A history of circus musicals on Broadway and beyond

From Barnum to Pippin to the 2024 season's Water for Elephants, many shows have peeked behind the circus curtain or used circus acts to tell other stories.

Caroline Cao
Caroline Cao

Let’s talk about the elephants in the room. The spectacles of circus and musical theatre can easily marry — and have numerous times on Broadway, London's West End, and the screen. Circus may be fun and awe-inspiring, but these shows encompass both lighthearted escapism and the unsavory sides of life in and outside the circus.

The latest addition to the menagerie is Water for Elephants on Broadway, an adaptation of Sara Gruen's bestselling circus novel that showcases just about every trick under the big top. In celebration of Water for Elephants, step right up and learn about even more musicals with circus elements.

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1925: Sunny

Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the book and lyrics for Sunny, which has music by Jerome Kern. The title circus star Sunny falls for a rich playboy, which stirs tension between old money and the wild circus. Prime Video currently streams the 1941 film adaptation.

1935: Jumbo

A Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart collaboration, Jumbo follows a circus in dire financial straits. Original Broadway cast member Jimmy Durante returned to the 1961 MGM film adaptation, which featured outsized choreography of circus extravaganza by Busby Berkeley.

The film has a gag where Durante’s character, a ringmaster, sheepishly tries to hide an elephant behind his back and utters, “What elephant?” While this is difficult to verify, it’s been said that Jumbo popularized the idiom “elephant in the room.”

1961: Carnival!

Adapting the 1953 MGM film Lili, the stage musical Carnival! follows young Lili as she's swept into a traveling carnival. The ingenue gets used to her new employment talking to puppets, not knowing that the ex-dancer puppeteer, Paul, is in love with her. Bob Merrill wrote the music and lyrics, while Michael Stewart wrote the book. Pre-show, the curtain was raised to reveal the set, “a great novelty” according to Howard Kissel's David Merrick: The Abominable Showman: An Unauthorized Biography.

In 2002, a New York City Center Encores! production starred Anne Hathaway as Lili and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Paul, and it featured Jim Henson Company puppets.

1969: La Strada

La Strada might be a die-hard Broadway fan’s musical white whale: Even with multi-Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters starring as Gelsomina, the adaptation of Federico Fellini's 1954 film shut down the day it opened. Some attribute its failure to the depressing premise: Strongman Zampanò purchases poor girl Gelsomina as his assistant. To survive her misfortunes, Gelsomina holds onto her innocence, but a terrible murder shatters her spirit.

Judy Kuhn recorded a lost song, “Starfish,” from the production. The highly regarded Fellini film is streaming on Max and Kanopy. Watch it and envision how Peters would have embodied the tragic, Chaplinesque character.

1980: Barnum

So many of these musicals here were influenced by P.T. Barnum. The bio-musical Barnum premiered in 1980 on Broadway, with Jim Dale as P.T. Barnum, the man credited with pioneering the circus industry.

Mark Bramble’s script captures all of Barnum’s rises and falls in showbiz and politics. As staged, however, the show leaned into spectacle rather than the dark side of Barnum’s practices: It’s now widely understood that his practices were exploitative and discriminatory. His legacy, though, courses on.

A BBC-taped 1986 recording of the U.K. tour is on FreeVee, and it showcases memorable stuntwork by The Phantom of the Opera legend Michael Crawford, who trained at the Big Apple Circus School, as Barnum. No doubt Crawford fans were eager to see Crawford walk on stilts, sing while braving the tightrope, and swing down through the theatre on a rope.

2013: Matilda

The stage musical Matilda, adapted from Roald Dahl's novel about a bookish, mistreated child with superpowers, takes one inventive liberty. Young Matilda’s psychic visions unfold as a tragic circus story. Not only is precocious Matilda channeling her imagination, perhaps expressing her sadness and experience with child abuse, but the visions reveal relevant information about characters' backstories.

On stage, Matilda imagines a disastrous, death-defying stunt in silhouette puppetry, while the 2022 film adaptation on Netflix doubles down on circus imagery. The circus proves to be a fitting addition because it conveys the tension between childlike whimsy and peril that defines Matilda’s life. The show closed on Broadway in 2017, but it's still running in London's West End.

2013: Pippin

Bob Fosse’s original 1973 staging set this musical among the members of a performance troupe. The 2013 Diane Paulus-directed Broadway revival dove headfirst into the circus form.

Chet Walker and Gypsy Snider’s acrobats and stunt choreography (performed by the Montreal-based group Les 7 Doigts de la Main) complement the parable about the young prince, Pippin. As Pippin searches for purpose, the Leading Player, a ringmaster of sorts, surrounds him with glamor, fantasy, and magic.

As the Leading Player, Patina Miller pulled off trapeze stunts night after night (and in the show's Tony Awards performance). Pippin celebrates the joy of its stunts while also illustrating them as temporary joys, true to how Pippin ultimately finds disappointment in short-term pleasures and wants something that will last.

A taping of the 1973 production can be streamed on BroadwayHD.

2017: The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman movie musical is like Barnum, but with a glitzier veneer, contemporary songs, and a Barnum played by Hugh Jackman (co-starring with Zac Efron and Zendaya). Like Barnum, The Greatest Showman was noted for sanitizing the circus legend's history, depicting his business as a refuge for marginalized people.

The biopic winks to audiences by including a critic character as a stand-in for today's detractors. Even if they know it’s fictionalized history, fans enjoy the full-out circus spectacles (an Efron/Zendaya duet sung from a trapeze among them), feel-good escapism, and empowering pop songs like “This Is Me,” sung by Keala Settle.

2024: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants drips with aerial wonders just as much as it displays the dark side of Depression-era showbiz. Student vet Jacob (Grant Gustin), grieving over a family tragedy, hops on a train and ends up employed by the Benzini Brothers Circus. His circus vet life gets complicated when he falls for the alluring horse whisperer Marlena (Isabelle McCalla), who is married to the circus’s ringmaster, August (Paul Alexander Nolan).

Its source material, Sara Gruen’s historical romance novel, was inspired by documented circus histories of elephant incidents and mistreatment. The musical itself does not shy away from the hazards of animal rearing. The star elephant, Rosie, is represented by incomplete puppet body parts for Act 1. Only when Rosie feels comfortable with her handlers does she emerge as a full-bodied elephant.

Under Jessica Stone’s direction, Water For Elephants will be remembered for athletic bodies tossed into the air, stylish and stylized puppetry, a poetic dream sequence, and a wounded horse’s emotions conveyed by gorgeous aerial choreography (performed by Antoine Boissereau). Step right up.

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Photo credit: Water for Elephants on Broadway. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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