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Was The Greatest Showman a Fraud?

This is part of a series I’m writing about the meaning of truth. I wrote the first one last year as Fiction is the Lie That Tells the Truth.

Yes! Yes! Unequivocally YES!

The PT Barnum portrayed in, The Greatest Showman is a complete fraud. The movie is a Horatio Alger story of Barnum, coming from nothing and creating the circus. Then, realizing that family is the most important thing, gives the circus to Zac Efron, his protege. We see how Barnum gracefully brings up the downtrodden and socially excluded. He empowers the bearded lady and encourages his protege, despite the protege’s strict upper-class upbringing, to pursue his love of a beautiful black acrobat.

Most of this narrative was created from whole cloth. Neither Barnum’s protege or love interest existed. Barnum wasn’t anywhere close to a civil rights proponent. He was thrust into the national spotlight by exhibiting a slave he promoted as George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid. Barnum avoided New York’s slavery laws by renting her for $500 a year rather than buying her. Buying slaves was illegal but renting them wasn’t. And the bearded lady, who Barnum discovers working in a garment shop in the movie, had actually been exhibited in a cage since she was a toddler.

But does any of this matter to the moviemakers? No. In the middle of the movie, a newspaper reporter asks Barnum, “Does it bother you that everything you are selling is fake?” Barnum’s reply is, “The smiles are real.” The movie even ends with Barnum’s quote, “The noblest art is making other people happy.”

Musicals inherently are unreal—solipsistic and overly emotional. Looking at them with a rational mind, they’re easy to judge. I’ve judged the musicals of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul before. Pasek and Paul wrote all of the songs in The Greatest Showman. They also wrote Dear Evan Hansen, which I was convinced was making a mockery of suicide and would be harmful to at-risk teenagers. Then I learned about all of the teenagers who found comfort in the show. It helped them get through their emotional issues about suicide and depression. I was wrong to judge the show. The message of the show wasn’t meant for me and it was resonating with the audience that needed to make sense for the world. The lesson for me: “Don’t judge. Just sit back and appreciate the story and the music and try to find the larger message.”

So what’s the message that our friend, the fraudulent PT Barnum, is bringing? It’s about breaking out of a mold and being recognized for who you truly are. The anthem of the show is the song This is Me. It’s about the sideshow performers finally getting respect and being appreciated as stars. The bearded lady leads the rest of the sideshow, breaking into an upper-crust Victorian party to belt out the song. This never happened.

There’s another story of breaking the mold that did happen in this movie. The actress Keala Settle plays the bearded lady. She’s a phenomenal singer who isn’t the classically beautiful type to play the lead in a musical. As one actress said, “It’s like going to a casting call for Beauty and the Best. You audition for Belle, they call you back for Mrs. Potts, and they cast you as the spoon.”

Under normal circumstances, Settle wouldn’t have the starring role in a blockbuster musical. There are very few musical roles for overweight musical actresses outside the show Hairspray. While the bearded lady never became famous on her own terms, Keala Settle did. That’s why I find the workshop video of Settle singing the song so much more powerful and real than when the bearded lady sings the song in the movie.

Clearly, the movie is a fraud in some ways but truthful in others. Jonathan Haidt talks about this dichotomy in his book The Righteous Mind. He examines a college football game. It’s easy to negatively judge it as a raucous, loud, drunken gathering where college athletes can receive life-altering injuries. But if you’re in the middle of it, college football creates an energy and community far beyond its outward trappings. It creates a feeling of school spirit that doesn’t make sense from the outside. (1)In this pandemic, it’s so much easier to judge things from the outside because we aren’t coming together as a group. I wrote about how important doing human things together like sharing a meal are in building a shared understanding.

These hidden truths come up in unexpected places—easy to judge and oddly profound. My favorite is a video about the meaning of togetherness and what we’re missing in the pandemic—brought to you by Absolut Vodka.(2)This video was made before the pandemic but it still shows what we’re missing out on. Absolut created an advertisement/music video that distills the feeling of an awesome party. Of course, this is a video created by a company that creates a poisonous substance that enables many different crimes. But alcohol does help to create awesome parties. The video encompasses the feeling of a party so well that it’s my eight-year-old son Ari’s favorite music video. It precisely captures what it means to be alive, connected, and having fun.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 In this pandemic, it’s so much easier to judge things from the outside because we aren’t coming together as a group. I wrote about how important doing human things together like sharing a meal are in building a shared understanding.
2 This video was made before the pandemic but it still shows what we’re missing out on.