I am a stage school kid, always have been, always will be. I am what you would call a “musicals” person. Not the kind of musical that can pick up a guitar, more of a jazz hands and tap-dancing kind of “musical”. “Musical” people, every now and then, need the joy of musicals. It is a requirement, and one Hollywood often tries to satisfy.
First and foremost, it is worth noting that I understand La La Land was experimental, and in that sense, it was successful. However, as a musical theatre geek, that film was remarkably disappointing. I don’t believe La La Land was trying to be a good musical, I don’t quite know what it was trying to be. But a musical is what it claimed to be, and so, it stands to be judged against The Greatest Showman. Also, both feature songs written by song-writing genius duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
One aspect in which both of these musicals suffer is casting. Musical theatre actors are incredibly talented. I am not knocking the talents of the individuals featured in either of these films. They, too, are incredibly talented but in different ways. Hollywood needs to sell its musical to a studio, and to an audience that, a lot of the time, don’t really care about musicals. So, “famous” people are cast in musicals. Film musicals have suffered from this since film musicals have existed: Chicago, Les Miserables, Mamma Mia, the tragic Into the Woods. I don’t believe famous actors who can hold a tune should be cast in musicals, I believe musical theatre actors ought to be. The cast in each of these films do a good job, but I can’t help but wonder how phenomenal they would be had musical theatre actors held the main roles.
A key aspect of musicals is the establishment of a reality not quite like our own. In our reality, people don’t generally publicly sing about whatever may be happening to them at any given moment. This essential element removes musical films from our reality. Because of this, musicals tend to remove themselves from our reality in a distinct way. A common way this is done is by setting itself in the past (Grease, Les Miserables, Jersey Boys) or in a place, we don’t often find ourselves (Chicago, The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music).
La La Land does not do this well enough. It tries to set itself in places too familiar, and so feels odd. The theory is that La La Land is not actually set in a real place, it is a fictitious Los Angeles. But that’s just what it is, pretty much Los Angeles. The Greatest showman perfectly places itself in a world familiar and yet distinctly not. Not only does it place itself in history it also places itself in the whimsical world of the circus, perfected suited to setting a musical. This means we can enjoy the magical nature of the film far more than we can with La La Land where it just feels a little off, though it is hard to fully understand why. The use of jazz music feels like it is trying to set itself in the past, but everything else points to a more modern day.
The ensemble is an important part of any musical. This is a group of side characters that go through the film with the audience. They are familiar throughout the film and are, in a small way, a part of the story. Examples of these are the other students in Grease and Hairspray, the gangs in West Side Story and the children in The Sound of Music. The ensemble is used for the big musical numbers; the opener, the closer and that all-important interval number.
The Greatest Showman creates a natural ensemble of the circus performers and they are used very well in terms of these big show numbers. These numbers are standout as the best in the film. In a lot of ways they make the film (pardon the pun) come alive. La La Land really missed this element. While, yes, it attempted ensemble numbers like the one at the beginning, it just didn’t work. The film was about the 2 main characters and that was it, an ensemble did not exist and for that reason, the film lacked the energy needed for a musical. This was, in my opinion a continuation of the experimental style of La La Land. It was trying to create an intimate musical. While a nice thought, the two are not suited. Once is one of the only musicals that managed to create such an intimate atmosphere, but it must be noted, it lost some of its musical elements because of it. Intimate moments in a musical are nice, and necessary, but should be used sparingly.
That brings me to my last point. A very important aspect of musicals is that they make people happy. It is rare you see someone walk out of a theatre looking miserable. Musicals are pure escapism, they are meant to whisk you away into this alternate reality where you fall completely in love. The energy of the music lifts you and makes you feel you can fly. La La Land does not possess this energy, both in terms of the music itself and the ending in particular. At best, the ending can be understood as the two being happy about their time together, at worst, the two are now miserable in their new lives. The Greatest Showman maintains the energy wanted from a musical. It is bright and full of exuberance. It makes you feel like you can achieve anything.
As P.T. Barnum himself said (I question this quote but anyway) “The noblest art is that of making others happy”. That is what The Greatest Showman does and that’s what any good musical does. Having seen La La Land I found myself feeling a distinct lacking, and later annoyance at how a musical lacked the ability to make me happy. However, with The Greatest Showman, my musical theatre itch has been well and truly scratched and the stage school kid in me is satisfied.