Is There Freedom in Running Away with the Circus?
The Greatest Showman astonished critics and blasted through box offices to become the fifth-highest grossing live-action musical of all time (at the time of writing). In the UK, the soundtrack held the top spot in the charts for eleven consecutive weeks. Crowds have been drawn to sing-along screenings, and many others would admit to joining the chorus with headphones on while walking, driving or and washing up.
The catchy genius of composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul has caught up the nation and given us something that many of us really want to sing. What is it about this film and its defiant song lyrics that has captured the minds, hearts and wallets of so many?
The loosely historic storyline depicts PT Barnum’s circus as a place that offers community and freedom of expression to people rejected by society. This is a beautiful idea and certainly presented attractively. As we follow characters such as Lettie Lutz the bearded lady (played by Keala Settle), we hold their hearts in ours as they find identity and purpose. The lyrics declare the power of the individual to overcome, to triumph, to ‘rewrite the stars’ – all packaged in undeniably catchy pop music. This is more than just excellent entertainment. We don’t just empathise with the characters on screen, we adopt their hopes and dreams.
Questions for discussion
- What do you like about the music?
- Why is it so catchy?
- To what extent do the lyrics reflect what you believe about and hope for yourself?
‘We all want to come alive’
So what does it tap into for us as humans?
The film was made to win an audience. It entertains us with an underdog story of joy, aspiration and acceptance. It celebrates what we have in common, not what makes us different. In the film we see that the circus offers a place where you can truly be yourself and where you can have confidence in yourself, with no apologies or shame.
It’s about being authentic, finding freedom and flourishing to your full potential
‘Just be yourself’ is the message of the film; it’s about being authentic, finding freedom and flourishing to your full potential. Like the ‘oddities’ in the circus, we long to be free from those who bruise us, cause scars and put up walls against us.
The film consistently proclaims, ‘be true to yourself’. We see it in each character, from Zac Efron’s rich Phillip Carlyle wanting to make more of his life, to the chorus of bedazzling performers who join Barnum from being forced into hiding because of their image. The first verse of ‘Come Alive’ tells us what life is like without the acceptance of others:
You stumble through your days
Got your head hung low
Your sky’s a shade of grey…
Cause you’re just a dead man walkin’
Thinkin’ that’s your only option
Just like the colour palette at the beginning of the film, life is grey before the song gets going and when life is grey it’s like having no life at all. It’s not until the performance begins that changes come. Simply existing isn’t enough in this world – you were built for something more and that ‘more’ is inside you waiting to come out:
Come alive, come alive
Go and light your light
Let it burn so bright…
And the world becomes your fantasy
And you’re more than you could ever be
This is the chorus’ answer, accompanied by bright costumes, snappy dance moves and an audience who are going crazy about the performance. As the cast find their place and their identity on the stage, the director tells us through the lighting, the sound and everything else that these people have found life in their identity. They just needed to awaken it by showing the world who they are. Aren’t we desperate for an answer like this? We tap our feet along to the catchy beat and our hearts long for this same acceptance and praise as we ‘perform’ our lives each day.
But can we make ourselves ‘alive’? It seems a bit hollow to suggest that the answer is to assert who we are confidently, in public or on social media. Will this enable us to ‘come alive’ and banish the grey, the dark of our previous days?
Hugh Jackman certainly stirs up a great performance on stage, but his character’s storyline suggests something different. Just as the film isn’t done by the end of this song, Barnum’s character doesn’t find his fulfilment on stage. In fact, he searches for bigger acclaim all over the world, traveling to England and then on tour with his ingénue Jenny Lind. He increasingly finds that he’s left himself behind, that something is missing.
This film doesn’t show us individuals who are ultimately satisfied by putting their best, glittery shoe-clad foot forward
In truth, it’s not the performance or the public acceptance that fulfils. He needs something outside of himself, the self is never enough, however praise-worthy, diverse, beautiful and wonderful it might be. This film doesn’t show us individuals who are ultimately satisfied by putting their best, glittery shoe-clad foot forward.
So however much I love these ideas and songs, I find myself wondering how feasible this really is. Could I really find freedom by running away with the circus? Could I find a community that loves me for who I am? How do I know that I’m really free? Does asserting something, singing something, believing something really make it true? And is looking within myself really the place to find freedom?
Questions for discussion
- What does the film present as what we all want? How far would you agree or disagree with this?
- How do we see the same message in our culture?
- Are you happy with that?
- How do you deal with that?
Who can ‘cut you free’?
If our only answer to our desire for worth is to perform better, to find a place for our voice or to add to the chorus, we must say that our only answer to any problem in our lives is ourselves.
Having ourselves as our best answer becomes tricky when our inner hero turns out to be elusive. What if the self you discover turns out to be a weak, vulnerable and rather dependent thing? The pace and scale of cultural and technological change over the past few decades make it increasingly difficult to find this sense of stability and coherence. Psychologist Glynn Harrison says that ‘the self is constantly in flux, a shifting sand of doubt and reinvention‘.If this is true, how can such a delicate thing sustain a sense of its own worth and value? Maybe the whole idea of inventing ourselves is just another thing we’ve been sold and we’re not as individually sufficient as we thought.
Having ourselves as our best answer becomes tricky when our 'inner hero' turns out to be elusive
In fact, we don’t live like the inner self is at the centre. Even the characters in the film don’t. Barnum hands his hat to Carlyle to spend time with his wife and daughters and Carlyle chooses relationship with Anne over societal success. And we all prize relationships highly.
Ultimately we can’t find what we’re looking for inside ourselves. Perhaps what we really need and find ourselves wanting is something or someone other. The illusion of the stage in The Greatest Showman shows it most clearly. As the cast dance, sing and win approval, it becomes increasingly clear that lasting approval is exactly what they don’t have. They have become mere entertaining commodities to the people who pay to watch. And yet the stage is a very attractive place, full of all the pizzazz of the circus, where applause is rightly given. It’s a little bit like when we keep on capturing, posting and liking perfect Instagram moments, isn’t it?
Yet our lives aren’t made of our Instagram moments, we can’t survive on applause, we aren’t truly satisfied with ‘likes’. We crave something real and dependable that’s not based upon our current image or how well we’re performing. Perhaps this shows that we weren’t made simply to perform; if we look to others for our ‘self’, they can only tell us what they see, they can only reflect what we perform in the first place. Ultimately, we need an identity that is not discovered within the self, nor constructed by the self, but revealed to the self.
Questions for discussion
- What do you think the deepest human desires are?
- Where do we look to have these desires met?
How can we really ‘come alive’?
The circus could give us freedom to ‘be ourselves’, the community could give us a home where we are loved, a bright song can give us something to sing to cheer us when times are hard. But this alone isn’t enough. The self-esteem movement promised big but delivered small. As Psychologist Jean Twenge says ‘Today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive and entitled – and more miserable than ever before’. The same is undoubtedly true in the UK.
What’s the solution to this problem? If we can’t find the answer within ourselves, or in those around us, where should we look? We find a clue in Mark’s Gospel, where we read of a woman who is a social outcast, rejected by the religious and impoverished (Mark 5:24–34). She was in this place because of a physical condition that rendered her ceremonially unclean. We find her full of shame, tormented and rejected, hiding in her own company, she reminds me of how the bearded lady might have felt when we first encounter her in the film.
This woman has spent all she had on doctors; with no job, no money, no family, her life is impoverished and without hope. However hard she tries she can’t change her situation, her identity or her future. But she has heard rumours of one who can help. When Jesus comes to her town, she is too ashamed to speak to him or single him out, so she enters the heaving crowds, pushing her way through. She stretches out her arm and touches his cloak. Instantly she is healed. For 12 years she has suffered, for 12 years she has spent everything on doctors – to no avail. But with one brief touch of Jesus’ clothes all her pain, suffering and exclusion disappears forever.
For many that would be enough. But Jesus doesn’t stop there, he turns to the crowd and asks who had touched his cloak. How could he bring such attention to this woman? Didn’t he know she’d rather just slip away unnoticed? But this was to show kindness, not to shame her. Jesus said ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.’ (Mark 5:34). In trusting Jesus, she finds an end to her suffering. But more than this, through trusting Jesus she finds a new name, she finds healing, she finds peace. The woman gives up confidence in herself and her own resources. She recognises that she is powerless and instead places her confidence fully in Jesus. And he gives her more than she could ever hope for.
The film offers us hope of acceptance and love – as long as we can bring in the audiences or prove ourselves worthy
The Greatest Showman asserts that you’re to ‘believe in yourself’ no matter what. And yet, this encounter with Jesus shows us that he alone can meet our deepest needs. Only Jesus can restore us, and give us true freedom.
The film offers us hope of acceptance and love – as long as we can bring in the audiences or prove ourselves worthy of love. But with Jesus, an unnamed woman becomes a daughter and a social outcast is restored into her community through no merit or work of her own.
Imagine a culture where those rejected from society are welcomed in. Imagine relationships where past wrongs, harmful words have been dealt with justly. Imagine not having to prove our worth to be accepted. The Greatest Showman holds these things out to us, but ultimately fails to deliver. The acceptance onstage is an illusion; Jesus offers us the reality. Keep the album for the tunes, but maybe it’s time to find a different song to sing to really come alive.