'The Greatest Showman' Glosses Over Its Characters' Real-Life Drama
Hugh Jackman stars as circus founder P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman, but the real talent of Barnum's lifetime was the Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind. Barnum brought her to the United States for a hugely popular national tour, but Lind and Barnum's relationship in real life was much different than how the movie musical portrays it. Even though Barnum's colorful life didn't exactly need added embellishments in the film, The Greatest Showman — which is in theaters now — creates a dramatized telling of the relationship.
The movie portrays Barnum as being infatuated by the talented singer (played by Rebecca Ferguson), which leads Lind herself to fall for her U.S. tour manager. In both the movie and real life, Barnum had a wife named Charity (Michelle Williams). While Lind's feelings for Barnum end up ruining the two performers' relationship in the movie, nothing of the sort happened in real life. According to Vanity Fair, it wasn't a strained relationship that caused the opera singer to end her tour with Barnum early but rather, the singer just grew tired of life on the road after traveling for nine months. As Entertainment Weekly reports, Lind gave 93 concerts in America, which earned her $350,000, and Vanity Fair suggests those earnings would equal something closer to $20 million today.
While romantic tension between Lind and Barnum was completely fictionalized in The Greatest Showman, a few things about their relationship were accurately portrayed in the movie. As the New York Times describes, Barnum acted as a modern-day publicist, or "hype man," if you will, who spread the word about the European sensation known as the "Swedish Nightingale." As portrayed in the movie, Barnum met Lind in Europe and certainly excelled at drawing a big crowd in the United States for the singer. Lind made her U.S. debut on Sept. 11, 1850 in the Castle Garden in Manhattan, which sold out and attracted over 5,000 people.
Rather than become romantically entangled with Barnum, Lind largely stayed away from her well-known suitors, which included Frederic Chopin and Hans Christian Andersen. She ended up marrying her accompanist, Otto Goldschmidt, in 1852. They remained together until Lind passed away in 1887, and based on what Lind wrote about her husband, it sounds like they made a good pair. "We are put together of precisely the same stuff," Lind wrote of Goldschmidt, according to Vanity Fair.
While Barnum's main goals in life seemed to revolve around earning himself fame and riches, Lind had as much dedication to charity in real life as she does in The Greatest Showman. The singer wished to open up a girls' music school in Stockholm, the city where she made her operatic debut at age 17. She was clearly a more upstanding person than Barnum, although the movie ignores most of his problematic real history.
Although it's mostly glossed over in the movie, the man who The Greatest Showman credits with "inventing show business" actually had a dark past with exploiting the talents he included in his circus. From producing blackface minstrel acts to advertising that a blind and disabled former slave woman in his show had been one of George Washington's nurses, Barnum wasn't exactly the greatest person, generally speaking, as outlets like the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker report.
Yet while Barnum may have been an intensely problematic individual, it's good to know that the real Lind, on the other hand, was really just as charitable and talented as The Greatest Showman's portrayal. And in the movie, Ferguson brings her to colorful, exciting life.