21st Century
take on Dior's New Look: "Galliano inspired us because he did his own crazy spin
on the New Look and there is a rhythm to his clothes that is just really
luscious and inspiring." She adds: "Working with Keala was amazing because she
would stand in her fittings and cry because she couldn't believe that she'd ever
have anything custom-made for her, something that would express her in this way.
It was a totally new experience for her and it was great to see Keala and Lettie
Lutz brought together."
Adding more details to the characters is the work of makeup and hair heads Nicki
Ledermann and Jerry Popolis, respectively. They worked closely with Mirojnick
and Gracey, putting deep thought into every character, especially the Oddities.
"We wanted audiences to see their humanity and not get too distracted by any
prosthetic makeup. The creative challenge was to emphasis how human they are,"
explains Ledermann. Adds Popolis: "We really wanted everyone to look beautiful.
The Oddities aren't scary; they're gorgeous creatures."
For Gracey, it was a marvel to see his cast suddenly transform after the months
of rehearsal. "We'd been working with these sweaty people for months and
suddenly they looked like a million dollars," he laughs. "The wardrobe, the hair
and the makeup were all so classy and so right. I felt that each person could
look in the mirror at their look and know exactly who their character is."
CHOREOGRAPHING A MODERN CIRCUS: ASHLEY WALLEN
The of-the-moment energy of Pasek and Paul's songs in turn inspired the
show-stopping choreography of Ashley Wallen, who brought his own modern,
rhythmic take on Barnum's world. An Australian best known for his work with a
variety of rock and pop performers, Wallen has worked with Michael Gracey before
on commercials and videos. Now he relished the chance to up his game.
"This is the best work that Ashley's ever done," says Gracey. "He was so
inventive and his work brings our characters to life in a way that it isn't only
about cool dance steps. He has helped each of the characters express themselves
uniquely, with a different style of dance for Hugh, Zendaya, Zac and everyone.
He also really plays to people's strengths. He knows how to empower people in
their movements. He makes people feel so confident that they do the best dancing
they've ever done in their lives. It was fun to see every cast member be awed by
what they achieved."
Says Pasek of what Wallen brings: "Ashley's choreography is kind of like New
York City in that it pulses. It's kinetic and a little bit gritty and has a kind
muscular sensibility, but it also comes from a clear place of character and it
just feels very, very alive."
Hugh Jackman believes Barnum himself would have approved of the bravado of the
choreography "Barnum would definitely want the music and dance in any film
involving him to be cutting edge. That was his motivation in everything.
Everything has to evolve and change. Ash's stuff brings that quality of
something fresh and new, and you just haven't seen anything like this."
Jackman also notes that Wallen pushed him to new places. "Choreographers can be
very kind, but when you get in the room to rehearse, there's something kind of
sadistic about them, and they really love to punish you," he laughs." I did
things, dance wise here, that I've never done before. I like to work hard, but I
did wish my legs were twenty years younger. I kept saying, 'Ash, I'm not sure if
I can get there." And Ash would just say 'You'll get there.' So I worked really
hard but I really enjoyed it, in part because the style that he was creating was
so modern and cool."
Even Barnum's stovepipe hat became a chance to gain new skills, as Jackman
learned to expertly juggle the accessory. Says Wallen: "In 'Come Alive,' Hugh
flips the hat, catches it in one hand and lands it on his head. He's the first
person I've worked with who could accomplish that. He practices and practices
and practices. We'd see him standing in a room doing it over and over until he
had it. By the time we shot, he could do it eight times in a row, just boom,
boom, boom. I don't know how!"
"Come Alive" was especially exciting for Gracey. "We had to find a balance
between the choreography and the more dramatic beats because there's a lot going
on in this song. There's the evolution of the circus, the fear of the Oddities
for the very first time stepping out into the limelight and then the acceptance
of the audience. There's also P.T. Barnum realizing that all of these things
he's put in place are starting to work, and that he's literally created this
living dream, but also there's something missing. So, there's a lot playing out
over the course of this one number that had to be expressed."
Wallen says he approached each song as its own complete story with its own
individual style. "For example, 'A Million Dreams' is a very intimate rooftop
dance, which I saw as a throwback to Fred and Ginger musicals. On the other
hand, 'This is Me' is very, very contemporary, but 'Come Alive' is more like a
big, old-school studio number. I really wanted to give each number its own genre
For "Rewrite the Stars," Wallen worked with Circus Coordinator Mathieu Leopold.
"Mathieu coordinated the aerial stuff, while I concentrated on the ground," he
explains. "But we all worked to twine it all together. Zendaya was absolutely
amazing at the trapeze stuff. I actually had a go at what she was doing on the
hoop and I couldn't do it - and she had to sing at the same time!"
Adds Gracey: "I wanted 'Rewrite the Stars' to be a unique love song, and also
unique in terms of its movement. There's a lot of wirework and we did
occasionally use doubles but 90% of it is Zac and Zendaya. The two of them
trained so hard to make that number work. Zendaya had blisters on her hands but
you never heard her complain once. She is just hardcore."
Wallen worked closely with Michelle Williams to prepare her for her big dance
moment on the song "Tightrope." "It's a beautiful but challenging number where
she is dancing with the shadow of Barnum and we rehearsed it for 8 weeks," he
notes. "She trained intently and progressed so far. I loved watching her open up
as a dancer and I think she was shocked at how much she was able to do."
Also exciting for Wallen was working with Seamus McGarvey behind the camera.
"When you watch those old musicals the camera is pretty static but Seamus
totally made each number into huge, cinematic moments," the choreographer muses.
It all culminates in the film's climactic reprise of "The Greatest Show." "We
left our biggest dance for the end," says Wallen. "We kind of tease it at the
opening but at the end we're now in the three-ring circus and there is so much
going on I can't even begin to explain it all! It's just huge number that
incorporates all the circus acts, all the dancers, all the Oddities, the digital
animals and so much more. It's created to be a big, astounding, celebratory
The passion and effort put into the film by every single person involved, from
Hugh Jackman to the grips and gaffers, was incredibly moving for Gracey to
witness on his first feature. "We had such an incredible atmosphere on this
production," he reflects. "It was a privilege for me to be surrounded by an
entire cast and crew who were united in wanting this to be something more than
just another film. And Hugh was always leading it because he everyday he was so
passionate and so generous and so full of joy to just get to work and bring his
best, which all goes back to the story's themes."
Sums up Laurence Mark: "We all hope to have created a feast for the eyes, for
the ears and for the heart. The old Barnum & Bailey circus's time has come and
gone, but what lives on as the legacy of Barnum is that desire to spark joy and
imagination, and that's the tradition we hope to have honored."
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