Hugh Jackman was on fire in 2017. The Sydney-born actor was riding high after the successes of his latest Marvel action films, X-Men: Apocalypse and Logan, and getting attention as a talented singer, courtesy of his Oscar-nominated performance in 2012’s Les Misérables. At the same time, movie musicals were enjoying a renaissance. 2008’s film adaptation of Mama Mia brought the star power of Meryl Streep, and 2016’s La La Land scored a Best Picture nomination. The time was right to bring Jackman’s talent and box office appeal to the musical version of the P.T. Barnum story, The Greatest Showman. The film was the 21st highest grossing movie of 2017, bringing in over $430 million worldwide.
It was a fantasy extravaganza, with emphasis on the fantasy. To be fair, audiences coming to see a film about a 19th century impresario that featured 21st century musical arrangements, costumes, and choreography weren’t exactly expecting a documentary. Still, The Greatest Showman took great license with the story of Barnum and his collection of performers. Barnum himself wasn’t quite the altruistic do-gooder as portrayed by Jackman, nor did the performers who worked for him always lead lives of contentment and bliss. Five years after the release of the successful screen musical, here are some of the true stories behind the illusions of The Greatest Showman.
Let’s start with Barnum himself. In The Greatest Showman, Jackman’s Barnum is just a humble “aw, shucks” working man trying his best to be a good husband and father and lift his family out of poverty. In the film’s first half, Barnum loses his job at the Michigan Bolt and Nut Works, then pilfers a deed to a flotilla of sunken ships from the company to secure a $10,000 business loan, which he uses to purchase Barnum’s American Museum of Curiosities. While there’s a nugget of truth to this tale, the actual story was more complicated, with Barnum instead going to work as the manager of another museum, then going behind his employer’s back to secure the purchase of what would later become his showplace.
From there, according to the film, Barnum seeks out “unique persons and curiosities, daring acts, and wonders of the world,” and begins assembling his circus spectacular. Jackman’s Barnum is empathetic and benevolent, eager to assemble the physically hampered, the contorted, the shunned citizens of 1800s New York and create an act that will celebrate their uniqueness and get audiences to love them for who they are. By all accounts, the real Barnum was less of a full-hearted humanitarian and more of a ruthless exploiter. Take the rather sad case of Joice Heth, the African American woman Barnum touted as the 161-year-old former nurse of General George Washington. Barnum purchased Heth for $1,000, and although Heth was partially paralyzed, he exhibited her for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. When Heth died, Barnum charged admission to a public autopsy of her body. Heth is not a featured character in The Greatest Showman, but other real-life members of Barnum’s exhibitions are, and their stories were also not as rosy as what’s represented in the film.
Annie Jones, The Bearded Lady
In The Greatest Showman, Jackman’s Barnum, searching for acts, hears a beautiful singing voice emanating from the window of a warehouse where women are taking in washing. Following the resplendent melody, he stumbles on its origin, a girl with a beard hiding behind a hanging white sheet (Keala Settle). Immediately taken with the young woman, Barnum tells her she’s “extraordinary, unique. I would even say beautiful.” And just like that, Lettie Lutz (the fictional name of the real bearded lady, Annie Jones) becomes one of Barnum’s star attractions. If only the true story was so stirring. In reality, Annie was turned over to Barnum by her parents before she was even a year old, and Barnum paid her parents $150 to exhibit her in his show. Annie was a Barnum attraction into her young adulthood, and while she never sang like her fictional version Lettie, she did learn to play the mandolin for audiences. Annie married twice, the first time at age 15 to a carnival barker. After divorcing him, she married again, and her second husband took her from the Barnum act to exhibit her as an attraction in Europe. When he passed away, Annie had few options but to return to Barnum’s employ. Like the character of Lettie in The Greatest Showman, Annie was a strong woman who hated being labeled as a “freak” and who fought hard against Barnum’s use of the label to describe her and her fellow performers. Annie remained a part of Barnum’s act until her death from tuberculosis at just age 37, never getting a “This is Me” moment like Lettie does in the film.
Charles Stratton, aka ‘Tom Thumb’
In The Greatest Showman, Barnum first spots the 3-foot 4-inch tall Charles Stratton, aka “Tom Thumb” (played by Sam Humphrey), exiting a bank with his mother. Stratton chides Barnum for gawking at his diminutive appearance. Later, Barnum tracks down Stratton’s residence and makes a personal visit to persuade Stratton to join the show. Stratton initially rejects the offer, but Barnum sweetens the deal. “I see a soldier…no, a general…riding across the stage with a sword and a gun and the most beautiful uniform ever made. People will come from all over the world, and when they see him, they won’t laugh. They’ll salute.” Presto! The tiny General Tom Thumb is born. In reality, Barnum first discovered Stratton when the boy was just 4 years old. Barnum created a complete myth around Stratton, saying he hailed from England (Stratton was from Connecticut) and that he was much older than his actual age. Barnum eventually took 11-year-old Stratton to England and marketed him to high society, where Stratton landed a private invitation from Queen Victoria herself. Barnum later arranged a marriage for Sutton to another little person, with whom he had children (though there’s some evidence that Barnum actually rented babies for photo ops with Stratton and his wife). Overall, Stratton’s life was more charmed than those of most of Barnum’s performers. Stratton lived comfortably with his wife until he suffered a stroke and died in Connecticut at age 45.
Chang and Eng Bunker
Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined twin brothers portrayed by Yusaku Komori and Danial Son, are razzle-dazzle song and dance men in The Greatest Showman, displaying their Shannon Holtzapffel choreographed moves. The actual story of the brothers and their association with Barnum isn’t quite as razzling and dazzling. Born in Siam (now Thailand) in 1811, the brothers were the world’s first well-documented conjoined twins. At age 22, they were discovered by British merchant Robert Hunter, who saw dollar signs in the brothers. Hunter essentially bought the twins from their own mother for $3,000, brought the boys to the U.S., and began putting them on display. Chang and Eng were exhibited for hours a day, every day, and were constantly on tour. And while the twins weren’t the dancers they’re portrayed as in The Greatest Showman, they did hone their act, evolving from two brothers merely on display to athletes who performed acrobatics and feats of strength. Still, their partnership with Barnum himself was very limited and sporadic. Long after the twins had left Robert Hunter’s employment and had married and started families of their own, they did a six-week engagement at Barnum’s American Museum in 1860, followed by another brief stint eight years later. As they grew older, the twins battled financial difficulty and alcoholism, and at one point, they requested that a doctor perform surgery to separate them from each other. At their ages, however, separation would have killed them, so the twins remained together, embittered, until Chang’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1874, followed by Eng’s just a few hours later.
Jackman’s Barnum becomes instantly infatuated with the gorgeous opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) when he sees her glide across the room at an audience for Queen Victoria in The Greatest Showman. The two exchange a sexually charged Gary Grant–Katharine Hepburn-style banter, and before you know it, Lind has succumbed to Barnum’s magnetic charm and has dashed off to America to perform in his entertainment spectacular. Lind so mesmerizes Barnum that he nearly sacrifices his own marriage for the silky embrace of the angelic chanteuse. Alas, the true story of the Barnum-Lind partnership is much less like a romance novel and much more like a standard business deal. Barnum was looking to “class up” his show and saw Lind as a performer who could bring in more of the silver-spooned “carriage trade” audiences, even though Barnum had personally never heard Lind sing. Lind had already retired from show business, but Barnum threw some good ol’ American green at her, offering her a stunning $1,000 per show for 150 performances in America.
He had to mortgage his assets to meet that financial commitment, and thankfully, Lind was a hit with U.S. audiences. Barnum made all of his money back and then some. And while The Greatest Showman presents Lind as a striking beauty, few men, including Barnum, could resist, the real Jenny Lind was much more down-to-earth, eschewing heavy makeup and sumptuous hairstyles for a more plain look, letting her voice captivate the masses rather than her appearance. By all accounts, the relationship between Barnum and Lind was strictly boss-employee. She toured with his show for just nine months before heading back to Europe.
Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler
Zac Efron portrays Broadway theater producer Phillip Carlyle in The Greatest Showman, the guy Jackman’s Barnum recruits to help him bring in more highbrow audiences to his show. Barnum and Efron share a few drinks, perform a song-and-dance routine à la Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, and Barnum’s circus becomes a class act. Enter feisty acrobat and high wire performer Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), for whom Efron falls hard, despite the 19th century taboo of interracial romance. Carlyle’s blue-blooded parents are shocked to find that their son is “parading around with the help” and ostracize him. Carlyle doesn’t care. He professes his love for Anne in a musical trapeze act for the ages. A great story, but complete fiction. There was no Phillip Carlyle and there was no Anne Wheeler in the P.T. Barnum annals. But The Greatest Showman needed a spicy Gen Z romance, so from the pens of screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon sprang the two star-crossed lovers. So what if these two are just inventions to give the movie a little extra shot of pizazz? At least Efron and Zendaya are pizazz that’s easy on the eye.