Each year on Christmas day, we go to a movie. It’s one of our holiday traditions.
This year, we saw The Greatest Showman.
There’s a word used in the film to describe him and his circus: spectacular. For the most part, those using the word were not being complimentary; they meant it in the way my mom did when she scolded me for “making a spectacle” of myself—foolish or unseemly behavior in public. Barnum’s show was seen as base, common, unrefined.
But for me, the move was “spectacular” in the traditional sense of the word: lavish, grand, impressive. I thoroughly enjoyed it!
Let me say from the beginning that I’d read some of the negative reviews, mostly surrounding the glossed-over depiction of P.T. Barnum. I’m sure he wasn’t the same guy we saw in this movie, any more than Hamilton was the guy in Broadway show. I suspect most aspects of this story was darker. I’m sure the folks who comprised his troupe had difficult lives. Perhaps P.T. was manipulative, cunning and he did exploit them.
But not in this movie.
That is not the Barnum we meet on screen.
Personal Note/Disclaimer: I’m not condoning, excusing or ignoring the harsh realities of his life and his career. I also don’t know if we can superimpose some of our modern sensibilities and cultural awareness on to a different time and place. (e.g., I recently watched an old episode of Quincy about an autistic boy who died, and they continued to use the word “mentally retarded” to make distinctions. Honestly I cringed, and wanted to be offended. Quincy, who was always a champion of the forgotten and oppressed would never use that term today. But he wasn’t living in this day!)
Musicals are not known for presenting reality. People don’t break into song, and dance on rooftops after losing their job. In real life, it’s not typical for a poor, cockney woman to become an elegant, Fair Lady. It’s unusual for a girl, living in an abusive orphanage to be adopted by a wealthy Daddy Warbucks. The Nazis of Sound of Music are not the Nazis of Schindler's List.
The movie has an incredible and incredibly talented cast. And unlike some movie musicals that go for name-value over vocal abilities (I’m looking at you, Mamma Mia! Pierce Brosnan?), these actors have experience, and they can belt it out! Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Ephron, Zendaya and I cannot overstate the show-stealing voice of Broadway’s Keala Settle.
For me, the power of the show comes from two key elements:
- The music.
The songs were so emotional—sad, stirring, inspiring, hopeful. I was captivated, and couldn’t keep still in my seat with some of the numbers. A few times, I found myself wanting to shout at the end of a song. It’s a truly amazing score, written by the team who won an Oscar for La La Land and a Tony for Dear Evan Hansen.
- The message.
Aside from the lavish…dare I say again, spectacular…musical numbers, this movie was infused with some wonderful themes. In the character of Barnum, we see the importance of imagination, creativity and persistence. But I think the most prevailing and powerful message is what it teaches us about diversity, inclusion and acceptance. We see, in the lives of those who are part of Barnum’s circus, that everyone is different, unique in small and large ways. Rather than hide in shame, or allow others to define/confine us or spend useless time trying to change those wonderful distinctives, we can embrace them. Even celebrate them. Barnum did that. And eventually, those “freaks” and “oddities” who comprised his show did as well.
This lesson carries throughout the movie, and is encapsulated in This is Me, one of the most rousing songs of the movie, sung by the bearded lady and the rest of the cast. It's an affirmation of self-worth and defiant declaration: this is who I am...deal with it!!
In turn, we can do the same for the differences of others.
That way, all of us outcasts form a strong bond with other who accept and embrace us for who we are.
We become a chosen family.
Don't we all want that?
When The Greatest Showman movie is over, I didn’t walk away with a clear understanding of P.T. Barnum as a person, but I left with a personal sense of joy. This movie may not embrace history, but for me, it was life affirming.
For two hours, like entering an actual Barnum production, we are allowed to escape the bleakness of our world and our problems. We get to suspend belief, be entertained and amazed.
It’s an accomplishment that would make Barnum himself proud!