Comedy Oddities: Barnum

barnum index2017’s The Greatest Showman saw Hugh Jackman reap acclaim as he took on the role of P.T. Barnum, but it wasn’t the first musical based on the man’s life as back in the eighties Michael Crawford starred as the famous circus owner and charlatan. Both are guilty of portraying the man in far too flattering a light though, given that he was sometimes quite the shit and made some very poor decisions.

After a brief introduction to Barnum and his wife Charity (Eileen Battye), who stands by Barnum despite him being a cheating bastard, we’re introduced to the first act Barnum promoted, Joice Heth (Sharon Benson) who claimed to be one hundred and sixty and George Washington’s nurse. His forcing her to sing and dance in an energetic manner is played for laughs when it really shouldn’t be given that in real life Barnum bought her in a time when slavery was all but outlawed and then forced her for 10 to 12 hours a day, and it also doesn’t cover her death and how Barnum charged people to witness her autopsy, as this has little interest in being truthful.

The next hour or so is a mixture of Barnum and his wife quarrelling before she ultimately supports him and Barnum introducing his various acts to the stage, all the time ignoring those he either hoaxed or exploited. Some of the songs are vaguely catchy but nearly all of them are far too repetitious, and the London audience this was filmed in front of were easily pleased by some pretty basic displays of circus based silliness. Even when Barnum cheats on Charity with opera singer Jenny Lind the production refuses to see him in a negative light, to the extent that it starts to become hard to like Barnum, especially during one song where he tries to claim his life had been dull and colourless before the affair, and once again the musical ignores the fact that in real life Lind split with Barnum and claims the opposite occurred.

Barnum building a town which fell apart is joked about in a vaguely amusing manner but then Charity’s death sees him sulking once more, and when his political plans don’t pan out in the way he wished he whines far too much, yet again making the lead character rather irritating. A song about “The King Of Hogwash” is fun at least as it knowingly mocks the fact that Barnum was good at lying to people, but it comes a little late, and the musical ignores the fact that Barnum remarried less than a year after his wife’s death to a woman who was forty years younger than him.

There are so many other things which happened in his life that it feels weird that a number of events are ignored and duller moments included instead, and though Crawford’s great in the lead role, and has a decent voice as he leaps all over the stage with a mischievous glint in his eyes, the script makes it hard to be fond of the character. Blandness is the production’s biggest issue as it’s too concerned with painting him in a very flattering light, and with only a couple of decent songs it is very easy to understand why The Greatest Showman was made, and while that is equally as guilty when it comes to only highlighting Barnum’s good side it is at least a much more entertaining ride.


Alex Finch.
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