Is “The Greatest Showman” the Greatest Show? by Kayla Eason

You can’t get me to sit down and watch a musical all the way through often, but when you play The Greatest Showman you will have me locked in for a full two hours. Before taking a course on musical theatre I never fully appreciated the genre, except on a few occasions like watching The Greatest Showman. Director Michael Gracey did an incredible job of shaping the narrative of this musical. It is undeniable that the talent of this film is incredible from Zendaya’s acrobatic character to Hugh Jackman as the carnival owner. The cast of the film is incredible, showcasing the beautiful differences between individuals and why it makes each of them unique. The film has a powerful message of not only where having a dream can take you when you work hard enough to accomplish it, but what greed does to those who do not remember their humble beginnings. In all, P.T. Barnum teaches us what happens when you follow your dreams. His cast of outcasts who eventually learn to love their differences and become a family teaches us the importance of inclusion and staying true to yourself, all with elements of a beautiful story, a wonderful cast, and songs that will live on past the screen. 

           In the opening scenes, we are introduced to the song “A Million Dreams as we learn the history of Barnum and his wife. The two were star-crossed lovers living a very simple life that seems unfulfilling to the two of them. We quickly learn that Barnum is a man with big dreams and plans of success for his family. The song talks about all of the great things that he and his wife would do together. They sing “Every night I lie in bed, The brightest colors fill my head, A million dreams are keeping me awake.” By the end of the scene, we see the same young hope in the magical world he has created for his daughter. From the beginning, the character has a look of ambition in his eyes. He is the type of person who will not stop working until he accomplishes all of the million dreams in his head, and then more. P.T. Barnum and his family appear to be your normal looking American family. He has two young daughters who appear to be your girl next door. Upon first glance, they do not appear to be the type of people to open up a carnival and recruit one of the most unique groups of people to work for them. But when they do they have extreme success in not only building a profitable family business but a show that inspires the masses.

           The characters in this musical are what makes it so magical. Barnum recruits a dwarf, a bearded woman, a giant, the “heaviest person alive”, and a beautiful acrobat along with many other diverse individuals to complete his array of unique characters for his carnival. The costumes that these characters wear make the visuals so rewarding and meaningful to the audience. Each character has a unique difference, making them all the more special. Some of my favorites include Lettie Lutz, the bearded woman with a magical voice, and Anne Wheeler, a black acrobat who never quite found her place until joining the circus. When Barnum first finds Lettie she is a young woman with no confidence. Barnum appreciates her for her uniqueness and talents and transforms her into a performer. The same goes for Anne Wheeler. This character, played by Zendaya who may I add is one of my favorite people of all time, is both unique and beautiful in her own way. She presents herself with such grace as she performs her acrobatic trapeze talents. She glides through the air with ease and beauty in scenes both by herself and with her soon to be partner Phillip Carlyle (played by Zac Efron). Before even seeing the musical, you can imagine the power couple that this is, and they do not fail to give us this passion on the screen as well. What makes the cast of the circus so great is that they each have their own talents that make them then. As the film progresses each character recognizes how special their talents are and how it makes them unique.

           It is amazing seeing the growing confidence of the characters in the musical. Being a part of the circus family provides them with confidence in themselves that they never had before. Most of these characters have learned to live in the shadows and hide the differences that make them great. In today’s era, it is not as easy to understand exactly how cast out of society individuals like this would be. But the movie, set far back, exemplifies how horrible some of these people were treated. One of the most telling scenes is when they are at the party, but kept private in a room because they “wouldn’t fit in there” in the opinion of the guests attending the party. The characters soon come together in the song “This Is Me”. The lyrics “I am brave, I am seen, I make no apologies, This is me” ar3e representative of the self-worth that they have found for themselves. These are all people who have been ridiculed and secluded through their lives for their differences but have just now learned how to embrace these differences. “I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies” they sing. It makes it even more remarkable to think about the movie being set in the 1850s. While it is still arguable whether Barnum is exploiting them for their talents or not, they do benefit from his help. They learn to love themselves and each other regardless if Barnum fully appreciates their individuality or not for the right reasons.

           The soundtrack of the musical is why I can appreciate it. One of my personal favorites, “Never Enough”, is one of the most memorable songs of the musical. Barnum recruits Jenny Lind, the world-famous opera singer to join her show. He ends up falling for her beautiful voice and ruining his relationship. Nonetheless, this character is very special. Her cherry red hair paired with pale skin and a white wedding dress make her an image of beauty. Add on the beautiful voice she sings with, she is very remarkable. Her image is much different from any of the other talents Barnum recruits which makes her stand out differently than the rest of the characters. Her image is quite different and perhaps this is the reason Barnum recruits her. While her voice is beautiful and unlike anything anyone had ever heard, she has a different image than the rest of the circus and the uniqueness that these flamboyant characters had created. She looks perfect, but as we sing we can recognize that she does not view her life as such at all. She Jenny sings about how no matter what she does it will never be good enough. The lyrics voice “Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world but it’ll never be enough.” From my perspective, her character explains that no matter how talented, or in her case how beautiful, it is hard to feel like you are accepted and enough for everyone. She is not satisfied until her grand American debut despite the talent she knows she has.

           The Greatest Showman is a great story about how important inclusion is. Success can come from people and places that you least expected. While very cliché, the phrase never judge a book by its cover never stood more true than in this movie. The movie celebrates what it means to be an outcast seen in the way the show grows popularity as audiences fall in love with the members of the carnival and their unique talents. It celebrates humanity and the importance of loving and appreciating ones’ self. The positivity of the musical is contagious as each member of the circus pours their heart out in every performance they give. The director takes this story and modernizes it, adding elements that are attractive to today’s audience. The film adds more elements to the ongoing discussion of equality in today’s society. The message of dreaming big and rising past all obstacles is something anyone can benefit from. In Barnum’s sense, ambition is a great thing but can often get away from you and turn into greed. I am no musical theatre critic, and the list of musicals I have watched was not very extensive before this class, but this is a musical that I was able to appreciate to the fullest. Perhaps it is the modernization of the story or perhaps it is the messages of the songs that speak to me in particular. Nonetheless, I appreciate what director Michael Gracey did in shaping the narrative of the film. Should he ever make a sequel, I can say I will be first in line to view it.

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