A year ago the movie world was buzzing about a hot new movie musical that was winning over critics and audiences alike and winning all the awards. Well, almost all the awards. A year later, there's a new movie out which isn't doing quite as well, even though, it's actually a much better musical. La La Land was the hottest movie in theaters last year, and while that wasn't without good reason, the simple fact is that The Greatest Showman is actually a much better musical. You heard me.
To be clear, La La Land is a good movie. In fact, it's a great movie. It won Academy Awards for acting, directing and cinematography (among others) because those qualities of the film are excellent. It also saw two of its songs nominated for Oscars, because the music is also fantastic, but that's only half the battle when you're filming a musical.
The songs in musicals aren't simply there for entertainment value. They have purpose. They're part of the story. Songs represent moments in a film where emotions boil over and result in characters expressing themselves in song. They work like fight scenes in an action movie. When done right, they help tell the story in addition to being fun to watch, and this is where La La Land fails and The Greatest Showman excels.
I've been watching a lot of Disney movies recently as part of an ongoing project, and I recently rewatched The Little Mermaid. On the Blu-Ray release of the film are clips from a lecture that lyricist Howard Ashman gave Disney animators during the film's production. Ashman wrote songs for Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and he's the reason those three films have some of the best music in Disney history. He puts it as clearly as you possibly can. In a musical, music is information.
Music, for me anyway, is information. It's a way to get character and plot information across. So you want music to be information. You want it to develop story or character in some way, so the song will carry its own weight and justify its existence.
Put simply, as director John Musker does later in the Blu-Ray extra, if you can remove the song from the story and your story still makes sense, then you haven't done your job properly with the music. By that logic, La La Land didn't do its job properly.
Go back in your mind, or go watch La La Land, and remove the songs. The plot remains almost perfectly intact. Only the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone duet number "A Lovely Night" contains any information which the film requires to keep a coherent story. Even La La Land director Damien Chazelle admitted that there were different edits of the movie which contained one number or another cut from the film. Something which could be done, because the songs are utterly superfluous. "Another Day of Sun" is a beautifully shot and perfectly edited sequence that is completely unnecessary to the story. Emma Stone is absolutely amazing in her performance of "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," but cut it out, as the director nearly did, and you realize it's not strictly necessary.
Compare that to The Greatest Showman. If you start removing songs from this movie the entire story falls apart. Take out "The Other Side" and Hugh Jackman's P.T. Barnum and Zac Efron's Philip Carlyle never become partners, because that entire transaction takes place in a song. Carlyle and Zendaya's Anne Wheeler never admit their love for each other without "Rewrite the Stars." Barnum never finds his redemption without "From Now On." On the character development side, the showstopping "This is Me" is a direct reaction to the story and gives the audience insight into the emotions of the circus performers. Without the song, we don't understand how they feel, and without that, their actions later in the movie would make no sense. All these songs contain vital information of one form or another that is gone if the song is taken out.
Nearly every great musical has a number early on where the main character sings about their dreams. It's the song on which everything that follows is based, it's literally referred to as the "I want" song. In the aforementioned The Little Mermaid it's "Part of Your World." In the more recent Moana it's "How Far I'll Go." In The Greatest Showman, Hugh Jackman sings the rather obviously titled "A Million Dreams."
At no point in La La Land to either of the leads ever sing about what it is they really want. This is a classic musical element that's necessary if you're going to connect with your main character that's missing entirely from a movie that claims to be a musical.
There is plenty to be critical about when it comes to The Greatest Showman. The film plays fast and loose with history, leading to a story that has to piece together a mediocre story around its big musical numbers. But as far as those musical numbers do, they do their job within the context of the film.
Not every song in every musical needs to justify itself in this way. The song which opens and closes The Greatest Showman, the nearly self-titled "The Greatest Show" isn't strictly necessary to the film any more than "Another Day of Sun" is, but on the whole, Showman does a much better job of making its songs necessary than La La Land did. The Greatest Showman isn't a great film, but it's a fine one that happens to be a great musical. La La Land is a great movie, that happens to include songs in it.