3 Stars – Uncomplicated
The Greatest Showman is a fanciful and light-hearted musical tribute to the life of P.T. Barnum, one of the greatest showmen in American history. The circus that Barnum created was billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth” and in its many years of travelling the country, it became a permanent part of American cultural folklore. In its final merged form, the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus spanned 146 years of history, crossing the country by circus train, and finally coming to its closure due to waning attendance on May 21, 2017.
Circuses, like zoos, give the average citizen a chance to experience first-hand the creatures of mysterious Africa. For most of its history, the public only knew about the exotic elephant or tiger from the circus, and conjured up fantasies of millions of these creatures walking the earth in some distant land. By the 21st century, most people in the world had now become more concerned about saving the last of these wild animals than they were in fantasizing about their home lands. The world has shrunk from the size of an unknown universe to the size of images on a screen in our living rooms or smart phones.
Although short on facts or much depth of character, P.T. Barnum gives us a razzle-dazzle song and dance in the embodiment of Hugh Jackman, who himself entered the world of show business as one of Broadway’s great singing stars. The original tunes come from Oscar-winning La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and give a colorful backdrop to a typical musical where reality is suspended while the main characters sing and dance out their fantasies and fears.
P.T.Barnum was raised in poverty and dreamt of someday living in the fantasy world of the rich and famous. To prove his worthiness, Banum’s youthful love crush, Charity (Michelle Williams) who will eventually become his wife, is the daughter of a wealthy merchant that he wants to impress with his ability to give her the life to which she was accustomed. Through song and dance we experience the Barnum family take a group of social outcasts and create a circus of bearded ladies, midgets, and others discarded by a cruel society. For those who joined the circus, they knew that people were laughing at them, but at least they were getting paid for it.
The Greatest Showman gives us a superficial overview of the possibilities and pitfalls of fame. We see every member of the Barnum clan have to face a variety of challenges and emerge relatively whole. In many ways, it would take away the mood of a light-hearted musical to drag the audience too deeply into psychotherapy.
There are a couple of lessons learned here. The first is that no one achieves these levels of success on their own. Certainly Barnum’s wife Charity is a huge credit to him and supports his work in spite of the mockery and disdain that are often thrown at him by the judgmental public as well as her conservative father. A wealthy friend, Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who has lived the life of meaningless luxury, finds himself in the work that Barnum has created. Through his own growth and emerging sense of compassion for the people of the circus, Carlyle also becomes a valuable partner in the building this entertainment empire.
The second lesson comes from the realization that although Barnum brought together people who were considered outcasts by society for his own personal profit, he ended up creating a place that many of them considered to be the first home and family they had ever known. Barnum bucked the prejudices of the day and ended up embracing these outcasts as loving members of his own extended family.
The Greatest Showman may be primarily an escape into musical fantasy, but its message of acceptance of people of all backgrounds is inspiring. We might all find some aspect of ourselves in the struggles that P.T. Barnum goes through, but it is the modeling of his love for others that becomes the surprise lesson in his life. Like all good stories, this conclusion raises the inevitable question – what is the surprise lesson we’ve learned in our own life?
- To see difference as a curiosity could be helpful if we sought to understand and respect that difference. How do you approach differences in others?
- Why do you think Charity’s father was so judgmental of his new son-in-law and did not even want to know his own grandchildren?
- Do you think the “circus” was a good experience in our history? Why do you answer as you do?