'The Greatest Showman': 8 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

8:00 AM 12/20/2017

by Paulina Cachero

The story of how P.T. Barnum brought together the mystique and magic of "The Greatest Show on Earth" is reimagined onscreen in an original musical.

Step right up to see The Greatest Showman, which hit theaters Dec. 20 after seven years in development. In a series of whimsical and colorful musical numbers, Greatest Showman brings the menagerie of P.T. Barnum's traveling three-ring circus to life on the big screen. The musical biopic was inspired by the imagination and innovation of Phineas Taylor Barnum, who "helped invent show business," according to Hugh Jackman. Loosely based on the real-life visionary, the film shows how Barnum (Jackman), a family man, turned his misfortune into a world of mystique and magic that would become the "Greatest Show on Earth." The release of the film seems timely after the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus broke down its wonder-filled tents for the last time in May.

Not only does the film bring together a star-studded cast (Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Zac Efron and Michelle Williams, to name a few), but it also features the highly acclaimed songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The pair won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for their songs in La La Land and a Tony award for their musical score in Dear Evan Hansen. Meanwhile, former visual effects wizard Michael Gracey makes his directorial debut, having won the job after insisting that what was initially intended as a traditional biopic be a musical instead.

Earlier this month, the movie scored three Golden Globe nominations, for best motion picture, musical or comedy, best actor in a musical or comedy film for Jackman and best song for Pasek and Paul's "This Is Me."

Read more below to see how the cast compares to their larger-than-life counterparts from 146 years ago.

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    P.T. Barnum, portrayed by Hugh Jackman

    Phineas Taylor Barnum was the mastermind behind the world-famous circus spectacle that would come to be known as "The Greatest Show on Earth." Although Barnum is widely known as a circus impresario, the promoter didn't get into the circus business until age 61. The real Barnum enjoyed a great deal of notoriety, dallying in Connecticut politics, the lottery business, housing, newspapers and even literature, penning The Art of Money Getting. Barnum first rose to prominence for displaying a series of curious oddities and attractions (often of questionable authenticity), including the "Feejee Mermaid," "General Tom Thumb" and Joice Heth, who claimed to be the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, at the Barnum American Museum and in traveling exhibits around the world. It was only after the Barnum American Museum burned down in 1868 that Barnum gathered a slew of his old performers to form P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus in Brooklyn on April 10, 1871. Like his onscreen counterpart, Barnum had a flair for the dramatic, requesting an early obituary so that he could read it before his death on April 7, 1891.

    In Showman, Hugh Jackman plays the charismatic business mogul, who, after being laid off, serendipitously comes up with the idea of starting a circus to give his family the "life they deserve." The multihyphenate adds the role of circus ringmaster to his already diverse and impressive portfolio as Wolverine in X-Men, as Peter Allen in the musical The Boy From Oz and as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. However, The Greatest Showman, a project he has been with since 2009, is his "passion piece." At this year's CinemaCon, Jackman said he hopes that Showman will be "a celebration of creativity and what is unique about each and every one of us." Jackman, the star and producer of the film, wanted to do right by the man who he believes helped invent show business: "This is Barnum; you've got to be over the top!" Jackman told Vogue.

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    Charity (Hallett) Barnum, portrayed by Michelle Williams

    At age 21, Charity Hallett Barnum, of Bethel, Connecticut, married Barnum, then 19, in the fall of 1829. They were married for 44 years, and together had four girls, three of whom survived to adulthood. In a book of recollections, Barnum recalls the day he married Hallett, saying he "became the husband of one of the best women in the world."

    Barnum's wife is played by Michelle Williams in the big-screen musical. During the casting for Showman, the filmmakers were looking for a female lead who could sing and act alongside Jackman. They found this in Williams, who has shown off her chops in the Broadway revival of Blackbird, for which she was nominated for a Tony as best lead actress in a play, and in My Week With Marilyn, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for playing Marilyn Monroe. 

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    Jenny Lind, portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson

    Jenny Lind, otherwise known as "The Swedish Nightingale," was one of the most highly regarded opera singers of the 19th century. The European opera star had started singing on tours at age 11 and was on the verge of retirement when Barnum, who had never heard her sing a single note, made an offer she couldn't refuse: a 150-date national tour at $1,000 per performance. Lind can thank Barnum for her American star status; he had orchestrated the "Lind Craze" before she even set foot on American soil, using his trademark gift of promotion including advertisements, paper dolls and ticket auctions, creating a fanfare that led to more than 30,000 people awaiting her steamship arrival into the New York Harbor. Lind was a sensation, blazing her way through America and netting Barnum close to a half-million dollars in 1850.

    Rebecca Ferguson, also Swedish, was tapped in early September 2016 to play this role opposite Jackman's Barnum. Ferguson broke out on the big screen in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation in 2015 and later starred as Anna in the psycho-thriller The Girl on the Train.

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    The Bearded Lady, Lettie Lutz, portrayed by Keala Settle

    The Bearded Lady, known as Lettie Lutz in The Greatest Showman, was actually named Annie Jones in real life. Born in Virginia in 1865, Jones began her career at age 1, exhibited in Barnum's museum as "The Infant Esau." After a short but successful stint in New York, Barnum soon offered Jones' parents a weekly contract that included a $150 weekly salary. While Jones spent much of her 36-year career with Barnum in his "Greatest Show on Earth," she also came to be known for her musical talents and gracious etiquette. 

    The Bearded Lady, played by Tony nominee Keala Settle, takes the lead in what has become the anthem of the movie musical, "This Is Me." Settle played the original role of Norma Valverde in Hands on a Hardbody, which ran on Broadway in 2013. She was nominated for best featured actress in a musical by the Outer Critics Circle Awards, Drama Desk Awards and Tony Awards.

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    General Tom Thumb, portrayed by Sam Humphrey

    Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known by his stage name, General Tom Thumb, was born in Connecticut in 1838. Although born a healthy child, Stratton stopped growing at six months, having reached a height of 25 inches. Barnum, already famous for his exhibition of human oddities, discovered the extraordinarily tiny boy at 4 years old and immediately signed him on as an attraction for Barnum's New York Museum. Barnum soon christened Stratton General Tom Thumb, who eventually reached 39 inches, and trained him to sing, dance and imitate famous figures of the time. Clad in military regalia, Stratton traveled the world, performing for the likes of Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln and King Edward VII.

    Stratton is played by 23-year-old Australian actor Sam Humphrey, who stands at 50 inches and previously had a role on the Australian soap Neighbours

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    James Gordon Bennett, portrayed by Paul Sparks

    James Gordon Bennett, the founder, editor and publisher of the New York Herald, helped shape American journalism. The Scottish-born editor immigrated to the U.S. in 1819, eventually settling in New York City. On May 6, 1835, Bennett printed the first of his four-page penny paper that would become the New York Herald. Although the publication got its start in a cellar, it would later have the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world. Bennett got involved with Barnum during the debacle surrounding the death and public autopsy (orchestrated by Barnum) of Joice Heth, who claimed to be the 161-year-old wet nurse of George Washington. 

    Bennett is played by Boardwalk Empire and House of Cards actor Paul Sparks.

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    Phillip Carlyle, portrayed by Zac Efron

    High School Musical alum Zac Efron plays a fictional character, as does his fellow ex-Disney star Zendaya. Efron portrays Barnum's young and bright protege Phillip Carlyle, who "lived by the rules" until he runs away with Barnum to join his traveling circus. While on the road, Carlyle meets Anne Wheeler (played by Zendaya), a trapeze artist Barnum recruited for his show of oddities. Carlyle falls in love with Wheeler as they effortlessly swing through the sky on ropes and trapezes.

    In an interview with FilmWebTV, Efron revealed that the kiss between Carlyle and Wheeler might be his favorite onscreen kiss ever: "At this point for these characters, it's so built up, the tension between them is so strong that just literally just a glance between them is electric. When they finally have the courage in that moment to finally connect and get that kiss, it's that epic moment."


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    Anne Wheeler, portrayed by Zendaya

    Former Disney star Zendaya plays the fictional character of Anne Wheeler, a whimsical, pink-haired trapeze artist who enchants her audience while gracefully gliding through the air with her partner, Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). 

    To play the trapeze artist, Zendaya spent months training to perfect her acrobatic skills. In a promotional video for Greatest Showman, the actress talked about enjoying every moment of making the film: "There's singing involved, there's acting involved, there's dancing involved. It literally plays to everything that I love." The actress also goes on to talk about all the work and rehearsal she did with Efron to get into character, calling him a great partner: "When you're immediately harnessed together and are just immediately running to each other in the air, that's a really great icebreaker. That just really bonds you quite quickly."