The Greatest Showman (2017) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Celebrates the birth of show business and tells of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.

  • Orphaned, penniless, but ambitious and with a mind crammed with imagination and fresh ideas, the American entertainer, Phineas Taylor Barnum, will always be remembered as the man with the gift to blur the line between reality and fiction. Thirsty for innovation and hungry for success, the son of a tailor manages to open a wax museum; however, he soon shifts focus to the unique and the peculiar, introducing extraordinary, never-seen-before live acts on the circus stage. Now, some people call Barnum's rich collection of oddities, an outright freak show; but, when Phineas, obsessed for cheers and respectability, gambles everything on the opera singer, Jenny Lind, to appeal to a high-brow audience, he will lose sight of the most crucial aspect of his life: his family. Will Barnum, the greatest showman, risk it all to be accepted?

  • In the late 19th century, P. T. Barnum and his troupe perform a show at the circus ("The Greatest Show"). In a flashback to Barnum's childhood where he and his father Philo, a tailor, work for the Hallett family, he becomes infatuated with their daughter, Charity. Charity explains that her father is sending her to finishing school, and she does not know what her future will be, but Barnum explains that he expects great things from his future, and reassures her that they will not be separated. The two keep in touch through letters until they meet again in adulthood ("A Million Dreams"), eventually marrying and raising two daughters, Caroline and Helen, in New York City ("A Million Dreams" reprise). They live a humble life; though Charity is happy, Barnum craves more.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The film opens with Phineas Taylor "P.T." Barnum (Hugh Jackman) joining his circus troupe in a song ("The Greatest Show"), playing to an enthusiastic crowd as he and his performers put on a dazzling show.

    We cut to Barnum as a young boy (Ellis Rubin) in the 1800's, working with his tailor father Philo (Will Swenson). They arrive at the home of Mr. Hallett (Fred Lehne) and his daughter Charity (Skylar Dunn). P.T. makes Charity laugh and spit out her tea, prompting her father to smack him across the face and forbid him from going near her. Regardless, P.T. and Charity spend time together and develop a close friendship in song ("A Million Dreams"), even as Charity is forced to go to a finishing school. They write letters to each other and eventually reunite as adults, where Barnum proposes to Charity (now played by Michelle Williams).

    Barnum works for a trading company until his boss tells everyone that they are shutting the company down due to bankruptcy after their trading vessels have sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Barnum goes home to Charity and their daughters Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely). He brings home a spinning lamp, or "wishing machine", for Caroline's birthday. Charity and the girls all make wishes, and Barnum hatches an idea.

    Barnum goes to the bank for a $10,000 loan and uses the deed to the (sunken) trading vessels as collateral. With the money, he opens up a museum devoted to oddities, because he thinks people are fascinated with things like that. The museum fails to attract business, and most people reject the idea.

    Barnum then goes around town searching for unique individuals. Among them are a dwarf named Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), a bearded woman named Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), an obese man called Lord of Leeds (Daniel Everidge), a hair-covered man referred to as Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna, Jr.), and an 8-foot tall man. Although initially viewed as freaks, Barnum manages to get them all to put on a musical number of shows that win over crowds every night ("Come Alive"). One who remains unimpressed is critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks). Despite his lack of interest in Barnum's show, Bennett inspires him to rename his show as "P.T. Barnum's Circus".

    The circus starts to bring in healthy profits, leading Barnum to move his family into a luxurious mansion, as well as being able to put Caroline in a ballet school. However, she becomes discouraged when the other girls mock her for being part of a circus family.

    Barnum later meets a playwright named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). He approaches Philip with the opportunity to join his circus ("The Other Side"), and Phillip agrees on the condition that he get 10% of the profits.

    The troupe is invited to England to meet Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin). She notes that Charles (now going as General Tom Thumb) is exceptionally short, and he makes a crack that she's not so tall either. After an awkward silence, Victoria lets out a hearty laugh. Later, Barnum and Phillip meet noted opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), and they invite her to perform for the show so that she may become known worldwide.

    Jenny joins the show back in the States. She performs before a large crowd ("Never Enough") that includes Phillip's parents, as well as Charity's. The crowd loves her, and Barnum even spots Bennett in the audience appearing to enjoy her. He finds himself falling for the show's trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). After Jenny's performance, Barnum and the others gather with a party, but when the rest of the troupe wants to join the party, Barnum turns them away. Although sad at first, the troupe decides not to let this get them down, as they decide to embrace who they are, regardless of how they are viewed ("This is Me").

    Phillip tries to introduce Anne to his parents, but they disapprove of her because of her race. She leaves upset, and Phillip tells his parents off for how they spoke to Anne. He goes to find her, and they express their mutual feelings for one another ("Rewrite The Stars").

    Barnum goes on tour with Jenny, leaving Phillip as the ringmaster with the show. Protesters continuously gather outside to harass the troupe for their physical differences. The distance proves to be hard for Charity and the girls ("Tightrope"). While celebrating their success so far, Jenny appears to develop an attraction to Barnum, but he remains faithful to Charity. Jenny gets upset and threatens to quit, but Barnum has her finish the tour. After one performance, the press snaps a photo of Jenny kissing Barnum before she ultimately quits.

    Phillip confronts the protesters, but they refuse to leave. When they threaten him and the others, Anne's brother W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen III) throws the first punch, leading to an all-out brawl between the troupe and the protesters. One of the protesters grabs a lantern and throws it at a wall, setting the theater ablaze. Barnum returns home from his tour and greets his family when he overhears about the fire. He runs toward it just as the flames consume the whole building. Phillip runs inside to find Anne, but she is already coming out with W.D. Barnum runs in for Phillip, just as the building collapses. His daughters cry, thinking him dead, until he emerges with an unconscious Phillip. He is taken to the hospital.

    Barnum just sits outside the remains of the theater. Bennett goes to join him, saying that the police arrested the thugs that started the fire, and while Bennett didn't enjoy Barnum's show, he feels that another critic may have called it a "celebration of humanity". He then shows Barnum the newspaper, which shows Jenny kissing him and her announcement of quitting. Barnum rushes home to Charity, only to find that she's packed her bags because the bank is evicting them, but she is also unhappy over seeing the paper, despite Barnum trying to explain himself.

    Barnum goes to drink at a bar. The entire troupe finds him and confronts him. Lettie tells Barnum that while he may not have always done the right thing, he saw them all as more than freaks and gave them a real family and home. Barnum is encouraged to pick himself up and help get the troupe back to performing ("From Now On"). He then runs to Charity's childhood home where the girls tell him that she's at the beach. Barnum goes to apologize to her for being obsessed with chasing fame, and she says all she wanted was the man she fell in love with.

    Phillip, who has recovered, offers to provide his shares from profits to restart the circus. Although Barnum hesitates, Phillip is adamant in being his partner with 50% of shares. Barnum restarts the show in a tent with circus animals and the rest of the troupe. Audiences turn out in droves. Barnum then decides to hand over the job of ringmaster to Phillip so that he can go and watch his girls grow up. Phillip finishes the show and kisses Anne, while Barnum rides an elephant to meet Charity and the girls.

    The film ends with Barnum and Charity watching Caroline perform in the ballet (with Helen playing a tree), and Barnum acknowledging that everything he ever wanted and needed is right in front of him.

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