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.

Hamilton: New Age America

           

Kayla Eason

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is unique in the sense of community that its cast creates within itself and those that watch the musical. Throughout the course we have read a lot about how representation is vastly lacking on the Broadway stage. Miranda took a risk and put together a cast of actors more diverse than anything currently being shown on the Broadway stage. Largely comprised of African American, Hispanic, and Latino actors, Hamilton was seriously impactful in empowering minorities on the Broadway stage. I would argue that this alone is what accounts for the majority of success the musical generates. Coupled with its catchy tunes and well-choreographed routines, the actors in this musical are particularly successful in recounting a time period where people like them had no sort of place in the roles they are playing on stage. The irony of black males playing the white founding fathers who likely owned slave owners themselves attributes to the success of the music. This along with the rap tunes telling the tales of the time make for a musical with so many elements that draw musical bluffs and first time watchers together to enjoy this piece of history viewed in a new way. Hamilton was remarkable in pushing the needle even further for the representation of minorities in musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s production brought diversity in to a new realm during a present era where racial issues are continued to be heightened, successfully showing that a representation to form community matters and significantly impacts what one may take away from any given production.

            Hamilton tells a story about America then, told by America now. The show takes the reality of what was happening in the past and shapes it into what our country looks like now. The content and production of this musical make a statement in the importance of both embracing our history but also producing something more realistic to modern America. The musical debuted in 2015, but hit the screens of millions of Americans this summer during a time of extreme political uproar. The film on Disney+ could not have come at a better time to stimulate even more discussion about the racial injustices facing America. In this way, perhaps Hamilton is a musical ahead of its time. Miranda recognized that America is changing and took his chance to capitalize on these differences through the arts. He was very particular in his casting, rewriting the narrative to reflect the country we live in our country today. While it is not “historically accurate” to cast the founding fathers of our country as people of color, it is an accurate representation of a nation that was ultimately built by immigrants. This version of history is far more accurate. The result of his vision of inclusion allows viewers to see themselves fitting into the history of our country. Having someone that looks like you on screen allows you to see yourself reflected in the story that is being portrayed. Miranda’s version of history changes the narrative in allowing people of color to see their own importance in the history of their country.

            One of the relationships that I enjoy the most in the musical is the Schuyler sisters. In the Disney+ production the three are played by three very powerful and diverse woman. Their relationships with each other and with Hamilton are crucial to the plot of the musical. By making them characters of color I see them as even more empowered as women in the show. The three all have characteristics that show their strength whether it is Angelica’s wits of Eliza’s strong will and charm. Their song “The Schuyler Sisters” gives us insight to each of the characters. The sisters know their position in society, acknowledging that they are supposed to marry a rich man to uphold their place in society. I would argue that Miranda shapes them as early feminists due to their strength as woman. Upon further thought I have recognized their influence in the world around them in both their public and private lives. Even when they are not together their correspondences indicates that they have a strong bond. Angelica cares too much for her sister to reveal her true feelings for Hamilton and ruin her happiness. This loyalty sticks out as she is more willing to put her own feelings aside to care for her sister. Hamilton is obviously caught in a less than ideal love triangle between two sisters whose bond seems to great to be broken up by one man. I am able to appreciate the relationships between the sisters and Hamilton more because of their diversity and awareness of them self. This aspect creates a sense of colorblindness that allows the viewer to see the relationships in raw form and ignore looks. It is also interesting to note that Hamilton’s financial status has nothing to do with the feelings they have toward him. My preconceived thoughts about status during this time is shrinking as I see these relationships develop.

            I see both the good and the bad in Hamilton’s character. There is still some obvious privilege even though his character is played by a Latino male. Hamilton succeeds based off his natural born talent of wits and leadership. He challenges those with more power and gains respect because of it. In the musical we see Miranda as being successful and it gives us a glimpse of something that could have perhaps happened in present time which was likely Miranda’s intentions. However, if we think of the musical in the context of the time it happened it is easy to understand that his race probably had a large part to do with his early success. He is without a doubt a very hardworking man who was willing to fight for what he believed in despite the circumstance. When I watch the musical I have a slight cognitive dissonance in accepting the fact that someone who looked like Miranda would have been able to have such success even today. But this is ultimately what makes the play great. Miranda’s writing uplifts characters of color by helping us to understand them in today’s time. There is no reason that someone who looks like Miranda should not be successful today given the wits and work ethic he has today. While this is still not the case completely, he gives hope that it is entirely possible and perhaps inspires those to do just that. As I mentioned before, representation is important for people of color. I see Miranda and his cast on stage and think that if they were able to make it this far on the Broadway stage perhaps there has been progress in America.

            Something else interesting to think about is Miranda’s portrayal of Hamilton as an immigrant. America is a country built of immigrants and it is intriguing to think about both Miranda’s contribution to this through his character. Intertwining his Latino heritage with Hamilton’s historical whiteness relates the history of America then to now. My mind goes back to watching In the Heights when thinking about representation of Latinos and Hispanic in musical theatre and how immigration has impacted America. These two pieces of work seem particularly influential for the Latin and Hispanic population in seeing themselves on stage and acknowledging their importance in the history of America, the melting pot of the world. By seeing this, perhaps it encourages more people that look like them to participate in the arts.

            Hamilton was a great musical that generated a lot of conversations and undoubtedly broke a lot of barriers in the Broadway world. To push the envelope further aspects such as slavery could have been addressed to complete the conversation. We still don’t quite understand Hamilton’s stance on slavery due to his relationship with the Schuyler sisters who were a known slave owning family. The play glosses over the issue of slavery, failing to acknowledge its importance during the time. I do not know how exactly it would be possible to incorporate slaves into the film given the racial makeup of the cast, however more dialogue or opposition to the issue would have generated even more praise for the musical and its messages. Nonetheless thought, Miranda took a risk in producing this film and it was accepting well by audiences and critics a lot. As a person of color I see the film as normal or what should be expected of musical produced in the twenty first century. It is not until I take a step back that I can understand that what he did was importance for the representation of minorities in Broadway. Part of me wonders if Hamilton is so successful because its diverse cast, or if it could have accomplished nearly the same fame with a traditionally white cast. Regardless, the musical is an example of how to cast productions. For me, learning about our history may have more of an impact if representation was considered. People of color deserve to tell the stories of America as they were just as much a part of shaping the country we have today. It is uplifting to see how a musical can spur larger political conversations and challenge the traditional thinking of Americans.

The Power of Race in Women

While two very different musicals, we can find similarities in the two main characters from Miss Saigon and The King and I. Both productions have a female lead in which love is inevitably part of the story. Miss Saigon is the tragic story about a young Vietnamese women, Kim, who falls in love with an American G.I. right before the fall of Saigon. Her story ends tragically with her sacrificing her own life to give a better life for her son. The musical teaches us a lot about what it means to be a Vietnamese woman during this time and the limitations they face for mobility in society. The next musical up for analysis, The King and I, is about a white woman who comes to the country of Siam to teach Western ways to the King and his many wives and children. In an increasingly westernized Asia, Anna works to teach the children Western ideas that inherently conflict with oriental traditions. This conflict, however, is why Anna is brought to the country, but her disruptions do not come unnoticed in changing the ideals of many of the characters in the musical. Both characters can teach us different things about gender and race in various cultures. This includes the independence and knowledge of the white female in comparison to the desperation and male dependence of the Vietnamese female in a poor country during this time. By looking at both characters carefully we will be able to better understand what it means to have power as women in different contexts and how race and social status impact this experience.

We can begin by understanding the sexism and racial implications of the play Miss Saigon. Kim is a victim of the sexist system present in Asian countries at this time. In the opening scene of the musical we learn that her virginity is her most valuable asset according to the Engineer, the man selling her adolescent body to bargoers. Kim’s innocence is obvious in her doe-eyed expressions and even her costuming. She is one of the only women in the scene not wearing a provocative outfit, but a white dress which, for many, symbolizes virginity and innocence with almost her whole body covered up. We learn that Kim understands that her fate is likely not in her own hands. The song “Dream” teaches us that her only hopes of escaping prostitution include finding a man who is willing to take her far away from her current life to a better life in America. Men are gawking over her in the bar, objectifying her body until Chris comes along and takes her away from the scene in order to protect her. In this setting it is understood that Kim’s character is written to be weak. She has little to no control over her own life as a young Asian woman in a country experiencing war while she is at war with her own reality. Kim’s character seems to be weaker than the other female characters in the musical. At least the other prostitutes seem to move with confidence going with their respective males for the night. Kim on the other hand is reluctant, still young and looking for more than just a one night stand, she is looking for a man to bring her to a better life.

Men dominate the life of Kim. First it is the Engineer who pimps her out to men in a bar while exploiting her virginity as if it is some commodity that deserves to be advertised. Then when Chris comes a long nothing else in the world matters to her except for that man. From that first night everything that she does is out of a love for him and eventually the child of theirs that she bears. Kim’s character is ultimately hopelessly in love with a character who, in my opinion, does not deserve half of it. The only possibility of empowerment for Kim’s character is reuniting with Chris upon arrival to America. We can understand a lot by analyzing the historical context in which Chris and Kim met each other. For Kim, Chris’s promise to get married is everything to her. It is the only promise she has for a new life and an escape from a country that is in its downfall. For Chris, he does not have to face the reality of living in a country as poor as Saigon for the rest of his life. At the end of the day he still gets to return back to America and live a normal life without all the violence and terror that Kim experiences. With this knowledge, it makes it a little more understandable why it is exactly that Kim holds on to this hope with Chris for so long. Her gender, race, and socioeconomic status provide her with no reasonable means to make a life for herself. As a result, she becomes a character who is dependent male support for the rest of her life, which can be seen from the beginning of the musical with the Engineer being the one to bring her into prostitution and determine her fate for the rest of the story.

In The King and I, Anna’s race provides her with a much different fate than that of Kim. Anna’s character is much more strong in herself, embodying power in all the areas that Kim lacks. She is the minority in a palace filled with Siam royalty, but her confidence and self-awareness is of discussion. In “Getting to Know You” Anna sings with genuine emotion and wins over the hearts of the children and all of the King’s wives. Anna shows strength within herself in refusing to take anything less than she deserves from the beginning of the musical. She gets into a heated discussion with the King about the promises he made to her before her arrival, almost leaving when the King does not fulfill his promise to her of her own separate place to stay. In this way she challenges male authority to an extent and displays her power. Unseen by the females in Miss Saigon, could it be Anna’s whiteness and confidence in western ideas that allows her to take on this role? Anna only succumbs to the King’s terms when she meets the children she was assigned to teach. Her love for children and others drives her success in the musical and brings others to like her, including the wives’ of the King. It is not even long before the King is beginning to fall for the charm that Anna embodies with her self-confidence and knowledge.

Throughout the musical Anna continues to relay her Western ideals to the King and others. Upon learning about Tuptim’s love affair she pleads for the King to be more understanding. After the big party Anna challenges the King’s ideas about women, explaining to him the worth that woman have and that women are more than what a man gives them. Soon enough, the two of them are dancing with one another intensifying the relationship they have grown. Her power is exemplified with her teaching the King to dance. In this scene we can see her power beginning to break down the complex the King has up and their romantic relationship start to grow before it is interrupted by some unfortunate news. Anna’s character brings so much joy to those around her showing that confidence in one’s self changes how all characters interact with one another and the ultimate fate of a woman in this time. Anna is unrelinquished in her pursuit for the fair treatment of woman, calling the King out for all of his faults that contradict the western ideals she is trying to impose on him. Her passion for others and confidence in what she believes in drives her character forward.

It is interesting to understand the intersectionality of race and gender for both of these characters and how it is similar, but different for each character. For Kim, the combination of the two provide her with no power. This disadvantage leads to the inevitable fate of her character. Without the authority over herself to make a better life, she succumbs to a lack of self in the ultimate sacrifice of death she makes at the end. On the other hand, the combination of race and gender is what allows Anna’s character such success in the musical. Her western ideas and female charm is what wins over the trust and respect of most characters. She even begins to break down the emotional walls of the King who is the most stubborn character in his Oriental way of thinking. The song “Shall We Dance?” shows how her balanced display of confidence and intelligence wins over the King, opening him up into a more vulnerable state that it seems no other character was able to bring out. It can be argued that this confidence towards pursuing the King proves to be too much in the end, humiliating him in front of his own people, yet ultimately trickling down into the way the new King will plan on ruling his people.

Power has to do not only with one’s self, but interactions with others in all contexts. In the case of these two musicals it is how others see them just as much as how they see themselves which helps us to understand them. Kim is simply pitied and almost abused by those around her while Anna’s place in the story is to come in and help a foreign culture. She has respect from the beginning simply because of her race and the cultural environment of the time. In many contexts, race is one of the largest factors to determine one’s success which has all to do with power. Anna has more power and respect by simply being white, which is something still relevant and extremely prominent today. Therefore, we can understand that power cannot necessarily be earned, yet often times we are born with this right. It leads me to believe that because of Kim’s race and social status she was ever able to have the power that a white woman like Anna had, and the story only highlighted this aspect of her life. It is easy to understand that from these times so long ago not much has changed in the importance of race and the respect you earn from others. Two opposite female characters in Asian countries have the ability to teach us this, a lesson that many have continued to learn and experience.