P.T. Barnum was an all-American scrapper, a self-built from the bottom up businessman of the highest caliber, a man who saw money-making opportunities everywhere he looked, and, was ahead of his time and in others, was very much a product of his times. Most famous for creating the recently retired Barnum & Bailey Circus, last year filmmakers took his life as loose inspiration for the crowd-pleasing, slow-burn box office smash, The Greatest Showman.
The story plays fast and loose with history, its notable changes being a villain in the form of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, who like everyone in Barnum’s life, becomes infatuated with his charm, and then leaves him to a scandal when he rejects her romantic advances to run home to his wife. Of greater public concern for some is the ‘whitewash’ of Barnum into a likable but flawed exhibitionist, who displays ‘freaks’ for profit. The real Barnum aside, if that’s all you see when you look at the film, you are missing the deeper perspective.
The Greatest Showman is a re-envisioning of a man’s life, both as an epic musical and as an American fairy tale, while also being symbolic of the nation of his birth itself. Barnum is both Barnum, and the American spirit. Rags to riches and self-made men is American; embracing oneself despite the opinions of the elite, is also American; the portrayal of his attitude and reception among the Europeans is American; the glitz, the glamour, even the ignoring of the seediness of life, is the American dream. Musicals parallel and symbolize, not to show reality; just as My Fair Lady did not show the ugly reality of living in the street (with Audrey Hepburn dancing about in flower-decorated lanes with a light dusting of soot), The Greatest Showman does not show the ugliness of circus life.
Instead, it tackles a bunch of modern-relevant issues and time-honored problems—Barnum is on a never-ending quest for social acceptance, and clings to whatever he can find that will carry him higher. He never realizes until a scandal threatens his entire life that all he “needs,” as his wife Charity says, “is the admiration of a few good people,” meaning his family. Tear away the trappings of success and ambition, and what you find at America’s core is a deep root of family-centric appreciation.
The ‘circus freaks’ struggle for acceptance in a world that scorns them for being unusual, for looking and sounding different, for having the wrong skin color, or being too overweight, or having a beard, or being an albino; they only find themselves by stepping away from Barnum (who brought them together) and asserting their independence; they learn to accept who they are, and proclaim to humanity, ‘This is me!’ which is also an American trait. Americans have a reputation as brash, showy, business-minded and proud; they deal with the rest of the world with an attitude of, ‘This is who I am, deal with it.’ The American attitude differs from the rest of the world; it’s less cultured than France, less stoic and self-contained than England, less appeasing and neutral than Sweden, less traditional than Japan, a mix of every culture, belief system, and group imaginable.
America is not, however, a place without persecution, and the film does not stray away from that; in the mob’s racism toward Anne and her brother, the Bearded Lady, and the other circus folk, we find a sharp, hard reminder that American ideals (this is a place you can be anyone, and do anything) often conflicts with reality (behavior does not match ideals). It deals with Barnum’s ‘use’ of the circus ‘freaks’ in a low-key way (he rejects them when they conflict with his desire for popularity and the respect of the upper classes) as both a condemnation of Barnum as a character, and as a condemnation of American behaviors that do not match their ideals.
Though some see the musical as a ‘white-wash,’ I think it isn’t; I think it’s an entertaining experience meant to uplift and entertain, but also a subtle criticism of intolerance, prejudice, and shame. It declares that we need not have public or social acceptance to learn to embrace our true self, it asks the characters to take responsibility for their own actions, and not demand tolerance where they cannot find it, it teaches Barnum that the best love comes from those who know and love you despite yourself (his wife is a constant critic of his selfish ambitions), and it leaves you with a smile on your face. It is not a biographical work, it’s an American myth set to music, a fairy tale full of subtle virtues.
And, it’s a splendid show, and for that, Barnum would be proud.