Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman, stars in circus musical with real trapeze action

The Greatest Showman comes after a seven-year endeavour, during which Jackman had to convince producers that there was a market for a big-budget musical

Hugh Jackman calls 2017 "the year I'm most proud of".

He has every right to be. His final turn as the knife-handed superhero Wolverine in Logan (2017) was a major critical and commercial success.

"Logan was the end of a 17-year journey, so the movie mattered to me a lot. I knew it was my last time so the stakes were high," he tells The Straits Times in Sydney.

"When I saw the movie, I went, 'Yes!' Over the 17 years, I never quite felt like that," says the 49-year-old Australian actor.

The other reason that makes 2017 a banner year, in Jackman's opinion, is his other movie opening tomorrow.

The release of The Greatest Showman comes after a seven-year struggle, during which he tried to convince producers that there was a market for a big-budget musical.

"For the first three years, I was pretty sure the movie wouldn't happen. I hoped it would, but it had been 23 years since the studio had greenlit an original movie musical," he says.

Executives at Fox thought little about the story about late 19th-century circus pioneer P.T. Barnum because it did not have a Broadway pedigree - "like a Mama Mia, Les Miz or Phantom Of The Opera," he says - making marketing difficult.

"It was too big of a risk to ask an audience to come in for a story they don't know and hear 10 songs they'd never heard before. It was too much to ask," says Jackman, who starred in the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical Les Miserables (2012).

But he would not let his passion project go. At one crucial pitch meeting, Fox executives gathered to hear performers sing tunes written by composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. In a story Jackman told on a television chat show, he was so keen to impress the studio that he ignored his doctor's advice to not do anything strenuous. The actor had undergone surgery for skin cancer on his face.

"So, I started singing, finished the number. It was a good showbiz moment. And then all of a sudden, I felt this trickle of blood," he told the show's hosts.

If the popped stitches did not convince the studio heads, maybe it was the quality of the songs written by Pasek and Paul, the lyricists behind the La La Land (2016) song City Of Stars, which won an Oscar for Best Original Song.

Already, the writers have been nominated for their work on The Greatest Showman. Their song This Is Me, performed by actress Keala Settle, has been nominated for a Best Original Song Golden Globe.

The songwriters came on board more than a year before they began work on La La Land and were the last stage in a musical evolution. Jackman and director Michael Gracey had briefly and not very seriously considered making Showman a jukebox musical in the style of Mama Mia! (2008) or Moulin Rouge! (2001), featuring songs borrowed from the pop charts.

Then Jackman and Gracey thought of inviting top recording artists such as Bruno Mars, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Pharrell Williams to contribute tunes, and a few of them did submit work.

But they heard the work of "a pair of young songwriters literally straight out of college" who wrote a song that they both liked. The more songs Pasek and Paul submitted, the more convinced the men were that these two were the real deal.

Jackman jokes that since their Oscar and Golden Globe win for La La Land, "they don't talk to me anymore, which is fine... but it's a great showbiz story".

Another musical choice that he and Gracey made was that the musical style would be contemporary Top 40 pop, rather than a style more in keeping with the period of the movie.

P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, was a people's entertainer, explains Jackman.

"If he were alive today, he would want the music to be loved by everyone... so it has to be modern. He'd want my 12-year-old daughter to think it was the coolest thing," he says.

CIRCUS MUSICAL WITH REAL TRAPEZE ACTION

Another sign that this musical aims to appeal to those who would otherwise not see a musical is the casting of Zac Efron and Zendaya, two performers with immense youth appeal.

Efron, 30, is known for his High School Musical franchise (2006 - 2008) and Zendaya, 21, is a series and telemovie regular on the Disney Channel, and is also a recording artist.

In The Greatest Showman, Efron plays Barnum's business partner and friend Phillip Carlyle and Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, a trapeze artist.

In the movie, they share an intricately choreographed aerial love dance, which they perform while singing.

The moves for that scene were invented on the fly, says Efron.

"We practised the moves, but we didn't know where they would fall on the song," he says.

Zendaya (full name Zendaya Coleman) says that the ground portion of the number was easy enough, but once she and Efron were in the air, they just had to trust the ropes to do the work.

"As soon as you are in the air, it's like we can't really rehearse that," she says.

The physical work needed to make her look like a real trapeze artist took weeks, but she developed enough upper-body strength to perform tricks. However, when she first took on the role, the fact that she would have to play a character with great athletic ability did not register.

"When I first met Michael, the director, I knew the character was a trapeze artist, but for some reason I didn't think she had to go on the trapeze," she says.

Efron, meanwhile, had been away from the musical genre in recent years - his last few movies were dramas or comedies (Neighbours, 2014; and the sequel Neighbours 2, 2016 and Baywatch, 2017).

There was no plan to deliberately avoid the song-and-dance genre, says Efron. In fact, he wants to be able to go back and forth, as other actors do.

"Tom Cruise was in Rock Of Ages... and I love Ewan McGregor. He's a great actor and super versatile," he says of the Scottish actor who has been in the Star Wars franchise as a Jedi and in musicals such as Moulin Rouge! (2001).

On the other hand, actress Keala Settle describes herself as a performer who never felt she deserved a place in the spotlight. She plays Lettie Lutz, also known as The Bearded Lady, a member of the cast in Barnum's show.

"I was bullied when I was a kid," says Settle, 42, a Tony-winning actress with a long career in musical theatre. Being half-Polynesian and growing up in Hawaii, where singing is taken seriously, she was teased for "not being good".

This led her to hide her love of singing and to always prefer singing backup, rather than on the front line, she says.

 

She did some research on the history of bearded ladies, a staple of so-called "freak shows" and other galleries of human oddities sold as entertainment in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What many of these women had in common was a disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome. It elevates male hormones, leading to excessive facial hair.

Through her research, she came to know of a woman in London who lives with the disease.

"It's a struggle she is going through. It's taken her to dark places and, at one point, she wanted to end her life. She's tried shaving, but it keeps coming back... she's one of the strongest people I have met.

"We chatted several times and I want to meet her some day just to say thanks."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2017, with the headline 'The greatest struggle'. Print Edition | Subscribe