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  • Edgar Mahaffey

Blog Post 6: "The Greatest Showman"

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

So! Before I get into this I want to make it clear that I am reviewing this movie's: Music (which is amazing), Structure (which is strong), and story (which is uncompelling). I am not reviewing this movie based on it's historical accuracy or relevancy. Hugh Jackman's P.T. Barnum is so different from the one in reality that it should go without saying that this film was made entirely for entertainment—and not educational—purposes. Now, with that out of the way...

I LOVE this movie. It's one of my two favorite musicals (that have been made into film, I should add) which you can read about here. I can't wait to one day show this to my kids (gotta have them first, though, but we're workin' on it). It is shot in a very pleasing way, has perfect set design, and the practical effects performed are pulled off masterfully. I with I could talk in more detail about those aspects but I really try to keep my blog posts easily digestable and able to be finished in one sitting (keeping it as short as possible also helps those who are reading it at work keep track of their place—you're welcome, Lynn). But anyway, let's start with why I love it so much: the music.

Every track from this movie is a banger. From the opening ground-stomps to the final lines that repeat the theme (family > success), I am moved by every damn note. But it doesn't stop there. The choreography is fantastic. It's the best I've seen in film in years—maybe even a decade. To remind you of some of the best, here's one with fantastic continuity.

"A Million Dreams"

In the above picture, Barnum and Charity have just started their life together. Charity's first lines of the song are:

"However big, however small, let me be part of it all. Share your dreams, with me."

But I'll touch on that in moment. For now, look at the setting. The sheets there are used for them to play a little hide-and-seek style game as they sing and run around.

They're happy.

Later in the movie Barnum has left, chasing more success in the form of a tour with Jenny Lind, also known as: The Swedish Nightingale. During the song "Tightrope", Charity dances with a silhouette of her husband and get this image:

It's beautiful and playful and she's spinning. She's happy. But then she remembers she's dancing along and not even two seconds later we get this image as the curtain blows in the wind:

It's just Charity, staring at nothing. The sheets have been replaced by curtains and just as the sheets concealed her during their game in the exposition, the curtains now cover her missing husband... until they open. Unlike in the exposition when Barnum pulls back a sheet to find his beautiful bride, Charity finds nothing as the curtain is pulled back. It's heart-breaking imagery and, honestly, damn good story-telling.

Moving on to another connection from the song "A Million Dreams", in the denouement we're taken for a ride through the song "From Now On". This absolute head-bobber of a jam starts with Barnum defeated but takes him through his realization that all of his hard work for something he already had: his family—specifically, his wife. Barnum leaves the bar (which has served as a fantastic setting for two songs in this film) and goes to retrieve Charity who is standing on a beach at near-sunset staring out over the water. They reconcile and it brings us to a slowing of the song, followed by these lyrics gently sung:

Charity: "However big, however small..."

dramatic pause

Barnum: "From now on."

Remember earlier when Charity sang her first words in "A Million Dreams"? Her lines were "However big, however small, let me be part of it all."

I think it was an excellent decision to have her not finish the line here. Instead of having her sing the whole thing to remind the viewer of the line, it's left hanging. And because it's left hanging, it shows a completeness not to just Charity, but of Barnum and Charity. And then having Barnum sing once again the title of the song that started this whole epiphany is just plain beautiful. Her struggle, as she states earlier in the film, has never been about the risks her husband takes but instead of not being included in the decision to take the risks. She even openly states she would have agreed to the risk... she just wanted to be part of it. From her perspective, that was part of the deal when they got married. And now... Barnum understands that and confirms that "From now on" she will be.

For a movie that suffers from a rather weak story... it has some incredible elements of story telling.

This leads me to the structure—which, again, is sound. There are no structural problems with this story. Everything happens when it should happen and no change to structure would have made it a more compelling film. That being said, the area where structure truly shines is in the exposition.

The exposition moves quickly but never feels rushed. The viewer gets to watch Barnum as the son of a tailor. It's a life of low means but the boy is obviously good-spirited as he enjoys making Charity laugh while his father measures her father for some clothing. He's a kind boy and clever as well. We then see him get slapped by Charity's father for nothing more than interacting with his daughter. As a result we're introduced to: the main character, the love interest, and one of the antagonists. It's excellent writing. We're then shown Barnum's life of low means take a tragic turn as his father dies. Following this the song "A Million Dreams" begins are we're taken through his life up to adulthood. For how little dialogue that occurs, a truly amazing amount of exposition is shown (and, as all writers have heard a million times, "Show, don't tell!"). We understand our protagonist perfectly. But that's not all.

"The Greatest Showman" wastes no time getting the film going while also communicating that this will not be a movie about a man winning the affection of a great woman. No, instead it's about a man already having the affection of a great woman but feeling like it's undeserved. This theme is one reason this film resonated with so many people. Barnum has a massive inferiority complex and it permeates his entire being. Everything is meant to impress. From the way he speaks to his boss, to the life he promises his wife (even though she already has the life she wants), to the way he speaks to his in-laws. He wants to prove to everyone else that he's good enough... and in the end, he learns that he doesn't need the opinion of others' to be content with himself. He stops questioning if he's good enough, and focuses on just simply being with his family instead. And THAT is an amazing way to answer the story's moral question. Let's look at another way they could have answered it:

Moral Question: "Is PT Barnum good enough for Charity?"

The writers could have easily answered that with: "Yes, and his success proves it."

They also could have answered it this way: "Yes, and the lives of those around him are evidence of his worth."

But the thing is, the writers never actually answer it. The entire movie we see someone making decision after decision, taking risk after risk desperate to impress those who've told him he'll never amount to anything. But instead of getting a concrete answer, we just get this:

"It doesn't matter."

Barnum gets his answer by realizing it's a flawed question. What does "good enough" even mean? It's a faulty statement that can never definitely be proven. And the writers knew that. So they found a creative way to solve the problem. And it's an underrated aspect of this film. Just as the structure as a whole is underrated. Let's look at two popular formulas for story, shall we? From there we can see how "The Greatest Showman" measures up.

The first is Michael Hague's Six Stage Story Structure:

To understand this you have to understand Hague's approach to story. Like many story theorists, he views things progressing on two levels—the inner and the outer.

Stage 1: Setup/ Living fully within identity

In the beginning we're introduced to a good-hearted man that wants to bring joy to the world but is in a dead-end job. As a result of only having this job he feels like a failure.

Turning Point #1: Opportunity

Good-hearted man loses his job.

Stage 2: New Situation/ Glimpsing, longing or destiny; glimpse of living life in essence

Both freed from his boring job and encouraged by his wife, Good-hearted man has little excuse not to pursue his dream.

Turning Point 2: Change of Plans

Good-hearted man takes out a massive loan to open a museum

Stage 3: Progress/ Moving towards essence without leaving identity

Good-hearted man realizes through the help of his two daughters that his museum needs living attractions. So he begins to shift his museum more into a circus. This turns his business into a success. So much of a success that Good-hearted man is able to meet the queen and, as a result, the famous opera singer Jenny Lind.

Turning Point 3: Point of No Return

Fresh off the high of being able to rub his success into his in-laws' noses, Good-hearted man doubles down and bets everything he has on a nation-wide tour with Lind.

Stage 4: Complications and higher stakes/ fully committed to essence, but growing in fear

Jenny Lind falls in love with Good-hearted man, but when Good-hearted man doesn't reciprocate, Lind threatens him with financial ruin.

Turning Point Four: Major Setback

Good-hearted man remains firm in his decision to reject the opera singer's advances and Lind proceeds to react in two ways. One, by quitting the tour, leaving Good-hearted man in financial ruin. And two, staging a kiss to incite a scandal that will affect his family. Also, a bonus setback just to hit Good-hearted man even harder: his circus burns down.

Stage Five: Final Push/ living one's truth with everything to lose

Dealing with the destruction of his museum, finances, and marriage, Good-hearted man is forced to think about what matters. And it doesn't take long for him to realize it. Everything he's done has been for his family and it would mean nothing without him.

Turning Point Five: Climax

Instead of running to a bank for money to help with his first two problems, he instead runs to his wife who accepts him.

Stage Six: Aftermath/ the journey complete, destiny achieved

Good-hearted man trades a spotlight on himself for a spotlight on his daughters, a place beside the queen for a place beside his wife, and the sound of thunderous applause and gasps for light clapping and "awws" from onlooking parents watching their children perform ballet.

Holds up, doesn't it? Beat for beat this movie is right on pace. Now let's look at it under another common story theory: the Dan Harmon Story Circle:

For the Harmon story circle, instead of six stages like in Hague's outline, there are eight key pieces to a story. Also branching from Hague, instead of their being an "inner" and "outer" aspect to the journey, Harmon claims there are three elements: Life/death, conscious/unconscious, and order/chaos. It should be noted he doesn't not say you should treat this like a checklist, but instead that it's just a guide for story. Maybe one day I'll do a blog post just on the Harmon Story Circle, but for now, I'll try and keep the momentum of this post moving forward.

Step One: You (A character in a zone of comfort)

Step Two: Need (But they want something)

Step Three: Go! (They enter an unfamiliar situation)

Step Four: Search (Adapt to it)

Step Five: Find (Find what they wanted)

Step Six: Take (Pay its price)

Step Seven: Return (And go back to where they started)

Step Eight: Change (Now capable of change)

You could copy and paste my above explanations for the Hague six-stage outline and they'd fit here in these eight parts incredibly well—maybe even better than they fit Hague's. The problem with this movie was not the structure. It hit every mark you could want a story to hit, but still came across underwhelming. And I think I know why:

The protagonist.

Hugh Jackman is, as the title states, as truly extraordinary showman. His singing, dancing, and acting are all perfect in this story. I just feel like it's not really his story. His lesson is there, sure, but there's another character I feel has a much harder-hitting narrative. And I want you to guess which one I think it is. Is it:

A. Zendaya's Anne Wheeler

B. Michelle Williams' Charity Barnum

C. Zac Efron's Phillip Carlyle

D. The Elephant

What do you think? I'll make it easy on you. It's not the elephant.

The answer is (according to me): Zac Efron's Phillip Carlyle.

And it's because of one thing: cost.

P.T. Barnum pays a cost, but it's so temporary it barely exists. He almost loses his business, he almost goes bankrupt, he almost loses his wife. But he ends the movie having gained everything and not lost anything. Phillip Carlyle actually experiences loss. This loss comes in the form of his parents, who we don't know anything about other than the fact they are high-brow and snooty. Beyond this he also implies in the end that he loses his inheritance and his high social standing. Also, structurally, all of his plot beats hit both story structures presented perfectly! Check this out:

Phillip Carlyle's plot looked at through the lens of the Harmon Story Circle:

Step One: You (A character in a zone of comfort)

Phillip Carlyle: successful playwright with an invitation to every party in New York. Also has connections to the Queen of England that are so strong he can get her to agree to hosting a party for an entire circus.

Step Two: Need (But they want something)

Struggling with potential alcoholism and a deeply pessimistic view on his peers and those who enjoy his plays

Step Three: Go! (They enter an unfamiliar situation)

Circus jackass P.T. Barnum shows up and offers to buy him a drink. While having this drink they both break out into song—something his current world would frown upon. (Also, side note, this song is my FAVORITE scene in the movie.) Decide to join the circus and immediately after, meet an incredibly beautiful, free-spirited, pink-haired trapeze artist.

Step Four: Search (Adapt to it)

While improving the circus, he slowly realizes the joy he feels is worth his social standing. He falls in love with the pink-haired trapeze artist, but he isn't sure how she feels.

Step Five: Find (Find what they wanted)

While listening to the greatest opera singer in the world, he reaches out for pink-haired trapeze artist's hand. She grabs his. The feelings he has are mutual. But his parents don't approve. He lets go. He knows working with the circus is worth losing his social standing, but is loving this woman worth losing his parents?

Step Six: Take (Pay its price)

YES! You bet your ass it is.

After hurting her at the opera by letting go of her hand, he pursues her. After the song "Rewrite the stars" (My SECOND favorite scene), the two are no closer to being together, but Phillip knows she still has feelings. So he goes to the theater with her. Again, the parents are there but this time, instead of hesitating, our boy stands up to his parents and potentially severs their connect permanently.

Step Seven: Return (And go back to where they started)

Back at the circus a fire breaks out. Phillip, believing pink-haired trapeze girl is still inside runs in after her. Even though she isn't inside, she sees the after effects of this.

Step Eight: Change (Now capable of change)

Pink-haired trapeze girl is there when Phillip wakes up in the hospital after inhaling too much smoke from the fire. She's finally willing to accept her love for him.

Following this Phillip gives the audible confirmation that he has moved from a life of wealth, privilege, and arrogance to one of friends, love, and work her adores. As he has been saving his money all along, he offers to fund a new circus as a 50-50 partner with P.T. Barnum. Barnum accepts but steps away from the light to be with his family, allowing Phillip to step further into the light and embrace his true passion.

This has the same level of structure and it's really a pity that the writers didn't frame it this way. Time could have been more invested in Phillip's family life instead of Barnum's and would have had a far deeper impact, I believe. Also, Barnum could have made for an AMAZING mentor and used his own life as lessons for Phillip. If they'd have done that we'd have still gotten all the best parts of his story (Chasity, the circus, and Jenny Lind) while also getting a deeper look at Phillip and his inner struggles. And that's not even to mention while Barnum is off with Lind, we could have had more time with the other performers. We could have gotten to know more about W.D. Wheeler (Anne's brother), or Lettie Lutz (the bearded lady). In all honesty, if we knew even a fraction more about Lettie, I imagine I'd have picked her for the most compelling protagonist. But we just never get to know her in the movie. And she has the showstopper! "This is me" hits the biggest climax of the musical story. It's the song that was played on the radio nonstop (and I loved it every damn time, too). Her song is so powerful but we just don't know anything about her and her fellow performers.

I want to end this by saying again that I LOVE this movie. I show it to my students here in Tianjin sometimes and it's always a hit. I feel a little sad that it gets so much hate but I guess it's balanced by how loved it is, too. In the end, though I have great affection for it, it really isn't a "powerful story". It's a fun movie with hints of conflict but the only thing that moves me to tears is the music. But god damn does that music move me to tears effectively.


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