How Michelle Williams Transformed Into Her 'Greatest Showman' Role

by Danielle Burgos

The Greatest Showman tells the story of P.T. Barnum's rise to the (big) top of Victorian society after years of struggling to support his family. The key to his success is coming up with innovative ways to entertain the public, shocking them with the unknown, the unusual, and a unique sense of humor. He's helped along the way by his family, including his four daughters and young wife, Charity Hallett Barnum. These photos of the real Charity Barnum show an older, established society woman, not quite the Michelle Williams character portrayed in the movie, but with the film focusing on Barnum's early career, a little creative license can be forgiven. The Greatest Showman is also a musical, so there's already a certain amount of removal from reality going on.

The film, in theaters now, depicts how after tiring of work as a traveling circus man, Barnum realizes there's no need to go anywhere — he can bring the public to his show. So he begins putting together what will become his famous American Museum in New York City, talent-scouting all over the country for people with odd talents and physical abnormalities. When the museum finally opens, the New York public are scandalized and fascinated in equal parts. It's a smashing success, but the Barnums' meteoric rise to fame comes with its own share of problems, and Charity struggles with her husband and marriage.

20th Century Fox

Things started off differently, of course. Despite Barnum being vocally against people marrying young, he and Charity snuck off to wed when she was only 19 years old. In his autobiography Struggles and Triumphs: Or, Forty Years' Recollections, Barnum recalls the first time he laid eyes on Charity, describing her as "a fair, rosy-cheeked, buxom girl with beautiful white teeth." Casting 37-year old Michelle Williams as the character makes sense looks-wise, and as seen in the movie, the actor totally transforms into the role.

While marrying someone barely in their teens is obviously not OK today, it wasn't so uncommon 100 years ago, when the average society woman married between the ages of 18-23. Before then, women lived with their families, as Charity, nickenamed "Chairy," did. Barnum insists this was no cradle-robbing, and in his own biography says both he and Charity were in on the plot to sneak away and get hitched. Barnum recalls,

"Miss Hallett went to New York in October, ostensibly to visit her uncle, Nathan Beers, who resided at No. 3 Allen Street. I followed in November, pressed by the necessity of purchasing goods for my store; and the evening after my arrival, November 8, 1829, the Rev. Dr. McAuley married us in the presence of sundry friends and relatives of my wife, and I became the husband of one of the best women in the world."

Charity went on to help Barnum immensely. After lotteries, Barnum's main source of income, were banned and Barnum's money gambles failed to pay off, he found himself in massive amounts of debt. The historical Panic of 1837, a country-wide financial panic, only worsened the situation. Barnum joined a touring circus to make ends meet. While he went abroad, Charity remained at home with the children, living frugally and buying and selling her own land to help get him back on his feet.

Things finally turned a corner for the couple after Barnum purchased Scudder's American Museum in 1841. He renamed it the Barnum American Museum, and transformed it into a world-famous home for amazements and oddities. This was just the beginning of Barnum's empire, which expanded to traveling circuses, tours, and even a political career. Charity wasn't left behind, though. She wrote an advice column for Ladies Home Journal, as well as other articles for various papers, and joined society events with her husband.

After 44 years of marriage, Charity passed away on Nov. 19, 1873. She was laid to rest in the family mausoleum in Bridgeport, Connecticut's Mountain Grove Cemetery, which Barnum had designed himself. Barnum remarried Nancy Fish, the daughter of a family friend, but was ultimately laid to rest next to Charity. The Greatest Showman celebrates the extraordinary and emphasizes the outrageous aspects of the Barnums' lives together, through both the good times and bad.