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Interview: Barnum Museum Director On ‘The Greatest Showman’

Stuart Ramson
Invision for Cunard via AP
American showman P.T. Barnum in 1882, and actors Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron at the world premiere of "The Greatest Showman," a musical inspired by Barnum's life which was recently released.

P.T. Barnum is the subject of the new film, The Greatest Showman, in which he’s played by Hugh Jackman. The film follows Barnum as he opens a museum in New York City and employs a ragtag group, mostly made up of people with disabilities or unusual physical characteristics.

With musical numbers from the people who brought you La La Land, and supporting turns from Disney Channel stars Zac Efron and Zendaya, The Greatest Showman has a lot more, let’s say, colorful touches than your average biopic.

WSHU’s Davis Dunavin recently spoke with Kathleen Maher of the Barnum Museum about what the film got right about the famous promoter and what may have been a bit of Barnum-style exaggeration.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

As one of the keepers of Barnum’s legacy, you must’ve been watching this film with a critical eye.

Oh, sure!

It’s a bit of a fantasy in a lot of ways…

In so many ways. Well, you know, something to think about, what would Barnum have done if this was his opportunity, if this was his movie? And I think that 20th Century Fox and the cast really hit it out of the park.

The story is fantastical and Fox did come to the museum early on and [say] it’s not a documentary.

It’s a musical. It’s got musical numbers…

Fantastic music, fantastic dancing. I think if P.T. Barnum were in the audience next to me, he would’ve enjoyed it, he would’ve loved being portrayed by Hugh Jackman, I mean, c’mon, let’s face it.

The American Museum opens in 1842, way down in New York City. And it survives for 25 years. It is the first major attraction globally, and it’s open to everybody. It’s not just for the elite, it’s not just for the educated.

So let’s talk about the most difficult part of the movie, which is the people Barnum hired, people with disabilities like Charles Stratton, who Barnum named General Tom Thumb. Obviously we look at this in 2017 with a different lens than Barnum did. You know, he was actually quite progressive for his time, but not everybody necessarily sees it that way today.

No, because we live in a world understanding our own norms. If we’re looking back 150 years and judging people by our standards, it’s kind of unfair to the people that lived back then in a lot of different ways.

History can be a hard thing to read when you look back at how many people with disabilities or mental challenges, or whatever it might have been, were really just pushed aside and hidden away.

This was an opportunity to showcase people. People say, ‘Oh, he exploited people.’ You know what? He actually paid people really well. Charles Stratton? Truth is that they became lifelong friends, to the point where they’re actually buried across from each other at Mountain Grove Cemetery.

Barnum never referred to his performers, whoever they were, as freaks. That’s a much later term given to people…

In the movie, the people who use it, use it derogatorily.

Yeah, the people Barnum hired were marvels of nature or natural wonders. That’s what you see everywhere. You know, it was not ‘Come see a freakshow.’ It just wasn’t.

Were there any little moments in the movie that the casual viewer might not notice but the director of the Barnum Museum would notice and say, ‘Oh, that little detail. They managed to get that in.’

Yeah, there were a few of those. Actually Bennett the journalist, the antagonist in the story…

This is a snooty reporter who looks down on Barnum.

Yes, yes, that was true. True enough. There was a journalist that would always kind of drill him, push him, and one scene that he says, ‘Aren’t you ashamed of showcasing, you know, humbugs and frauds?’ and Barnum did say – and I’m sorry I don’t have the quote right – he says, ‘Those smiles are not fake. Those are real. Real smiles.’ That really lays at the heart of everything Barnum did. Just making people happy.

They compressed about 50 – 60 years of Barnum’s entire life into an hour and 45 minutes. THAT is a really tall order to do. You see that, you calculate the math in your head and you get over it, because it’s a movie.

At the end of the day, P.T. Barnum’s mantra, which we use all the time – “The noblest art is that of making others happy” – his through everything in his life is making people happy. And I think this movie is gonna make people happy. And if they want the real information, come to the museum. Call, email us, visit us, go to the website. We have an abundance of Barnum stuff.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.