There are no people like show people—at least that’s what show people think. Look at all of the musicals they’ve made about themselves: Gypsy, 42nd Street, Singin’ in the Rain, Annie Get Your Gun. And who can blame them? By its nature show business is—well—showy, providing a home for people who are dramatic, provocative, and flamboyant.
But an interesting life in show biz won’t shape itself automatically into a story worth telling.
Take the case of one of America’s most famous drama kings, P.T. Barnum. His life is rich material: He was a contradictory creature, hardworking and hypocritical, adept at faking sincerity. He was an abolitionist who, for a time, made his living exhibiting a black slave he claimed was 161 years old (and George Washington’s nanny). He never actually said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but he lived his life by that axiom. The fact that Barnum eventually ran for U.S. Congress is icing on the cake.
In short, you’d think the story of the man who brought us the Greatest Show on Earth would adapt easily to the stage. That’s what Cy Colemen, Michael Steward, and Mark Bramble thought, too, when they wrote the musical Barnum, which premiered in 1980. As even Barnum himself must have known, though, you may be selling the sizzle, but you’ve got a problem if there’s no steak underneath it. Barnum is packed with superficial delights: catchy tunes, fine costumes, and impressive onstage acrobatics, performed by a splendid ensemble. Behind all the razzle-dazzle, there’s nothing.
Or almost nothing. Cy Coleman’s score can feel a bit old-fashioned, but two of the show’s most memorable songs—”There Is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” and “The Prince of Humbug”—perfectly re-create the giddiness of a rousing circus march. The music conveys something essential about Barnum, his wild flimflammery and, in quieter moments, the man behind the bunk.
Steward’s lyrics aren’t as memorable as Coleman’s tunes, but they do the job, which is more than you can say for Bramble’s book. Bramble writes like a producer—which is to say that he cuts every corner he can, focusing on the elements of the production that will be easiest to market: the score and the spectacle.
He has no story to tell beyond a term paper on the life of P.T. Barnum. Like the man himself, Bramble promises more than he delivers. Unlike Barnum, Bramble and his coconspirators do a bad job of hiding the emptiness at the center of the show.
Barnum himself begins the proceedings, promising the audience that we’ll get to know the man behind the legend. For the rest of the show we get a quick summary of Barnum’s life and career. In quick succession we meet the acts and attractions he promoted, among them General Tom Thumb; Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale; and Jumbo, the world’s largest elephant in captivity. We meet his wife and learn that, though she didn’t always approve of his schemes, she went along with them. She even managed his business for a while; then she died and he kept on working.
The unwritten law of all stories about flimflam men is that they have to change. They should prove, like the Wizard of Oz, that there’s something more to them than humbug. Or they should tease us, pretending, like Elmer Gantry, to move toward redemption but leaving nothing but chaos and shame in their wake.
But Bramble’s Barnum doesn’t change. Oh, some things make him sad: His museum burns down, for instance. He leaves his wife to have an affair with Jenny Lind and then returns to her when it’s over. She hardly seems bothered by the dalliance. The show must go on.
In bringing Barnum to life, director L. Walter Stearns attempts to mimic the feel of the circus. The performers all do some acrobatics; it’s impressive to see them add gymnastics to their repertoire of skills. But few in this show are able to muster the crazy joy of smaller circuses (like our own Flying Griffin Circus) or the cold-blooded daredevilry of the pros.
Cory Goodrich, as Barnum’s long-suffering wife, gets the most she can out of Coleman’s tunes. Summer Naomi Smart does a star turn as Jenny Lind. And Gene Weygandt, who’s spent his career playing lovable frauds, is a perfect choice for Barnum. He owns every song he sings, but even that’s a problem: each song must end, followed inevitably by a flat scene bringing us back down to earth. We find we’re tired of being taken for suckers and look eagerly for the exits.