Oh What a Show! — The Greatest Showman


This is where we have a clean break with musicals based on Broadway. The movie musical has elements that makes its performance incomparable with the old theater – the narrative, the music, the dances, plus the ever-powerful eye known as the camera. And here, the eye takes us through the rise and fall narrative based on the life of P. T. Barnum, and the music and the dances really entertain. But we’re experiencing everything for the first time, no expectations, no disappointments, just fresh anticipation that we’ll be going home after the show with a song to hunt down in Spotify to animate our day.

The opening sequence declares, “This is the Greatest Show,” well — it probably is not but surely one of the greatest, yet that exaggeration is fine. “A Million Dreams” is a flashback to the rise of P.T. Barnum, and we are treated to the delight of sights and sounds in a run down house in the forest that soon ends on a Manhattan skyscraper with dance steps performed at the fringes of the roof.

“The Other Side” which is the song and dance performance about two gentlemen negotiating a work arrangement over drinks is plain genius. The technical difficulty of mounting this part of the film deserves recognition. From the choreography that syncopates to the beat, to the lyrics (I imagine this is how Steve Jobs pirated the Pepsi Cola CEO to run Apple in the 80s), and the musical arrangement as the drinks are rolled in and the performers are gulping them to the punctuations of the drum. They must have been drunk after the shoot. Of course, nobody in real life should do that.

The trapeze act with the lovers singing “Rewrite the Stars” is marvelous and breath-taking, another “for show” only, not recommended to be done at home. When the sequence started, I was cringing on my seat, whispering to myself, this can’t be happening. But the performance bar has been set, love is the topic with Romeo and Juliet characters swinging on a fifteen meter high trapeze, nothing can compare.

There is no doubt that this musical has fully explored the artistic possibilities of the film in the musical form, but the question is are we getting enough substance?

In the lectures of Michel Foucault, he spent some time about the predicament of the “freak”, how they have been outcasted by society. Foucault describes the human monster as a breach of the law and stands outside of the law in the 18th century. But in this movie, P.T. Barnum spins this prejudice and turns it into a show. Of course, the pejorative connotations of the circus will probably stick around for a long time, and the New York critic states at the heart of the film that the circus is not art, but somebody else might describe it as a celebration of humanity. That is very clever I must say, a very subdued declaration that is not only double-hearsay and loose opinion, yet it is there floated around for everyone to ponder.

But I would be an advocate for the sole reason that people in those times did not know any better. Freaks were hidden, considered as the offsprings of sinners, cursed to be outcasts, with no hope and place in society. To be able to isolate the thought that the freaks are curiosities but otherwise normal and bet a dollar people will pay to watch the freaks, that is akin to a scientific paradigm shift. So, I am claiming that statement, “The circus was a celebration of humanity.” I said it, and probably will say that again and again. The circus was a breakthrough. We should acknowledge that we wouldn’t have encountered the freaks and the elephants in the normal course of things were it not for the guy who thought that they could be put on exhibit for a buck. Nevermind, if they were made to ride a horse while shooting blanks and wearing weird but happy costumes.

Be that as it may, the sustainability of the circus business is off the table, especially because we know so much more now, and the human and animal rights advocates are saying something right — the freaks are no different from us, and the animals need to thrive in their own environment. Further, this is no way an endorsement of P. T. Barnum as a hero of sorts. While P.T. Barnum of the movie follows Campbell’s myth of a hero, the real life P.T. Barnum is a much more complex character. I’m pretty sure, he played both hero and villain depending on one’s inclinations. This is the tricky part with material based on true-to-life stories, the melding of the fiction and the non-fiction is contentious and the standard of what elements to editorialize or fictionalize is relative. That matter is for the historians to deal with. It is enough that the film declared that it is based on P. T. Barnum’s life, and is not a documentary. Thus, comments about the historical accuracy of the film are irrelevant to its artistic merit.

Indeed, the movie is an exemplification of the “show”. Every note, streak of light, shadow, beat, and word that the movie brings form part of an artistic system that is hooked on the metaphor of the Greatest Showman. The amusing part is it declared that the circus is not one that could be called art, as if to say, and proudly and rightly so, that this movie is.

As a final note, the soundtrack is now on endless repeat mode on my Spotify. Not quite as edgy as the ones from La La Land, which were written by the same guys, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, but the addition of the African drums and the dramatic pauses at the end instead of the grand coda are welcome. These songs relate very well to the mini-events of the daily grind, replete with meaning, a little bit Disneyesque, but might as well be used as a soundtrack for life.

Author: Leon de Pola

Semiotician by profession. Philosopher by vocation.

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