The Greatest Showman, a musical that tells the story of P.T. Barnum (the circus guy), is more than entertainment; it is somehow an image of both the way the world is and the way that it should be. Not since Titanic reentered theaters in 3-D in 2012 have I sat in a theater until after the credits ended, both questioning and affirming my life and the way in which I approach the world. This movie is a feat of music, dance, and art, and it is also a feat of the heart.
Here are a few things it taught me.
It is so hard to feel special. As a child Barnum is orphaned and homeless. He is not taught to dream, but he dreams anyway; he has the unshakeable feeling that he’s destined for something great. He uses charm and wit that, to the audience, are so clearly qualities of a remarkable person, and yet he doesn’t seem to see these qualities in himself. Even after he has success he finds it nearly impossible to be happy. Got a 500-pound man? Make him 750. Got a circus? You’re missing the European opera sensation. In reaching for bigger and better things, Barnum strays farther and farther away from his essence and from the people he loves. Coming from so little as a child, it is next to impossible for him to escape his lasting shame to feel proud of what he has done. Once he realizes what matters, though, it’s no coincidence that he makes his success with only the people he loves and a tent. Feeling special isn’t about having the best spot in Manhattan or the most famous star in the world; it’s about the intangibility of believing that your specialness is true.
What is most human about us has nothing to do with color or class. This almost feels too obvious to write, but a scan of any newspaper shows that this truth can’t be taken for granted. We see this truth throughout the movie: Zac Efron and Zendaya’s love; Barnum’s reception among the New York socialites; the tension between the circus “freaks” and the protestors who wanted them to stay away, to stay hidden. Even Barnum falls prey to this way of thinking at one of his lowest points, forbidding the circus performers from joining him at his recently earned cocktail hour with the social elites. In response, the circus performers stand up for their humanity and their right to exist just as much as the people who make up their audiences. They remind us through song that everyone is a person, no matter what you look like, whether you’re paying or getting paid.
“You are unique. You are beautiful.” In developing his venture, Barnum interviews people who have lived in the shadows: a bearded lady; Siamese twins; a man with a tattooed face. He delights in what makes each person unique, but he also acknowledges that the world shuns them. This is most apparent when he first calls at the home of the midget. At first he tries a bit of a harsh approach: “they’re laughing anyway, kid, so you might as well get paid.” When this argument flops, Barnum changes course, appealing to the man’s personal feelings and desires. That’s what does it. Upon finding the bearded lady, he says, “You are unique. You are beautiful,” to this woman who literally hides her face. After similar encouragement, the whole circus crew grows into a family strengthened by love and freedom from judgment, exhibiting a microcosm of what can happen in a society in which everyone puts the most unique part of themselves proudly on display.
Movies tell us what we want them to tell us. I strongly believe that the stories we tell both reflect and build our society. It is no surprise to me that this film, which has been in development since 2009, finally found its place in 2017. This year, far more than in the last eight, American citizens and artists have felt called to tell stories about people who questioned lines drawn between colors and classes, people who were celebrated for being different, people who found ways to feel special and to be true to themselves. The fact that this movie finally arrived this year shows how desperately our society is in need of these ideals and how hungry we are to see them fulfilled.
Let’s all promise to see each other’s uniqueness and beauty and to see our own, and to work toward a world that looks just a little bit more, in a good way, like a circus.
PS: Honorable mentions to look out for in case you haven’t seen the movie yet:
- Female empowerment: I got really nervous for a second that Zac was doing the classic rom-com male in pursuit, but Zendaya was a boss.
- How to approach critics: president, I’m looking at you. Barnum actually becomes friends with his biggest critic. They don’t agree, but they both make each other better and force each other to see the world in new and different ways.
- The way status is symbolized by hats: wearing them, not wearing them, switching them, sitting on them. It’s pretty awesome.
- A range of musical styles and dance inspirations (I personally spotted MJ and Beyonce; what else did you see?), just another reflection of accepting all kinds of people and of this movie showing us exactly what we needed to see in 2017