As someone who grew up captivated by the spectacle of Broadway shows, I’m not surprised that The Greatest Showman won me over with its glittering costumes, sharp choreography, and romantic drama. I could easily view the movie’s sparkle with a surface-level attitude, appreciating the high production value and then moving on with my life. But there is something beyond the sparkle that is captivating millions of people, even people who wouldn’t call themselves “musical lovers.” And that’s what I want to dig into.
When a piece of art (music, graphic design, a movie, a play) grabs my attention and keeps it, I force myself to pause and reflect. In the case of The Greatest Showman, the spectacle grabbed my attention, but the characters’ courage to ask life’s greatest questions is what kept me engaged. What are our deepest desires? What is worthy of chasing, and what should we let go of? What are we made for? What should our priorities be? I could look at these questions in regards to each principle character’s journey, but I’m going to focus on P.T. Barnum’s journey since his permeates the entire story.
The Love Good Standard states that good media should be beautiful, true, and transformative so that we can become what we love. We can look at this another way by saying that the media and content we take in are the things that influence the choices we make and the people we become. For P.T. Barnum, he rejects boredom and simplicity and chooses to soak in the magic of everyday life, even before he launches the circus. He allows his heart to be transformed by the beauty of his wife and children and the truth of their love. His outlook on life is reflected in the glimmering montage of “A Million Dreams,” which takes him from childhood poverty to working-class adulthood, all while singing and dancing about the world he wants to make.
As he begins to form his circus cast, he doesn’t seek out people glorified for their worldly beauty. He looks at the downtrodden and rejected, chooses them, and showcases their talents so that other people’s hearts may be transformed by their authentic humanity, which has been shadowed by their unaccepted traits. Though his initial goal may have been to economize “freaks,” his heart begins to shape and grow as he falls in love with the people in his circus. His heart is transformed by the beauty of their lives that, like his, have been ridden with poverty, rejection, and obstacles.
Enter Jenny Lind, the temptress whose song we love and actions we despise. Just as we fall into temptation and reject what we know to be true and beautiful, P.T. Barnum allows himself to be pulled away from his biological and circus families when money, fame, and high-society call his name. After living without them for so long, these vices distract Barnum, ultimately transforming his heart to love what is not good for him. He develops feelings for another woman, gives up the circus family he’s brought together, and places success on a higher pedestal than his family. I know we all wanted to hit him, but we’d be lying if we hadn’t fallen into similar traps, if not quite on that level. Our faults and failings are an undeniably important part of our humanity, which reinforces the fact that The Greatest Showman isn’t fluff. It forces us to ask the tough questions.
But I encourage you to remember something vital as these questions are posed: remain hopeful. The Love Good Standard reminds us that beautiful media leaves us inspired and hopeful, and The Greatest Showman follows through on that account. When faced with the decision to devote his entire life to rebuilding his circus, Barnum could have given in to his greatest fault of leaving his family behind, but he didn’t. He chose differently. He chose the truth of unconditional love, the beauty of his family, and the transformation of a new way of life (and new priorities).
I will forever fall for glittering Broadway shows, magnificent costumes, and snappy dance numbers. But as I grow in my understanding of the purpose of media in my life, I’m gaining a new lens with which to view the sparkling musicals I love so much. Instead of leaning into escapism or shallow entertainment, I have the ability to view art with these questions: Is it beautiful? Is it true? Is it transformative? When all those boxes are checked, count me in for the show.
“Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman
feat. Jessamyn Anderson and Jimmy Mitchell