My nine-year-old daughter has a new musical love.
She’s through with Matilda, Mulan and the Little Mermaid. The Descendants have descended. Even Frozen has been let go.
Now a new film is top of the bill, the soundtrack played ‘til the whole family surrenders.
It is, of course, The Greatest Showman.
I mean, what’s not to like? A lady with a beard. Siamese twin acrobats. A giant Irishman who isn’t Irish. General Tom Thumb. A dog boy. Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron. Zendaya (49.7 million followers on Instagram).
Good story too. Poor boy meets rich girl. Poor boy waits ‘til rich girl has finished finishing school, then they marry and have two children. Boy (now man) takes out huge loan to buy the American Museum in New York. Children politely explain no one wants to go to look at waxwork models. Man turns museum into a circus for a live cast of ‘Oddities’. Show attracts large audiences despite protests and poor reviews. Man wants to further his reputation amongst upper classes, so persuades upper-class playwright to become his partner. New upper-class partner falls in love with trapeze artist, who’s not only lower class but African-American. He’s white and it’s the 1800’s, so even holding hands is out. Man also persuades famous Swedish opera singer to tour America. Swedish opera singer promptly falls in love with him. Wife less than amused. ‘Oddities’ fed up they never see man anymore because he’s always off with Swedish opera singer, so they have to stand up for themselves against local protesters. Man finally refuses opera singer’s advances, she decides to leave tour but they get photographed kissing goodbye. Wife even less amused. Circus burnt down by protesters. Upper-class man tries to rescue trapeze artist from building, although she isn’t even in there. Man has to rescue upper-class man. Wife returns to her parents with children. Man’s mansion is foreclosed upon. Circus props all destroyed. Man walks into a bar to find Oddities. They persuade him to rebuild circus. Man gets back together with wife. Upper-class man gets together with trapeze artist. Upper-class man agrees to fund rebuilding of circus for 50% share. Man has brainwave, rebuild in an open-air tent. Huge success but man decides all he really wants is to be with family, so gives his 50% to upper-class man, who’s very happy. Everyone’s happy. The end.
Of course, a musical is nothing without great songs. The Greatest Showman has nine of them, nine insanely catchy tunes that stick to your brain like limpets.
All the way through, it’s the same big themes in the lyrics:
I think of what the world could be / A vision of the world I see (A Million Dreams)
The world becomes a fantasy / And you’re more than you could ever be (Come Alive)
‘Cause you can do like you do / Or you can do like me / Stay in a cage or you can finally take the key (The Other Side)
I’m not scared to be seen / I make no apologies / This is me (This Is Me)
It’s up to you / And it’s up to me / No one can say what we get to be (Rewrite The Stars)
These eyes will not be blinded by the light / From now on / What’s waited until tomorrow starts tonight / It starts tonight (From Now On)
It really isn’t that hard to see why this film has been a success. My daughter’s seen it twice at the cinema and wants to go a third time. God help us when it’s on Now TV.
So how come the critics were so mealy-mouthed when it came out?
“The Greatest Showman tries to dazzle the audience, but at the expense of the complex subject’s more intriguing real-life story”
“An undemanding crowd-pleaser”
“Hokey and trite at is core”
“Empty, moronic, pandering and utterly forgettable”
“Should a celebration of outrage be so studiously inoffensive? Should an ode to risk-taking be so safe? Should a hymn to humanity in all its shapes and sizes revolve around two square-jawed and thick-quiffed leading men?”
“It’s all smoke and mirrors, a sleight of hand, one Barnum would have appreciated.”
All reminds me of that Stephen Fry joke about the art critic who gets to Heaven and St Peter asks him what he did on Earth. “Oh, other people created things and I criticized them.” Peter replies: “well, you can piss off out of here then.”
The simple fact is the critics didn’t get it because it’s not for them. They have a different need, to be the clever ones. Discernment.
The Greatest Showman is about escapism, Freedom. My daughter gets that. It’s about wonder and spectacle and dreams and fantasy. Plus the courage to accept yourself as you are, not as others would have you be. Empowerment. I hope she got that too.
P.T.Barnum may have been a shameless huckster who exploited his workers without qualms. But his dream, his purpose, was to make the world a more magical place. Don’t knock it.
Impossible comes true / It’s takin’ over you / This is the greatest show