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Did Fox and Hugh Jackman just checkmate Columbia’s plan for a PT Barnum biopic, the pitch for which was announced only weeks ago? It would seem so. Variety says that Fox has tapped Jackman to be the lead in The Greatest Showman on Earth, a musical take on Barnum’s life and business. That is a surprise and it isn’t. Casting Jackman as a singing, dancing lead isn’t rocket science, but why would any studio bankroll this project right now, no matter how determined Jackman might be to bring a couple musicals to the screen?

Sex and the City writer Jenny Lind is to script, and the project sounds like it will reinforce the fictions about Barnum (think the erroneously attributed ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’ persona) rather than really exploring his actual character. Someone with only a passing interest or familiarity in musicals might think that’s just right for the mode. But the great thing about a musical done right is that songs and staging can cut right to the center of character, so this doesn’t have to be just a showy gloss on an American icon. And perhaps it won’t be. The as-yet unwritten score is planned to be ‘contemporary’, with British singer Mika possibly writing music and lyrics. No director has been announced.

The trade says “Jackman will play the showman with a penchant for hoaxing a gullible public as he creates the three-ring circus that made him famous. The musical also focuses on his infatuation with singer Jenny Lind — the so-called Swedish Nightingale.” Lind is being developed as a role for Anne Hathaway, and yeah, this whole project is basically growing out of Jackman’s last stint hosting the Oscars. Which I didn’t think really went over that well with broad audiences, but Nielsen numbers might seek to prove me wrong. (In fact, they seem to: Jackman’s viewership and ratings were up over Jon Stewart’s turn the year before, but the shorter, more brisk ceremony and Slumdog Millionaire factors must be considered.)

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