Is The Greatest Showman a true story? The movie musical is many things - but historically accurate isn’t exactly one of them. It’s necessary to look beyond the film in order to get to know the real P.T. Barnum and the circus he created.
The musical claims to tell the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum’s rise from rags to riches in antebellum America. According to the film, Barnum was an orphaned child whose head was full of dreams. As an adult, he married his childhood sweetheart and did all that he could to give her the life he thought she deserved. After losing a boring, uninspiring office job, Barnum decides to take the plunge and pursue an extraordinary career: he purchases a museum and recruits outcasts to be a part of his show. It becomes wildly popular, and he fulfills his dream of living a life of success, wonder, and entertainment.
To be fair, it gets some basic details correct. Barnum was born in Connecticut in 1810, and he spent much of his life chasing down the American dream. In his case, that meant establishing an entertainment network through his American Museum - which included a so-called “freak show” that exhibited actual human beings as objects of curiosity, oddity, and terror - and, eventually, his famous circus. By the time he died in 1891 at the age of 80, he had been many things: promoter, entertainer, businessman, politician, abolitionist, teetotaler, and writer.
But Barnum’s larger-than-life story, in all its complex glory, doesn’t completely make it into the film. The Greatest Showman's accuracy is mediocre at best, and the film ignores his sins, manipulates his relationships, and simplifies the long trajectory of his rich life. Among the many errors is the film's depiction of the relationship between P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind and its unwillingness to engage with the undeniable racism in Barnum's past. The film may be good entertainment, but it’s also bad history.
What The Film Portrays: The beginning of the film tells Barnum's supposed origin story. His father is a tailor who dies when Barnum is still a child, and there is no mother in sight. After his father's death, the young Barnum seems to live in poverty and even steals food to survive.
What Really Happened: His father was indeed a tailor who died when Barnum was young. But Barnum was 15 when it happened - old enough in the 19th century to make his own way, and that's just what he did. Though he lost his father in 1825, Barnum didn't lose his whole family, and he worked to generate an income for his mother and five siblings. In fact, he wouldn't be "orphaned" until his mother died at the ripe, old age of 83 in 1868.
What The Film Portrays: One of the most sympathetic love stories in the film is the interracial romance between Zac Efron's character Phillip Carlyle and Zendaya's Anne Wheeler, a trapeze artist. Carlyle - a white man who grew up in New York high society - is initially ashamed of his feelings for Wheeler, a Black performer in Barnum's show, especially since the racist world seems to be against them.
What Actually Happened: Yes, it's a compelling love story - but it's also 100% fictional. Neither Carlyle nor Wheeler actually existed. Instead of confronting the actual racism that ran through Barnum's entertainment ventures, the film concocted a sympathetic love story that made Barnum appear more tolerant than he actually was.
What The Film Portrays: Anne Wheeler and her brother join Barnum's show as a talented, fearless trapeze act. But the world often sees only the color of their skin, and not the talent that they bring to the ring. Barnum is portrayed as a tolerant and supportive boss who celebrates the diversity of his cast and never articulates a racist view.
What Really Happened: While it is true that Barnum became an outspoken abolitionist, he still exhibited what would now be considered racist attitudes during his life. Most notably, African Americans were banned from his museum, and he routinely relied on racist stereotypes when promoting and displaying Black performers. Moreover, he promoted minstrel shows and blackface performances. True, both forms of entertainment were hugely popular in 19th-century America. But Barnum's participation in them is nonetheless an uncomfortable historical truth that the film completely sidesteps.
What The Film Portrays: Barnum takes Jenny Lind on a highly successful American tour. Unfortunately, it strains his relationship with his wife, who clearly misses him. It also damages his relationship with his performers, who feel slighted that Barnum has seemingly traded them in for the class, refinement, and beauty of a traditional performer like Jenny Lind. But the tour collapses when Lind declares her feelings for Barnum and kisses him onstage long enough for it to appear in all the newspapers.
What Actually Happened: Jenny Lind really did go on a successful American tour in 1850. As the film makes clear, Barnum was the mastermind behind the tour, since he convinced Lind to come out of retirement to perform in America. The tour ended early in 1851. It wasn't because Lind had a romantic falling out with Barnum; rather, it was because the Swedish soprano was simply tired.