“The Greatest Showman”: a musical makes us feel good about making disabled people a spectacle in a circus

The Greatest Showman”, directed by Michael Gracey with story by Jenny Bicks, is a musical that conveys the founding of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which ended operations in May 2017.

The central issue of the film is how an entrepreneur leveraged some people with disabilities and how the public reacted. The film seems to take some liberty with dates and years, as it appears to start during the Depression. In an early scene , P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is laid off from a shipping company that goes under. He comes up with the idea of opening a museum with curiosities, including “freaks”.

At first, the idea seems offensive (and to make fun of intersexual people); but when the museum works and the performers seem emotionally bonded to the company, it seems uplifting. The “bearded lady” has one of the best songs, “This is me”.  That’s what Chelsea Manning says, and I started wondering if the idea of a documentary about her would sell.

Barnum hires Philip Carlyle, played by Zac Efron, who brings back a little of Troy Bolton (“High School Musical”) but has the same kind of charisma and drive as Ruben in the previous film on this blog.  At one point Barnum refers to him as his “Apprentice”, an obvious reference to Donald Trump.

The screenplay needs a crisis, and that comes from some of the public, that sees putting “defective people” as visible in public as immoral.  One man sets the museum on fire in a riot, and Barnum loses everything, as the banks won’t continue to fund something that is a target of hostility.  Carlyle is also injured with smoke inhalation and maybe burns.

But libertarianism comes to the rescue, as the performers become part owners of what emerges, the circus that we knew for so many years. Carlyle recovers fully.

There’s a subplot with Barnum’s wife (Michelle Williams) getting lightly jealous.

The music is by John Debney, with several lyricists.  The songs give us a continuously happy lilt, which reminds me of the scores of some mashups of gay stuff on YouTube.  The score also has some classical music, especially the overture to Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”.

I can remember visiting a county fair in Vernon TX in 1984 with a “freak show”, and the performer would confront the visitors about their motives for looking.

Wiki, Barnum and Bailey Poster, 1899

I do recall seeing “The Greatest Show on Earth” as a boy.  One particularly interesting circus from my perspective is Cirque du Soleil (which I saw in Minneapolis in 2000).

The theater (One Loudoun Alamo) showed a short “Barnum” from 1943 (partly black and white) before the show.  The short showed some rather challenging tricks with tigers.

Name:  “The Greatest Showman
Director, writer:  Michael Gracey
Released:  2017/12
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Alamo Loudoun, morning show, just for me!
Length:  105  (shorter than a typical musical)
Rating:  PG
Companies:  20th Century Fox, TSG
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, January 19, 2018 at 7:45 PM EST)

ABC airs remake of “Dirty Dancing” as a musical

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 ABC aired a 3-hour (including commercials) remake by Lionsgate of the 1987 low-budget hit “Dirty Dancing”, originally directed by Emile Ardolino and released by Vestron and Artisan (which Lionsgate bought), the new version by Wayne Blair.  The remake was probably facilitated legally by Lionsgate’s ownership of some of the original materials.

The original low-budget film had been a surprise hit. The new version is set up as a musical, of sorts, with all the popular songs  (like “The Time of My Life”) played, providing some of the lilt of 80s disco music.

The plot is actually rather intricate.  The film is set in 1963 at a resort, the Sheldrake, in the Catskills (the new film was shot largely in North Carolina and Virginia, especially near Blacksburg). “Baby” (Abigail Breslin), son of a doctor (Bruce Greenwood) visits the resort and gradually falls in love with the working class dance instructor Johnny Castle (Cold Prattes).  There are tensions between Johnny and some of the other Ivy League young men at the resort (this is pre-assassination, pre-Vietnam Kennedy era). There are some racial tensions with an African American dancer. And there are a couple of long subplots involving Baby’s borrowing money from her dad for a friend Penny (Nicole Scherzinger) to have an abortion when Colt’s rival Robbie (Shane Harper) knocks Penny up; the abortion is botched (as often happened in those days, when “the abortionist” would be portrayed as a common criminal on the TV show “The D.A.’s Man”).  Later Colt gets falsely accused of petty theft.

The “dirty dancing” style is perhaps more curious in gay discos, where gradual unmasking happens. In the movie, Colt is usually attired with a completely open shirt, with only a little chest hair, rather derivative of  John Travolta in “Staying Alive” (1985).

Author Ryan Field has a gay novel from Riverdale Publishing based on the title.

Patrock Swayze had played Colt in the 1987 film.  Swayze would die after a 20-month battle with pancreatic cancer, a much more resilient survival than for most.   Jack Andraka’s book “Breakthrough” describes had a teen discovered a possible early detection test for pancreatic cancer.

I recall visiting a similar resort in the Adirondacks, at Lake Placid, as a child on a summer trip with my parents, where dinner was announced with a gong.

Name: “Dirty Dancing”
Director, writer:  Wayne Blair
Released:  2017, remake of 1987
Format:  1.85:1  TV
When and how viewed:  ABC Network 2017/5/24
Length:  150 approx
Rating:  PG-13 probably
Companies:  Lionsgate, ABC Studios
Link:  ABC

(Posted: Friday, May 25, 2017 at 3:15 PM EDT)

“Beauty and the Beast”: in the end, “smooth” is still “desirable”

Beauty and the Beast”, directed by Bill Condon, has a simple enough moral:  physical beauty may be skin deep, but real love is soul-deep.  I’ve been there before.  I heard that speech in 1978.

The film is Walt Disney Studio’s remake of the 1991 play of the setting of the Broadway play, about 1990, by Alan Menken (lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. That in turn is based on the fairy tale by Linda Woolverton.  So, we have children’s literature.

When I worked as a substitute teacher, I did an English class (10th grade) where the assignment was to write a fairy tale.  One of the boys wrote a tale starting, “Once upon a time there lived a banana”.  Imagine where that could go.

In fact, for all the artistry surrounding talking teacups and living heirlooms in a dark castle in medieval France, this sort of classic works better for me on stage, like “Wicked”.  Yes, the songs are wonderful.

As for the morality tale, the prince (Dan Stevens) gets transmuted into a beast after he turns away a homeless old hag.  He’s really worse off than “the Rich Young Ruler” in the New Testament.  In nearby towns (or maybe Paris), Belle (almost out of “Days of our Lives” in the past), played by Emma Watson, has to fend off a suitor Gaston (Luke Evans), who warns her about the fate of spinsters – they drop out of eternity.  She runs away to the castle (the climate transmutes from summer to winter without much change of altitude, just like in “The Shack”) and meets the prince, and of course falls in love with him.

So she looks beyond the obvious.  I could just pretend that she is attracted to hairy men (after all, Caucasians evolved in colder climates, where that sort of natural selection of a cis-gender manly-looking secondary sexual characteristic might be logical).  Maybe he just looks Neanderthal (and it’s possible that Europeans benefited from the best Neanderthal genes, as they took over).  Gaston will follow her, with guide Maurice (Kevin Kline), and Josh Gad will play LeFou (sounds like the name of a government teacher).  In the final scene, though, Beast changes back.  It seems that “smooth” (or “thmooth” – that is, immature) is what is “desirable”, even for men, after all.  David Skinner (author of the 1999 essay “Notes on the Hairless Man”) will celebrate in the world of conservatism.

I do recall in the early 1970s, before “My Second Coming” (Chapter 3 of my “Do Ask, Do Tell I” book) a couple of women tried to encourage me to adopt an “alternative” appearance to appeal to them — head shaving, hippy beads, body art — as if I could cover up my physical flaws and get away with it. That confounded my own idea of virtue.

Name:  “Beauty and the Beast”
Director, writer:  Bill Condon
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1  Imax, 3-D
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/3/21, afternoon, small audience
Length:  129
Rating:  PG
Companies:  Walt Disney Studios
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 at 9:30 AM EDT)