The Greatest Showman Strikes a Deeper Chord

I wrote this article for a class, which is why it's a little more formal than the posts I usually share here. Or, in the words of Shawn Spencer, "It lacked all nuance, my signature mocking tone, and was utterly devoid of emoticons." =) 

“When the sharpest words wanna cut me down,
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown ‘em out.
I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be.
This is me."
These lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, sung with a breathless intensity by Keala Settle, are the heart and soul of The Greatest Showman, a musical that, in just over a month, has become an unqualified hit, topping the Billboard 200 and iTunes charts and bringing in well over $100 million at the box office. The film tells the story of P.T. Barnum’s ascent to fame and the way his circus changed entertainment forever.
Given the beautifully written score, dazzling costumes, all-star cast, and excellent performances, the movie’s commercial success is no surprise. However, this particular film, and its soundtrack, are quickly becoming ubiquitous in the tradition of Rogers and Hammerstein and Walt Disney. The movie owes its popularity not only to the director, composers, and actors, but mainly to the word-of-mouth and social media frenzy that has spread The Greatest Showman – and its message – like wildfire. Beyond the broad appeal of stars like Hugh Jackman (Wolverine in a musical?) or Zac Efron and Zendaya, who both attract the Disney Channel demographic, there seems to be a deeper resonance that transcends its entertainment value. The film and score speak to the desires of our souls: acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption. That these elements are also found within the gospel of Christ is hardly a coincidence and can serve as a powerful reminder to believers.
As mentioned, “This Is Me” has become the movie’s theme song, inspiring hundreds of covers and earning an Oscar nomination. (Keala Settles, who plays the “Bearded Lady” Lettie Lutz in Barnum’s circus, will be performing the song at the Academy Awards.) Lettie and the rest of the circus “freaks” sing “This Is Me” after Barnum, their former champion, excludes them from a party. His rejection is merely another wound to add to the lifelong sting of shame felt by these people who are startlingly, painfully different. As Lettie comments, “Our own mothers were ashamed of us.”
The response to this particular song has been overwhelming, and not just because of its powerfully anthemic melody or Settles’s inspired performance. It is speaking to people at a spiritual level – who hasn’t felt shame for simply being themselves? To be despised, feared, or rejected for whatever is “different” is a rejection of a whole person – one who is created in God’s image. Such was the life of the circus performers; in a time in which “sameness” was valued as a moral principle, to be an “oddity” not only broke propriety, it was practically criminal. The film also portrays the relationship between Barnum’s partner Phillip Carlyle and Anne Wheeler, an African-American acrobat performer in the show whose only “difference” is the color of her skin. Their relationship was indeed considered criminal by many at the time, and it takes a tragedy for them to overcome the prejudices keeping them apart.
The circus troupe also finds among themselves a community, a respite from those who kept them hidden away. They quickly bond by finding common ground in their very “otherness” and ultimately in the art they create together. When protesters gather with angry accusations and demands for the performers to once again go into hiding, the group rallies together to defend each other. Even when Barnum goes bankrupt and their theater is burned down by the protesters, the performers insist on finding a way to rebuild, because to accept defeat is to lose the only family they have.
Brokenness and Redemption
            Beyond Barnum’s charm and charisma, his most prominent trait is ambition. Even as a young boy, he promises his future bride:
“I think of what the world could be,
A vision of the one I see,
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take;
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make.”  
But what began as a lifelong quest to create a life of adventure that he and his childhood sweetheart Charity had planned slowly morphs into a relentless pursuit of approval and fame. While Barnum is not rejected for the same reasons the performers are, he still feels the sting of being considered “less than” by the merits of his birth. Class distinctions were deeply ingrained in society and rising above one’s station was no small task. Proving himself, especially to his condescending father-in-law, becomes less about monetary success and more about achieving a certain notoriety that even the city’s upper crust cannot ignore. Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” who tours with Barnum and represents that “other world” in his mind, is portrayed as his ultimate temptation, the prize to accompany his journey to fame and fortune. As she sings, “Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world, but it’ll never be enough… for me,” we are given a look into each character’s yearning for what they cannot have: Barnum for success, Phillip and Anne for love, and Charity Barnum for the heart of her husband.          
Fortunately, at least in this semi-fictional portrayal, Barnum ultimately refuses the opportunity for an adulterous affair (although one could argue that an emotional one had already taken place.) While he does have the good sense to return to his family, he quickly realizes just how much he had truly sacrificed for his so-called success. In the wake of the disastrous fire started by the mob of protesters, he faces both financial and personal ruin. It is his own employees that encourage him to fight for what they have created – not just a show, but a family. In one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, Barnum sings (in perhaps Hugh Jackman’s best performance in the film) of chasing “someone else’s dreams” and how -- looking at a picture of his wife and daughters -- he can now “remember who all this was for.” Naturally, the movie’s happy ending shows the family (both the circus and the Barnums) reunited, Anne and Philip happily in love, and the circus as magical as ever.
            Other recent movie adaptions of musicals, such as Sondheim’s Into the Woods or even Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, have enjoyed commercial success, but there is something about The Greatest Showman, a cult-like following that has risen up and surpassed any love for similar movies. Those who love it really love it; audiences are not just seeing the movie once, but multiple times, and listening to the soundtrack on repeat. (The fact that a “sing-a-long” version of the movie was made available in theaters only a few weeks after its original release, with audiences already singing the songs from memory, is proof of this.)  Perhaps, beyond the fact that it’s just plain fun to watch, audiences are also refreshed by a family-friendly movie, one that relies on pure entertainment value and not sex or profanity for its excitement.
Furthermore, is 2018 all that different from Barnum’s day? Compared to the 19th century, diversity and tolerance are certainly more “mainstream,” but, ironically, the very resources that connect us also have the ability to divide and alienate like never before. Technology makes it easier than ever to reject or ridicule those who are different in some way -- whether physically or ideologically, we know that “different” is usually equated with “wrong.” No wonder people are thrilled at being told otherwise.
What can we learn from this public response? The Greatest Showman’s message is inspiring, but ultimately that message is meaningful to us as Christians because its truth is found in Christ. We can unapologetically declare “this is me” -- not just as an empowering statement but as God’s handiwork, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by the Creator of the Universe. We should also be reminded that we are surrounded by people who feel marginalized or alienated and are in search of acceptance or redemption. We can offer them our compassion, our love, and ultimately the Good News of salvation.

With the ugliest of hate speech found across both political aisles, emboldened white supremacy, belated responses to widespread sexual abuse, and other political, racial, and religious tensions in America today, a movie that preaches (or sings) about positive, uplifting themes is worth celebrating. However, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because… there is no such thing.” People can offer love and acceptance that only repairs so much damage; ultimate healing is found in Jesus. The response to The Greatest Showman reminds us that people are desperately seeking fulfillment and connection, and we have a message for them that will outlast any brightly lit theater or memorable song: the gospel of Jesus Christ. With His gift of eternal life, we can truly look forward to being “home again.”

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