Theme: Celebration of Humanity
The critics hated it but the audience loved it, making The Greatest Showman a box office hit. Like the greatest show itself which the critics panned and the audience adored, fans of 20th Century Fox’s new hit musical couldn’t get enough of this celebration of humanity. And while it is a semi-biographical story of the famous showman P.T. Barnum, beneath all the glitz and glitter there is a very human love story. A love story so grand it requires a very big tent and invites all to come in and join the circus.
A Million Dreams
The story begins with a flashback to the meeting of two children, Phineas Taylor Barnum, the son of a lowly tailor and Charity Hallet, the daughter of a wealthy society family. The young P.T. is imaginative and creative with a million dreams filling his head. As he sings the duet with Charity, the events of their childhood friendship turning to young love play out on the screen.
Phineas is left orphaned, homeless, and hungry when his father dies. After trying to steal food to survive he is given a gift of life, an apple by a mysterious hooded figure with a marred face.1 This is Edenic imagery for sure but it is the restoration of Eden, not its Fall. The whole apple is offered as a free gift of grace, and Phineas lives.
In the next scene he is a young man and successful enough to return and claim Charity as his bride. They set up home in a small apartment and dance among the sheets on the rooftop, a million dreams filling their heads and soon two little girls to share them with. Even the loss of this job cannot quench the life welling up within him. P.T. creates a wishing machine for his daughter’s birthday present and as the family of four huddles among the sheets with the magical lights swirling around them Charity makes her wish for this happiness to last forever.
Using the deeds from sunken ships for collateral, Barnum borrows money and buys a museum of curiosities . . . wax figures and dead animals. It is a temple of death and it isn’t any wonder people are not interested. Out of the mouth of babes (his daughters) comes wisdom . . . you need something alive not dead, sensational not stuffed. Looking down at their desk he sees two things: a book, Tom Thumb and an apple, and he remembers.
He remembers the gift of life he was given by a marred human being and he remembers a tiny man he observed in the bank’s waiting room. Finding Charles Stratton, he offers him the apple of a new life: come out of the shadows of shame and fear and be the star of his show.
And as the song Come Alive plays the invitation goes out to all and sounds something like this:
“Blessed are the physically repulsive,
Blessed are those who smell bad,
The twisted, misshapen, deformed,
The too big, too little, too loud,
The bald, the fat, and the old . . .
For they are all riotously celebrated in the party of Jesus” 2
After watching one of his daughters being shunned by society girls, he decides to go after “the carriage trade” and persuades the successful young playwright, Phillip Carlyle, to join him. Using his contacts Phillip obtains an invitation for Barnum and his “curiosities” to meet the Queen of England. It is at her court he is introduced to Europe’s singing sensation, Jenny Lind, and takes a bite out of the apple.
Having never actually heard Miss Lind sing but wanting to give his audiences something “real”, he signs her to a tour in America which requires him to risk all he owns. Listening to her sing Never Enough for New York Society, he is stunned by her beauty and brought to tears. The standing ovation she receives from all who have mocked him as the Prince of Humbug exposes the inner condition of his own heart covered with shame and fear. Never Enough is the anthem to those who are broken inside and want something, always chasing after what they think will make them whole.
The “curiosities” who have been thoroughly insulted by Barnum’s putting them in the standing room only section and excluding them from the after party, leave singing their own anthem. This is Me is a rebuttalto Never Enough. The world’s rejection no longer matters, for they have found a place, a home, a family and love. They are brave and bruised, but not broken; more than dust they are glorious.
Celebration of Humanity
After realizing his mistake of leaving with Jenny, Barnum returns home to find his temple in ruins. Sitting in the pile of rubble left after the fire, his most ardent critic gives him a backhanded compliment. Bennett never liked Barnum personally but the people did, for he brought all kinds, colors and shapes, and sizes together. Another newspaper critic might have called the circus a celebration of humanity.
The scandal with Lind has cost P.T. his home, his family, his building and his fortune. Tom Thumb and the rest of the crew find him sitting in the bar feeling sorry for himself. They tell him that while their own mothers shamed them, he Barnum made them a family and gave them a place which is more than a building. Their unconditional love touches P.T. and brings him to a true confession and a deep repentance which he sings in From Now On. A new anthem is born in his heart; from now on he will not be blinded by the lights, chasing someone else’s dream or the cheers of kings and queens. He will remember who all of this was for, and he races back to Charity.
The Big Tent
Restored to his family and friends, P.T. is still at a loss as to how to finance the circus. The worldly banks say no, but his junior partner says yes! Phillip Carlyle may have lost his inheritance by joining the circus but what he received was friendship, love, a work he adores and joy. So in deep gratitude to Barnum, he offers his savings and they become 50/50 partners. Moving from a building to a big tent isn’t just an economical accommodation; it’s a genius idea. From now on The Greatest Show can travel from city to city inviting all people to come in and be a part of the circus.
The film ends with P.T. handing his top hat over to Carlyle and taking an elephant ride to his daughter’s ballet recital. This is the greatest show and it’s everything you could ever want.
The Greatest Showman
When Jesus came into Galilee announcing the Kingdom of God was at hand and inviting the lame, the beggar, the outcast, the leper into His Father’s house it looked much like a circus coming to town. The Temple aristocrats, his great critics, were quick to claim him the prince of humbug and doing miracles and exorcism by the power of Beelzebub the ruler of demons (Luke 11:15).
But to all those who received him, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12), to come into the big tent of His Father’s love, forgiveness and healing, and come out of the shadows of fear, shame, and death. The invitation continues as long as it’s called today, to join His circus and no longer be dust but made glorious, and that is something to sing about!
1. “Just as there were many who were appalled at him, his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness”. Isaiah 52:14
2. The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, pages 122-123