How The Greatest Showman Defied Bad Reviews and an Even Worse Start to Become an Unlikely Cult Classic

With the release of its album of covers by artists such as Kelly Clarkson and P!nk, it's time to look back on the surprise success of Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron's movie musical

By Tierney Bricker Nov 15, 2018 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Hugh Jackman Reflects on Unexpected "Greatest Showman" Success

Seven and a half years. Four workshops. One Hugh Jackman

That's what it took to get The Greatest Showman, the first original movie musical made since 1992, made, and at the movie's world premiere last December, Jackman, who plays P.T. Barnum in the film, told E! News, "I can't tell you how sweet it is. I pinch myself. I was really not sure this movie would ever happen."

And even more surprising than the movie actually getting made, with Zac Efron, Zendaya and Michelle Williams also starring, singing and dancing in the Fox film, is the mainstream-yet-cult following its amassed since it was released almost one year ago. 

Album sales records have been shattered. Sing a-longs have been hosted all around the world. Spin classes set to the soundtrack are still being suffered through. 

And yet, all sings originally pointed to The Greatest Showman being a huge box office disaster. 

Zac Efron's Shirtless Pics

While early, early word was that The Greatest Showman, and Jackman specifically, thanks to his tireless journey to bring the story to the screen, were likely destined for the awards campaign trail...those talks quickly came to a stop once the reviews hit. 

Among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has just a 36 percent approval rating, with the consensus being that it "tries hard to dazzle the audience with a Barnum-style sense of wonder -- but at the expense of its complex subject's far more intriguing real-life story."

A lot of the reviews accused the movie of "white-washing" the story of P.T. Barnum and the creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which to be honest, was a fair point if you spend even one minute on the real-life showman's Wikipedia page. (We often refer to it as "historical fiction" to justify our repeat viewings and listenings.)

Niko Tavernise

Here are just a few choice criticisms: Rolling Stone declared it "a shrill blast of nothing," The Hollywood Reporter said called it" all smoke and mirrors, no substance," and Vulture blasted it as "a whole other level of disingenuousness." The Boston Globe described it as "105 minutes in hell."

Alas, The Greatest Showman, poor reviews and all, hit theaters on December 20, and earned just $13.4 million over the five-day weekend. With a budget of over $84 million, this opening number was, in a word, disastrous, especially given the marking blitz behind the spectacle, including a live performance by the cast during Fox's A Christmas Story Live event. 

"As disastrous as the opening weekend was, I was sort of just holding my breath for the weeks afterwards," Gracey told Collider. "A lot of phone calls came in that weekend and there were a lot of panicked voices, and I was just saying, 'Look, let's give it a couple weeks. Let's see what happens once people start talking about it.' I was always like as long as enough people see the film on opening weekend and talk about it, more people will come. And thank goodness they did!"

Yes, they really did. 

In its second weekend, the movie's gross rose 76 percent from the first weekend, and then the numbers went up again in its third week. In fact, the movie's weekend box office take wouldn't fall below the opening weekend's number until Jan. 26, over one month after its initial release.

"After its first week at the box office, the user reviews on Fandango were ecstatic, with mostly five-star ratings," Fandango's Erik Davis told Vulture. "The great word of mouth spread quickly and The Greatest Showman ended up as one of our top ticket sellers through the holidays."

Remember that 36 percent rating from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes? Its score with audience members is 87 percent, and that audience was gushing about the movie to their friends and family. It was a case of life imitating art, as one of the movie's minor sub-plots is about a curmudgeonly art critic who just can't appreciate the joy of Barnum's "circus," but whose negative review does little to stop its success.   

Now, almost one year later, the movie has grossed $434 million worldwide, making it the fifth-highest grossing live-action musical of all time. (Its domestic total? 20 times its opening weekend's box office: $175 million.) 

While nominated for Best Comedy or Musical and Best Actor (Jackman), it went onto the Golden Globe for Best Original Song for "This Is Me," which was also a contender for Best Original Song at the Oscars. Breakout star Keala Settle performed the the song, which became one of the defining anthems of 2018, at the ceremony. 

But the movie truly stole the show and showcased its broad appeal at the Teen Choice Awards in August, winning Choice Movie Drama, Choice Movie Actor: Drama (Zefron! Sorry Hugh!), Choice Movie Actress: Drama (Zendaya!) and Choice Movie Ship (Zefrondaya?!).

The Teen Choice dominance proved just how hard it is to pin down The Greatest Showman's demographic…because really, it doesn't court just one audience member. It has your mom and dad's favorite actor in it (Jackman, our Wolverine who can sing and dance), and also your little cousin's favorite heartthrob in Efron, finally returning to musicals where he belongs after High School Musical and Hairspray. Add in the universally adored Williams and current It Girl Zendaya and you've got a toe-tapping escape that is hard to, well, escape. 

The Tumblr-dwelling teens are providing us with the necessary .GIFs we need to tweet about the movie, while the parents are busy singing along to the soundtrack they put on to distract their kids during car rides. It's family-friendly yet inclusive and celebratory of outsiders, all at once. 

Of course, you can't talk about The Greatest Showman and its mass appeal without talking about the music, with Gracey even bluntly telling Den of Geek, "People can say what they like about the film, but the music is exceptional. You can't watch the film and wake up the next day without hearing one of those songs in your head." 

Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen, etc.) are the one-E-shy-of-an-EGOT-esteemed songwriting duo behind the movie's ridiculously catchy and unabashedly sincere songs, somehow perfectly blending the world of Broadway and pop for an irresistibly weird mix of modern meets 1800s for the soundtrack. 

Pasek and Paul began working on the songs back in 2013, and after spending some time with some darker subject matter, specifically with their Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen, Paul told Gold Derby that The Greatest Showman was all about bringing families together. 

"I think a lot of what we did in the film was writing music that was meant to entertain and meant to be something that kids and parents and grandparents, hopefully everybody can come together on the holidays and enjoy, consume together," he said. 


Released on Dec. 8, two weeks ahead of the film's premiere, the official soundtrack actually debuted at No. 71 on the Billboard 200, far from an immediate smash hit.

However, by its fourth week it was the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, and in the UK, it was No. 1 for 11 straight weeks—more than any other album, including a little one you may have heard of: Adele's 21.

And almost one year later it's currently the No. 2 album on the iTunes charts, and is the first soundtrack in over four years to sell over one million copies in the U.S. So yes, the announcement on Oct. 8 that Atlantic Records would be releasing a new album full of covers by some of the top music artists, The Greatest Showman — Reimagined, on Friday, Nov. 16, seemed like the perfect way to celebrate the film and its soundtrack's year of surprising success. It follows the release of a a two-CD "sing-along" deluxe edition of the original soundtrack late last month. 

For Atlantic Records' president Kevin Weaver the album of covers seemed like a necessary endeavor after the success of The Hamilton Mixtape, which found artists tackling the songs from the Broadway smash Hamilton in 2016, though it was a long process to eventually land on the Reimagined idea just ahead of the holiday season.  

John Carucci/AP/REX/Shutterstock

"Last January or February, when we were doing 100,000 albums a week in the U.S. and it was number one in most of the territories of the world, I had a light bulb moment: we really realized we had something at the scale of what this was becoming, and we were quickly like, all right, do we want to do a deluxe version of the album for Mother's Day? What would that look like? Do we want to take the original cast album and add a couple covers to it, or add some additional demos? But it felt like it warranted something much more significant and robust," Weaver told Variety. "Then you had people like Pink and Selena Gomez and other artists who were on social media posting themselves dancing to and singing the songs. And that was part of kind of what went into my epiphany that we have something that's not only connecting with the masses, but it's connecting with artists." 

The line-up caused hardcore fans of The Greatest Showman to cry tears of joy and tweet their excitement in all caps, with Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Panic! at the Disco, Sara Bareilles, Years & Years, Kesha and Missy Elliott all participating. 

Many of the artists featured were approached about joining the project because of their public displays of love for the movie, including P!nk who posted about The Greatest Showman on social media early on. (Another big celeb fan? Selena Gomez, who was caught on Instagram rocking out to "This Is Me" in a Story that soon went viral.)

Willow Hart, the singer's seven year-old daughter, makes her recorded debut on the album, singing a reprise of "A Million Dreams," and during their recording session she told Gracey, "I grew up listening to Annie and no one has done this for me for my heart since I was a little girl, for her to finally have something like this…you made our favorite movie ever!"

Clarkson, meanwhile, posted an emotional video while watching the movie for the first time in March. "It's called The Greatest Showman! It's incredible! I am so late to the game but damn if you haven't seen this movie please watch it ASAP," she captioned the video. "I am blown away! Also, don't know why I said Greatest Showman on Earth. I'm very tired BUT I can't turn it off!"

The Voice coach tackled "Never Enough" for the album, and yes, it will give you chills

"I am so honored to be a part of The Greatest Showman – Reimagined," Clarkson said in a statement given to E! News. "'Never Enough' is a beautiful song and I hope y'all dig my version."

For some of the other featured artists, they formed a deep connection with the movie and its songs after recording their track, including The Zac Brown Band, who now performs "From Now On" during their concerts. 

Of taking on "The Greatest Show," Panic! singer Brendan Urie told Variety, "They sent that song over and said, 'We think you should sing this.' And I heard it and I was like, ‘This sounds like a Panic! song. You guys did a Panic! song better than I've ever done a Panic! song."

With the album of covers coming out on Friday, The Greatest Showman is looking even further into the future, with talks of bringing the show to the stage ongoing. 

Earlier in the year, Jackman revealed to Forbes that he was "working hard...on working out a live version" of the film with Pasek and Paul, adding, "There's, like, three different possibilities currently." 

He later expanded on this in an interview with The New York Times, saying, "There's a lot of people working on what a live version of that would be. Is it something that's on the West End or in Vegas? Is it a touring tent show? Is it an arena spectacular?"

Regardless of what shape the stage adaptation of The Greatest Showman could potentially take, one thing is clear: Jackman is down to reprise his role, telling Vulture, "Yes, I am interested, for sure!"

Like the catchy song states, the sun can't stop them now. 

The Greatest Showman — Reimagined comes out on Friday, Nov. 16.