In The Greatest Showman, Zac Efron, who sang and danced his way into our hearts as part of the cast of High School Musical, costars with Spider-Man Homecoming actress Zendaya. Both have joined the circus in this film that stars Hugh Jackman as circus pioneer P.T. Barnum, finding themselves romantically drawn to each other on screen. Zac plays theater performer Phillip Carlyle, being trained as Barnum’s ringmaster protege, while Zendaya is Anne Wheeler, described as a “daring, taboo-breaking, pink-haired aerialist.” The Greatest Showman is a musical that, by focusing on Barnum, explores the birth of show business itself as he follows his dreams and captures the imagination of the world.
The circus he created back then would some day become a part of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. It is against this backdrop that the romance of Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler plays out, and while their potential relationship shouldn’t be a problem, given the film’s setting in the 1800s it certainly becomes one. At the time, people did not embrace the idea of an interracial couple.
“It’s tragic that Anne and Phillip can’t love each other in the way they long to literally due to the color of their skin,” observes Zendaya. “At the time, it would have been dangerous, so most of what they can do is just exchange looks. For Anne, it’s especially hard, because she’s dealt with racism all her life and now she’s slowly falling in love with the exact kind of person she always thought hated her. But love is not something you can control. Love just happens to you.”
“Although Phillip’s feelings for Anne are completely real and justified, they’re also forbidden by society at that time, and it’s really sad,” adds Zac. “That was a very different time, although even today social boundaries and differences go on preventing love and preventing people from uniting with one another. The big breakthrough for Phillip is that moment he realizes that you don’t have to live within the constraints that everyone else has drawn. You don’t have to follow rules that are wrong. You don’t have to color inside the lines. You can be your own person.”
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Which, in many ways, becomes the theme of the film itself, as it gradually empowers almost everyone within it with the ability to accept themselves for who they are and what they dream to be. Zac points out that Phillip is someone who grew up extremely privileged, yet in many ways is feeling trapped. “I think he’s lost sight of who he is inside his success, and he’s searching for something more,” he says. “Then he meets Barnum and sees that P.T. just doesn’t care what people think. He doesn’t follow the rules society has set and he celebrates that same spirit in his shows. It’s liberating for Phillip and the beginning of a great friendship.”
And within that friendship, combined with joining the circus, Phillip begins to see things as they are. Zac enthuses, “There’s just this burst of life that he’s never experienced. It’s like he’s opened a door and he’s seeing the world with all of its true colors for the first time. It’s a real epiphany for him.”
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The circus is just as eye-opening to Anne, with Zendaya pointing out, “To me, Anne is very confident, very poised and very comfortable in her own skin, at least when it comes to being in the circus. I think that’s what the circus does for all the Oddities [in years past referred to as ‘Circus Freaks’]. It allows them a place where they can believe in themselves, where they can experience respect and love and have a safe space to be who they are.”
The opposite side of that safe space was no doubt the grueling dance rehearsals that were a part of the production, although Hugh Jackman admits that he was pretty blown away by what Zendaya was able to accomplish. “She’s a true star,” says Hugh, “but also a true hard worker. When she dances, even though she’s with twenty of the best dancers in the world, your eye goes straight to her, and when she sings it is something so pure.”
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“My body has been through a lot,” laughs Zendaya, who also went through extensive aerial training, “and I’ve had lots of bruises and soreness to show for it, but it’s been so worth it, especially seeing director Michael Gracey’s vision come to life. I never in my entire life thought that I would be flying around in the air, but I’m very proud of myself, because I tried my best and came way out of my comfort zone. Now I’m no longer afraid of heights!”
Amazingly, despite a background of singing and dancing in the High School Musical trilogy and the film Hairspray, Zac found himself pushed to new heights of his own. “This was some of the most technical choreography I’ve ever attempted in my entire life,” he explains. “To prepare for it, I watched a lot of musicals. I watched Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, even Michael Jackson, because of the way he always told a story with his dancing. And then we rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed — and then we rehearsed some more.”
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But in the end, as far as he’s concerned for himself and the love story between his character and Zendaya’s, it was well worth it. “Falling in love in a musical number on camera is one of my absolutely favorite things to do in the world,” Zac points out excitedly. “I’m not ashamed to say it. I know it’s pretend, but when you get to live in that kind of moment for a scene or two, it feels amazing. It brings you back to Gene Kelly and Singin’ in the Rain. Are there any better ways to express true love than in song?”