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From sing-alongs to a Hugh Jackman tour, how did 'Greatest Showman' get so huge?

Hugh Jackman stars in the film “The Greatest Showman,” which was a box office hit. [NIKO TAVERNISE | Twentieth Century Fox]
Published Jun. 24

Sing-along movies at Tampa Theatre tend to go over like gangbusters. Grease, Frozen, Mary Poppins, Bohemian Rhapsody — if there's a bouncing ball to follow on the big screen, viewers are usually all in.

But then last summer came The Greatest Showman, the Hugh Jackman movie musical about the life of P.T. Barnum.

"Within a few days, that screening sold out," said marketing director Jill Witecki. "We were getting requests from people saying, 'I didn't get my tickets, I really want to come, when are you going to show it again?' So we added a second screening two days later."

The second show sold out in 48 hours. So they added a third three weeks later, almost as a joke. That one sold out, too.

"We were selling out these screenings as fast as we could get them up on the website," Witecki said.

Only on the fourth screening, in November, did sales start to wane. But by then, Greatest Showman sing-alongs had drawn more than 3,700 fans of all ages to Tampa Theatre, some in costume, some dancing in their seats, some still too young to read the lyrics on the screen.

"It was one of those movies that, for whatever reason, it just captured the public's attention," Witecki said. "It was a movie people wanted to see over and over again."

Greatest Showman fever is about to return to Tampa in a big way. First, on Saturday, Tampa Theatre will host yet another sing-along screening that's well over halfway sold. Then, less than a week later, Jackman himself will arrive in Tampa for a concert at Amalie Arena, singing numbers from Les Misérables, The Boy From Oz and — obviously — The Greatest Showman.

As Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman rack up headlines and accolades, The Greatest Showman might yet go down as this era's defining movie musical. Its Grammy-winning soundtrack was the world's bestselling album of 2018. In America, if you take out streaming data, it sold twice as many copies as anything else. It spawned a covers album with songs by Pink, Kelly Clarkson and Panic! at the Disco; that album debuted at No. 3.

It was never a given that The Greatest Showman would become this kind of mini-industry. While it was a box office hit, many critics weren't sold right away, and it reaped only one Oscar nomination — surprising, considering La La Land, featuring the same musical team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, got 14 the previous year.

And while Jackman is a huge movie star — he has played Wolverine in at least 10 films tied to the X-Men universe — he has also had his share of flops. (Chappie, anyone?) An arena tour built around his musical roles was not an immediate slam-dunk proposition.

"I never thought it would do poorly, but I was surprised that that many people bought into it not exactly knowing what they were buying," said Kevin Preast, vice president of event management at Amalie Arena, where the Jackman show has been one of this summer's fastest and hottest sellers. "When you buy a ticket to go see Queen or Elton John, you have a pretty good idea of what you're getting. But people gave him the benefit of the doubt and said, 'This guy is going to entertain me; I'm not going to miss this.' Which is pretty powerful."

So are all the things The Greatest Showman has going for it. All the things critics might not have embraced during its initial theatrical run — anachronistic pop numbers, unapologetic theatricality, a giant, inclusive, family-friendly heart — have given it an unexpectedly long tail. Its messages of loyalty and self-acceptance, best summed up in the Oscar-nominated anthem This Is Me, have resonated with fans who weren't even born when Jackman starred in Les Misérables. Preschool ballerinas dance to The Greatest Show and A Million Dreams in competition; there's a Kidz Bop version of This Is Me.

At last year's sing-along screenings, Witecki and her 3-year-old daughter didn't know all the lyrics. But "there was a whole row of kids in front of us that were maybe 8, 9, 10 years old that were all in costume, all knew every single word of the movie. Boys and girls."

Those fans are a big reason The Greatest Showman's story isn't over yet. Jackman and producers have said a sequel is a possibility. Beyond that, only a fool would bet against a stage adaptation — and Jackman is interested, although he has already committed to a Broadway revival of The Music Man first.

"When we were putting this together, we workshopped it like we would a Broadway show," he told Vulture last fall. "So I've been in rooms several times doing the material, and I know it works. My theatrical bones know that would work."

For now, it's just a film, a soundtrack and a concert tour. And at Tampa Theatre, there's hope that Jackman's trip to Tampa will fuel even more enthusiasm for the sing-along.

"We all joked, with not a grain of seriousness, that maybe if Hugh heard about it, he'd show up," Witecki said. "We can always dream."

You never know. Sometimes a million dreams pan out.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

If you go

Sing-along 'The Greatest Showman'

$13, $10 members. 3 p.m. Saturday. Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St., Tampa. (813) 274-8286. tampatheatre.org.

Hugh Jackman

$61.25 and up. 7 p.m. July 5. Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. (813) 301-2500. amaliearena.com.

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