Three years ago, almost to date, The Greatest Showman came out in theaters and it was BIG. It felt to me like it took over everything for a while. Everyone was talking about it. My musical friends, my non musical friends, kids I babysat, my grandparents — it was a show that everyone could love. It’s something you watch when you’re having a bad day and you don’t want it to be bad anymore. It’s a movie I could watch two times in a row, and that’s saying a lot for me. So why do people love The Greatest Showman so much? Is it the catchy music, the famous — and attractive — actors? It’s definitely not Zac Efron’s bad lip synching. I’m sure that a part of it is some of those things, but I am here to guess that there is much more to it than that. We are all dreamers of our own, outcasts searching for a home, for love, and for confidence in who we are. Nothing shows this in such a raw and relatable way like The Greatest Showman.
The very opening scene of the show shows the desire of a dreamer. Whether we are big dreamers like P.T. Barnum, or even small dreamers, we can all relate to the feeling of the opening number. In the beginning it seems like Barnum has it all: a crowd cheering for him, a show stopping team behind him, and all the money he could need. He is a star; a dreamer’s dream. Although there are all these people sharing the stage with him, everything revolves around him. He has the biggest smile on his face, and we as viewers share in his desire as he says, “Everything you ever want, everything you’ll ever need. And it’s here right in front of you.” With his arms open wide and his chin held so high, the reflection of the spotlight on his skin and costume seems like his glory and fame radiating out of him. We crave that. We feel that joy. And then we feel it when it is stripped away.
It is a feeling we know all too well, when our dreams fade into a reality. We see Barnum’s dreams slip from his grasp in that opening scene. Before we know it, his pose starts to fall. He slowly brings his arms down to his side, he lowers his chin. The music fades and the lights dim as we hear a hesitation in his voice. We quickly go from “everything you ever want, everything you ever need,” to seeing him be left with nothing. We relate to that moment… when you wake up from the daydream. It’s the struggle we each know, and that is how they get us to buy in.
However, it doesn’t end there. He gets that dream back someday. That’s where they give us dreamers hope. He has it all again, the crowd, the money, the show, and yet he gives it away. Barnum realizes he is so happy with everything he had before, he doesn’t even need the dream. That is what gives us inspiration. This is what allows us to not only cope, but thrive in our reality. We walk away from the movie inspired. It shows us that our dreaming isn’t a bad thing, but it’s what we make of reality that matters.
We also see ourselves in the desire to belong and be proud of who we are. We are each an outcast in their own way. Everyone knows that middle school feeling of trying to fit in, and honestly calling it a “middle school” feeling is quite the understatement… It is a life feeling. To us, it often feels like every single flaw we have is on full display to others. Whether it’s big or small, everyone has something (or things) they are self conscious of, or something that makes them different. However, we are all “others”. When we realize that we all have something that is different, but those things don’t keep us from finding a place to belong, everything changes. Everyone needs to be told and reminded of this once and a while, and almost nothing tells it better than the individual characters and their stories in The Greatest Showman.
When Barnum came looking for Charles, his mother claimed that she didn’t have a son, she was so embarrassed by him. This embarrassment was internalized in Charles as well, seeing that he was too ashamed to even come out of his room.. Until Barnum gave him the confidence. See, Barnum showed Charles something he had never seen before, someone who wasn’t ashamed of him, someone who not only wasn’t repulsed by what made him an other, but celebrated it. Charles finds this confidence and runs with it; it changes him. We see this when Charles sasses Queen Victoria herself. His ability to do this shows a drastic change from the person who couldn’t even open the door of his room at the beginning of the show. His face lit up when she laughed, because he wasn’t laughing at him the way he used to be laughed at, because the laughter didn’t bring shame, it brought purpose.
A similar thing happened with Anne and her brother, the trapeze people of color. They knew that they were Black, and that they would not be welcome as performers. When Barnum first accepted them into the show, they didn’t think he could possibly understand. Anne says, “People won’t like it if you put us on stage.” But Barnum does it anyway. When the invite from the queen came, Anne again guessed that because of their color, they weren’t going to be included. But Carlisle stands up for her. He says, “I guess I’ll just have to tell the queen that either all of us go, or none of us will.” We see a change in Anne in this moment. Her hurt face breaks into a smile and there is a sparkle in her eye. We can see the feeling of belonging appear on her face. She is not just seen as something more than a color, but loved for it, too.
Most importantly, the bearded woman shows us that you have the power to belong on our own by having confidence in who you are. When all of the circus members are rejected from joining the party by Barnum, the one who they thought gave them confidence and belonging, she shows us that we don’t even need someone to bring us out of the darkness, we have that power in ourselves. This moment is followed by one of the most powerful songs in the show “This is Me”, where the circus members stand up in front of the party of elitists, in front of the crowds that held torches to their home and called them names that I know I couldn’t recover from, and they say they are proud to be who they are. Even if the crowds went away in that instant, and the lights, the money, the applause, those characters would be changed for good. We walk away from this show seeking to have that kind of confidence in ourselves, and believing it can happen. I have to say, I am really really glad middle school is in my semi-distant past, but I do kind of wish 12 year old Abby was around a little later so she could have seen The Greatest Showman. I think she would have benefited from the messages that 1) dreams are great, but reality is where you can make an impact and 2) belonging can come from people you love, but it mostly comes from confidence in yourself.