Niko Tavernise/Fox
Tim Stack
May 17, 2017 AT 11:00 AM EDT

Walking the trapeze is a breeze compared with getting an original musical about P.T. Barnum off the ground. But after seven years of development, planning, and production, The Greatest Showman — starring Hugh Jackman as the godfather of the modern circus and Michelle Williams as his wife, Charity — will finally hit screens on Christmas Day.

“Up until La La Land, everyone was saying there hasn’t been an original musical in 23 years,” Jackman says. “So the prevailing thought in Hollywood was, unless you have a brand people know, it’s not a done thing. So it just took a long time.”

Showman, helmed by commercial director Michael Gracey, tracks Barnum’s rise from poverty-stricken childhood to the launch of his first circus in New York. Efron is Barnum’s business partner, who falls in love with a trapeze artist played by Zendaya. “This was also a time in America where puritans kind of ruled and the circus was the equivalent of some dark-alley-strip-show kind of thing,” Jackman says.

Niko Tavernise/Fox
Niko Tavernise/Fox
Niko Tavernise/Fox

Initially, Showman was a traditional biopic, but changed after Gracey suggested adding song-and-dance numbers. “I said, ‘If you’re going to call it The Greatest Showman, you should play to your strengths and we should make it a musical,’” the director says. “That ridiculous remark cost me seven years of my life.”

The biggest surprise in Showman is that although it’s set throughout the mid-1800s, the songs — from La La Land’s Oscar-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — sound like current pop hits. “We were clear from the beginning that this wouldn’t feel like a period movie or a historical piece,” Jackman says. “What would Barnum do now? I have an almost-12-year-old daughter. I wanted [the movie] to be as exciting for her as listening to Katy Perry’s new song.”

Spoken like a true Showman.

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