This week I got my copy of the blockbuster musical The Greatest Showman in the mail. We haven’t really covered my theatre nerddom on this blog yet, but believe me, it’s a thing. I love musicals. I also love when Hugh Jackman stars in them. And there is a lot to like about this musical in particular – mindblowing cinematography, incredible supporting performances by the likes of Zendaya (who did her own trapeze stunts), Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, and Keala Settle, moving songs crafted by the team that brought us La La Land and the Tony award-winning Dear Evan Hansen, and a story that, although not without flaws, is dramatic and compelling. However, there’s a reason I love The Greatest Showman that is greater than all of these: that enfolded into the spectacle and music is the message of the Gospel.
A classic rags-to-riches story, The Greatest Showman tells the mostly-true tale of entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, famously known as the creator of the circus. Orphaned at a young age, Barnum never gives up on his dreams to make something of himself in a spectacularly creative way. With the help of his wife (Michelle Williams), a high-society playwright (Zac Efron), and a colorful entourage of outcasts who join his vision, Barnum finally hits the bigtime. However, pressures to prove himself as a legitimate player in the entertainment world quickly cause him to lose sight of the people who enabled his success, with disastrous results.
The Greatest Showman is full of characters who have been rejected and cut off from the world. Apart from Barnum’s own rejection by those who don’t believe in his grandiose ideas, the movie spends the most time on the story of Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady Barnum discovers working in a laundry room, hiding her face behind a sheet. Lettie is broken from a lifetime of abandonment and ridicule, which she alludes to in dialogue later in the film. “Our own mothers were ashamed of us,” she says, collectively referring to the family of misfits that forms the circus. “They hid us our whole lives.” Nonetheless, Barnum encourages Lettie to stop hiding, and she is able to let go of the shame she has carried for years. There are other stories, too – Zendaya’s character, Anne Wheeler, struggles with racial discrimination, while Charles (Sam Humphrey), whose mother has spent his whole life pretending like he doesn’t exist because of dwarfism, finds a new identity in the circus as General Tom Thumb. All of them come in crushed by rejection and find acceptance in each other.
Similarly, the Gospels are full of stories where Jesus crosses social boundaries. He approached the woman at the well, rejecting the general culture’s belief that women in general and Samaritans in particular were persona non-grata. He responded to the blind man in spite of the crowd’s commands for the blind man to be quiet and stop crying out to Him. Most famously, he was ridiculed by the religious establishment for eating with sinners and tax collectors. He kept company with the people first century Jewish society had forgotten in spite of the cost to His reputation and gave new life to many. Barnum, too, fraternizes with people whom the culture around him deems unworthy of attention, even to the point where protests erupt outside the circus in response to the “freaks” in his show.
Please don’t misunderstand me here – I’m not trying to say that Barnum is a Christ figure. If you watch the movie, it’s more than clear that he isn’t. However, a Christ figure is not a prerequisite for God’s character being present in a story. As we established in our first entry, as created beings, we can’t help but desire to create. A previous blog post also focused on the idea that for believers, there should be no distinction between “secular” and “sacred” stories. Because the story of redemption is woven into who we are, artists can’t help but express it. I would argue that all literature, TV, movies, and visual artwork contains a piece of who God is, and as discerning consumers of entertainment, it can greatly encourage our faith – and our art – to be on the lookout for it.
We all have the opportunity to play a role in God’s “greatest show.” Hebrews 7:25 states that Jesus “is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them.” When we come to know Christ as our Lord and Savior, He buries the shame of our past and the ridicule of others. Those struggles are no longer baggage, but experiences we have overcome that are now part of our story in Him. As Lettie declares, “We are brave, we are bruised, we are who we’re meant to be.” The Greatest Showman is incredible on its own, to be sure. But it is also, intentionally or not, a beautiful illustration that God is on a mission to seek and save the lost and welcomes everyone who comes to Him through the hope found in Jesus Christ.