Fox’s The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, is a big movie musical. There are acrobats and elephants and lions and Michelle Williams twirling amidst her laundry.
But two of the standout moments from the film — which has songs written by La La Land‘s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — are actually the comparatively smaller, simpler numbers. One that has been singled out in reviews is “Rewrite the Stars,” a duet between producer Phillip (Zac Efron) and trapeze artist Anne (Zendaya) in which the pair sing their love song while flying around the circus on ropes. It’s elegant and romantic, but director Michael Gracey says it took a lot of work to get it right.
“‘Rewrite the Stars’ was incredibly challenging,” says Gracey, a commercial director making his feature film debut. “You’d have this beautiful shot of Zendaya flying around Zac and Zac’s in the foreground and it’s just perfect. And just as she’s about to sing the line that you need in that moment, the rope twists and her whole body moves and that line you want, she’s facing away from camera! It’s things like that you’re like, ‘Ughhh!’ And also a lot of the jumping and swinging and the two of them coming together, there are so many takes of that being so awkward and so clunky as they don’t quite swing past each other, they just slam into each other. All of a sudden what’s meant to be balletic and slow and wonderful effortless feel, all of a sudden becomes incredibly brutal and violent as these bodies go slamming into each other. That was a lot of takes and a credit to Zac and Zendaya — they were so bruised but they just kept going again and again and again.”
One of Showman‘s other highlights is the solo by Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Billed in the film as one of the greatest opera singers, Lind’s big moment is actually a ballad called “Never Enough” with Ferguson’s vocals dubbed by Loren Allred, a former contestant on The Voice. In keeping with the movie’s anachronistic music, Gracey wanted “Never Enough” to sound more like a pop ballad suited for a modern superstar like Celine Dion or Adele. “These women their voices are just belters and it almost becomes like an aria. That felt more in keeping with the sort of the approach to all the other songs. The other songs we’re riding that line between musical theater and pop and trying to find somewhere in the middle. So, with that we sort of went between what would be operatic and pop.”
Watching the film, it’s easy to imagine Showman being adapted for the stage and Gracey admits there have been conversations. “When I was pitching the film, the great thing about doing a musical film is you have this amazing piece that could then go straight to Broadway. Instead of CG animals, you could do puppets like War Horse or The Lion King. I think that’s an incredibly appealing idea. It would depend on the success of the film but I do believe it would make an incredible stage production.”
This week, there was a report that Logan director James Mangold assisted on Showman in reshoots and post-production (Mangold is credited as an executive producer on Showman). “There were eight producers on this film and they all came and sort of weighed in like they would on any film,” says Gracey. “And it was amazing having one of them be a filmmaker. I’ve worked with Alfonso Cuaron and I’ve seen the way he works with Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro [Iñárritu]. And they all come in and weigh in when [they] are editing their films and give their thoughts. I’m a big believer in that in terms of process. Fortunately, on this because Hugh’s really close with Jim, we had access for Jim to play that role. I have such amazing respect for him and we had such a great collaboration when he came in towards the end of post [production]. It was great. It was fantastic actually.”
The Greatest Showman is in theaters now.