December 2017 – January 2018

Arts & Letters

The ringmaster steps into the spotlight

By Darryn King
Michael Gracey makes his directorial debut with the Hugh Jackman–starring ‘The Greatest Showman’

Ordinarily, the leap from filming television commercials to directing a big-budget, star-studded, original Hollywood musical would be a daunting one. For Los Angeles–based Australian director Michael Gracey, maybe not so much.

For an ad for T-Mobile, Gracey staged a flash-mob dance in London’s Liverpool Street Station, with 350 dancers moving in sync to ‘Get Down on It’, ‘Do You Love Me’ and ‘The Blue Danube’. In another, spruiking Lipton Ice Tea, a weary Hugh Jackman takes an invigorating gulp before whirling into action, strutting and spinning through a Tokyo hotel. And then there was surely the most thrilling commercial for a degreaser and grime-removal spray ever made: a one-man dance spectacular in an auto-repair shop, set to ‘Maniac’ from Flashdance.

“I got used to shooting fast and used to shooting big,” says Gracey over the phone line from LA. “I was very comfortable among the circus.”

“The circus”, in this case, is not just a metaphor. Gracey’s feature film debut, The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams and Zac Efron, arrives in cinemas in December in Australia and the US – 20th Century Fox’s Christmas holiday tent-pole feature, boldly pitched against the new Star Wars film. It tells the story of PT Barnum, the exuberant circus proprietor. In a marvellous marriage of content and form, it’s an original musical.

For Gracey, the film is also the culmination of a marathon creative journey. “After seven years’ development, to then be standing in the middle of a three-ring circus, and there are performers and trapeze artists and people flying through the air and burning hoops, and Hugh Jackman standing in the middle of it all singing his heart out? It’s just electric, you know?”

The film marks yet another Australian making a splash with the inherently American art form of the musical. “It’s like a lot of things in Australia,” says Gracey. “If you want to pursue it, there isn’t necessarily the amount of opportunity that you would have in America. That’s why a lot of Australian talent rises to the top on the world stage. This was true for Peter Allen, it’s true for Tim Minchin and Baz Luhrmann. If you decide that that’s what you want to do, you have to do it to a degree that is remarkable.”

The Greatest Showman, written by Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City) and Bill Condon (director of Dreamgirls, as well as this year’s Beauty and the Beast), could have wound up as a jukebox musical, along the lines of Moulin Rouge!, with a soundtrack of reimagined pop tracks. It was Gracey who insisted on the need for original songs. “Which, you know, was the stupid decision that cost me many years of my life,” he says. “It’s hard enough doing an original film in Hollywood at the moment. To do an original musical was seen, at the time, as impossible.”

Gracey does seem irresistibly drawn to unconventional projects. At various times, he has been attached to an Elton John biopic, a biopic of Muppets creator Jim Henson, and Disney’s gritty Snow White spin-off, described as “Snow White meets Seven Samurai”. (Other projects still on the cards include an adaptation of the Japanese manga Naruto, and his own adaptation of a fantasy novel, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, plus two more original musicals, including an animated film, The Christmasaurus.)

Even aside from his impressive work in the commercial sphere, it might be said that Gracey had been preparing his whole life for The Greatest Showman. He grew up with four siblings in a music-loving Melbourne household. Their mother played piano and guitar, and all five Gracey children played musical instruments; young Michael gravitated towards the saxophone. (“It was the ’80s,” he explains apologetically.) They were taken to all the latest shows in town, and one bedroom was left free for show-business guests. The first time Gracey saw Hugh Jackman was from the orchestra pit, during a rehearsal for Sunset Boulevard; its musical director, Guy Noble, was staying with the Graceys at the time. The experience left an indelible impression. “It was a peek behind the curtain, you know? Sitting in an orchestra pit, hearing this beautiful Andrew Lloyd Webber music being played. I still watch Mary Poppins, and I still watch The Sound of Music, and I still watch West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain, and I watch my nephews and nieces watching them. And it makes me smile to think that those films were made such a long time ago and yet, to this very day, the world still enjoys them.”

Other life lessons were absorbed, too. “My mum taught at a school for disabled children. She would come home and remind us of how fortunate we were, all five of us, to be able to communicate ideas and to be able to move and express ourselves.”

Gracey’s father, a tech-savvy photographer who went on to develop industry-standard digital compositing software, was also a big influence. Gracey’s first job after school was as a visual effects artist and animator with then-fledgling Sydney effects studio Animal Logic, eventually working on George Miller’s Happy Feet. As that film’s shimmying animated penguins suggest, pixel-pushing might seem a world away from the kinetic expressiveness of dance and musical theatre, but they’re natural bedfellows. “It’s the art of motion,” says Gracey. “The same thing that makes an amazing animated performance is the same magic that makes a dance performance.”

Gracey made remarkable use of his twin passions in his commercial work. His “Roller Babies” ad for Evian – featuring a nappy-clad crew of well-choreographed, street-skating, CGI-enhanced infants – was at the time the most successful viral ad campaign ever. It was on completion of the Lipton Ice Tea commercial shoot that Jackman brought The Greatest Showman, a long-time passion project of his own, to Gracey. “Every film star you do a commercial with says, ‘We should work together again’ at the wrap party,” says Gracey. “But Hugh was true to his word.”

The project caught the interest of 20th Century Fox – but they wanted songs. Gracey met with the then relatively unknown Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The songwriting duo has since won a Tony Award for the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen and Academy and Golden Globe awards for their lyrics for La La Land ( Justin Hurwitz wrote the music). “All they had was a small off-Broadway musical [A Christmas Story, soon to be a US television special]. I met them and knew right away these were the guys. They turned around two songs in two days. One of those songs is one of the great songs of the film. It’s exactly what they played me two days after meeting me.”

Equipped with songs, Gracey took a leaf out of the musical-theatre playbook. “We stopped giving people the script and instead got everyone together in a room to sing the songs. That’s ultimately what led to the film being green-lit. It was amazing to be sitting in the room with Hugh Jackman reading PT Barnum, and then jumping to his feet to sing these songs. It blew away the room.”

The musical read-throughs were not only the best way for the studio to comprehend the project – they were useful in the continual workshopping of the screenplay. “You would see the cast flipping through the pages to see when the next song was. That was a sure sign that they’re looking for a song about now.”

In the time that The Greatest Showman has been in the works, there’s been a major shift in attitudes towards movie musicals in Hollywood. Bolstered by the juggernaut success of Frozen, Disney has returned to the form, most recently with its live-action Beauty and the Beast. Last year’s La La Land, directed by Damien Chazelle, and released while The Greatest Showman was filming, demonstrated the combined drawing power of big stars, solid tunes and nostalgia for a cinematic golden age.

La La Land dovetailed beautifully with what we were doing,” says Gracey. “It proved that what we were embarking on wasn’t just pure insanity.”

The cast rehearsed for ten weeks before filming began – an uncommonly long time for any film project. “With stars of the calibre we were working with, they basically could do two films in the time we did one,” says Gracey. “It really had to be a passion piece for them.” Much of the filming took place in Brooklyn’s Marcy Armory, a 5500-square-metre military facility. Two choreographers from Gracey’s commercial days, Ashley Wallen and Daniel “Cloud” Campos – “masters of the art of dance”, according to Gracey – put the cast through their paces. Gracey can dance, he says, “enough to convey an idea. And then, quite often Ashley will say, ‘OK, I get the idea. Stop; you’re going to hurt yourself.’

“There were some incredibly detailed numbers that took a lot of takes to get right. You look at it in the film today, and it looks effortless. Which is how it should look. Zac and Hugh standing together – they look like two big-time Hollywood movie stars of old. If you flipped this film to black and white, it would just look like a classic film of the early days of Hollywood.”

Apart from one unplanned fire on set – Efron has said that Jackman carried him from the burning building, “every girl’s dream” – it was a joyous shoot.

“I’m a huge believer in the idea that the mood of the set comes across on camera. If people are stressed or angry and they’re fighting, it doesn’t matter if everyone smiles on ‘Action!’ – you don’t believe it. You don’t see it in their eyes. For a film like this, I think the real magic is that you see people who are having so much fun doing what they’re doing. It was just a joy to turn a camera on it.”

Some historians have dismissed PT Barnum as a cynic and swindler; the idea there’s a “sucker born every minute” is popularly, if falsely, attributed to him. But Gracey sees the impresario as a champion of individuality. “I think the message is celebrating what it is to be different and unique. It’s a really important time to be conveying a message like that.” The Greatest Showman will also be the first big-screen showcase of Jackman in all-singing, all-dancing mode.

“He fought for this film to happen,” says Gracey. “He was just spectacular. And he has to wear a lot of this responsibility of living up to a title that literally says ‘the greatest showman’. You’d better deliver on that.”

When The Greatest Showman is released in the US and Australia, Gracey will be at home in Melbourne for a time-honoured family December tradition: in lieu of presents, the Gracey siblings dust off their instruments and put on a Christmas Day concert for their mother. “We hit the same wrong notes every year, in our limited repertoire, but that performance will still be happening,” says Gracey. “It’s our standing engagement.”

Darryn King

Darryn King is a freelance journalist based in New York.

@DarrynKing

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