P.T. Barnum’s Descendant Speaks Out on ‘The Greatest Showman’
Elinor Biggs loves The Greatest Showman, the 20th Century Fox movie musical that opened during the holidays and is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Though she may not be an influential critic, her opinion matters to many. After all, she is the great-, great-, great-granddaughter of P.T. Barnum, the subject of the movie starring Hugh Jackman as the 19th century American entertainment impresario—and a Connecticut favorite son.
“I was absolutely thrilled with the enthusiastic response with the audience,” says Biggs, 71, who lives in Fairfield. “And the emails I’ve been receiving are over the moon.”
The film zeroes in on a small part of Barnum’s life when he created the American Museum in New York City in the middle part of the 19th century as he assembled a colorful group of “outsider” entertainers, including little person Tom Thumb, Siamese twins, and a bearded lady.
The film doesn’t deal with the Bethel native’s Connecticut life, which includes his tenure as mayor of Bridgeport, as a member of the state legislature, and as the owner of an ornate mansion, Iranistan, near what is now Seaside Park.
“There was some interpretations,” she says of the filmmaker’s take on her relative. “They definitely had a point of view on the movie. They chose this part of his life and they saw it in a certain way. There may have been a couple of things that were not totally accurate, but I think the essence and the spirit of Barnum was definitely there. His life was one of trials and tribulations and I think you got a sense of that for sure from the movie.
“Barnum was a dignified man,” says Biggs, “so in terms of his demeanor I thought Hugh Jackman carried that off very well. I also had no idea that he was such a good dancer—and I doubt that Barnum was. But I would not have traded one minute of those dances, which were spectacular.”
Barnum, who was the son of an inn keeper, tailor, and store-keeper, died in 1890 at the age of 81. He is buried in Bridgeport’s Mountain Grove Cemetery.
There have been other shows that have dealt with Barnum’s colorful life. There were several silent movies centering on Barnum’s late-in-life circus activity. A 1934 film The Mighty Barnum starred Wallace Beery. Burl Ives played Barnum in The Fantastic Flying Fools, a fictional 1967 film. A 1986 TV movie Barnum starred Burt Lancaster and Beau Bridges starred in the 1999 TV miniseries, PT Barnum. In 1980, there was the Broadway musical Barnum, which starred Jim Dale and Glenn Close.
For the record, Barnum never said the much attributed quote, “There’s a sucker born every minute”—and it is not said in the film.
Biggs enjoyed the musical updates, especially Barnum’s presentation of famed operatic songstress Jenny Lind, which was a highlight of Barnum’s career.
“If she had come out and sung an aria [of the period], the audience would have been lost,” says Biggs.
Instead, the big-note number of Lind, played by Rebecca Ferguson, is as dynamic as a torch song sung by Celine Dion. The songs in the film were composed by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the latter who was born and raised in Westport.
Biggs—as well as Kathleen Maher, executive director and curator of the Barnum Museum on Main Street—hope the film puts a spotlight on the museum, which has faced challenges to the structure of the building following three natural disasters: a tornado in 2010 followed by extensive damage by hurricanes Irene and Sandy.
“I just really hope that the film creates awareness and excitement that can help in the plans for the renovation and the re-envisioning of the museum,” says Biggs. “I have great optimism now about the future of the museum.”
At the end of the day, did the film get Barnum right?
“They got the part of Barnum—the person—that they chose to focus on and they found the essence of him,” says Biggs. “And any liberties they took, as a descendant, I’m very comfortable with. It wasn’t totally out of place and I think you have to look at the movie in its entirety. The flavor of him is true throughout the film. And I think Barnum would have loved the movie.”
Will she now think of Hugh Jackman as her ancestor?
“I’ll still be thinking of the original photographs,” she says, laughing. “I have them on my desk.”