Dreamers and Outcasts

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.

Who am I?

 It seems like I’ve been chasing the answer to the question “Who am I?” for my whole life and still haven’t quite found it. I think for everyone, the search for identity is a common question. Almost 3 years ago, I was asked to write an essay for a scholarship application, and “Who Am I?” was the only prompt. This seemingly simple question really threw me off and I thought about it for weeks. Last minute, I ended up writing a pretty basic answer that was good enough to win the scholarship, but far from good enough to satisfy my own wonder and need for identity. I think that might be why part of me is jealous of Tevye’s daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. 

Jewish, female, and a part of a family. These three qualities defined, almost in entirety, who Tevye’s daughters were with little else left for self exploration. Ever since the beginning of their lives they knew who they were… or at least who they were supposed to be. Jewish, gendered, and a part of a family. Although it was restricting, it provided them with a set identity and secure sense of belonging. 

Tevye’s daughters first and foremost receive their sense of identity as a member of the Jewish community. When Tevye first mentions the non-jewish people in their village, he calls them the “others.” with a tone in his voice that makes it very clear how he feels about them. In a world where the Jewish people are made outcasts, the people of Anatevka have created their own community of belonging. Within their community, the mold is exactly what they are; all they have to do is follow the path that is laid out for them. 

The people of Anatevka find this path first in the Torah and its law. The Torah is like a “how to” for their life, full of rules and standards for them to follow. If anything in the Torah isn’t clear all they have to do is ask the Rabbi, and he will tell them what to do. At the beginning of the show, a young man comes to the Rabbi and says he has a question. Instantly everyone around them becomes quiet or is shushed. This clearly shows from the beginning that everyone has high respect for the Rabbi and his words. The young men are eager to follow him and learn. This is also seen in the wedding scene, when the wedding guests argue if it is wrong or not for men and women to dance together. The same effect happens, the people grow quiet and move closer, they lean in to see and hear what he will have to say with their eyes open wide. What the Rabbi says goes! When he says that dancing is not forbidden, the whole room eventually begins to dance.

Outside the word of the Torah, the cultural traditions of the Jewish religion also help define their path and who they are. Before the show opening song Tevye states, “because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is… and what God expects them to do.” It’s the simple things from how they dress–always wearing a prayer shawl and keeping their heads covered–to their behaviors. Some of these behaviors include their observance of the sabbath, their family roles, and their relationships with one another. 

The Jewish community in Anatevka also finds a sense of who they are through the gender roles expected of them in their society. This is seen through the portrayal of the men and women in the working environment. There are countless scenes of the men hard at work, and their movements in their jobs are sharp and aggressive. They are shown pulling waggons, chopping wood, smashing metal, and butchering meat (with their knives choreographed way higher in the air than I believe would be necessary). The women, in contrast, are shown doing jobs that are clean and gentle. We see them kneading dough (which arguably should be quite aggressive, but somehow isn’t), sliding food in and out of the oven at the perfect time, scrubbing children, ironing clothes, and folding the laundry. Showing how both genders do their work reflects their roles in the home and society, men as the big and strong authority figure, and women as the soft spoken, delicate keeper of the house. 

We also learn a lot about the gender roles and expectations of the people of Anatevka from their portrayal of movement in the Wedding Dance. The females movements are gentle, and they quickly fall in line. We see their chests and chins held high during their simple calm movements, with sweet smiles always on their face. They float from movement to movement like they float from task to task – quickly and quietly, sweetly and delicately. We see all of this contrasted with the movements of the men on the other side of the rope. Their movements are much less controlled – even sloppier in a way. Their arms flail out of choreography, their claps are much sharper and more aggressive. They also have bottles of alcohol as a key component of their choreography, which the women do not have. Men in Anatevka have much more freedom and say in what they do, while the women’s role is to quietly obey and be the prized possession of the men, little to no attention drawn to them. The contrast between male and female dancing in this scene show that the lives and expectations were different, but very clear. Each person is called to fit in on their side of the rope, with the small square they are allowed to dance in almost like the small space for freedom of individuality they are allowed to explore.

Finally, they find identity and belonging through their family. Family is extremely important to the people in Anatevka. There is no divorce, and a part from extreme circumstances, families rarely separate. We see this clearly in the relationship between Tevye’s daughters. The sister’s close bond is clear in their first song “Matchmaker.” We see them helping each other complete their chores and get ready for dinner. The choreography so well depicts each girl knowing exactly the move her sister is going to make next, and either assisting her or letting her shine. They sing and banter together, knowing exactly what will take the funniest but still playful jab at their sister, but not going too far as to hurt her (as someone with a sister, I know that this is a perfect art). 

We see this love and bond even further during the dance at the wedding. When the three oldest sisters dance together, their love for each other shines through. They each take turns looking at each other, with a great affection in their eyes and approval in their soft nods. They also show how fond they are of each other when Tzeitel gives each of her younger sisters a soft kiss on the cheek when they break a part. This shows that even though she is getting married, their sisterhood will never go away. They will be there for each other through thick and thin. They prove this at the end of the show when Chava comes back to say goodbye to her family after doing the unthinkable: marrying a Christain. Regardless of her status with the community, Tzeitel runs to greet her with a hug as soon as she sees her, showing that after even the worst, nothing between them could ever change; they will always be sisters. 

In Anatevka, you could be known and belong if you followed the mold, and a small part of me wonders why anyone would want to break that. It sometimes seems like being told who you are might be easier than trying to figure it out for yourself. As Tevye says, “without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” So… who am I? What are my traditions, identity, and belonging? I still don’t know, but maybe “shaky” isn’t a bad thing. Shaky pushes us forward, stability just holds us back from being who we truly are meant to become.