How Director Michael Gracey Mixed 1800s New York and 2017 Pop to Create The Greatest Showman

Caught on Camera   How Director Michael Gracey Mixed 1800s New York and 2017 Pop to Create The Greatest Showman
The director discusses returning to old-school techniques, influences like Mary Poppins, and more.

As Laurence Mark and Bill Condon worked on the 2009 Academy Awards, watching Hugh Jackman host, an idea struck them. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s the greatest showman on earth’—and that’s when I went to P.T. Barnum in my head,” Mark said in a statement.

Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams Niko Tavernise/FOX via EW

When Mark suggested the idea of a movie musical to Jackman, the Australian actor jumped on board to join the circus, and it was Jackman who found Australian director Michael Gracey to bring The Greatest Showman to life on the silver screen. The movie opened in movie theatres—nearly nine years since that Oscar night—December 20.

Gracey’s vision for the original movie musical is one of anachronism: 1800s New York, complete with 19th-century fashion architecture, and conventions, set to a contemporary pop score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.


“The whole film is this mix between musical theatre in a more traditional theatrical sense and more contemporary pop,” Gracey told Playbill during the press junket for the film earlier this month. “That’s in the music, the choreography—you’ll have very classical dances mixed with hip-hop moves—it’s always finding that middle ground between the then and the now and in doing that we create our own reality.”

Gracey has been clear that his version of P.T. Barnum’s story is not a biopic. Coming from the commercial and music video realm, the director infuses his edgy style with the emotion driving Barnum’s ambitions and the circus performers’ dreams.

The director uses “very old-school techniques. Even the backdrops, rather than green screens, we did as paintings. So it’s all going to have that Terry Gilliam, grittier, Mary Poppins feel to it. But the cutting style and the camera work and some of the sequencing is very pop.”

But don’t worry. The musical theatre medium is in good hands with Gracey, who grew up a fan of the art form. “It’s really strange this thing where people are like, ‘I’m not into musicals’ but so many people who have said that to me, I’ve taken to shows and watched their faces radiate.

“I think great work—it doesn’t matter what form it’s in—all those things when they’re done at a level, it’s undeniable. That’s just great storytelling. I’m as thrilled watching Mark Rylance do Shakespeare as I am watching The Book of Mormon.”

Spoken like a true theatre fan.

Watch the full interview to hear more.

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