The Greatest Showman Is the New Sound of Music
Showman is the movie we’ve waited fifty years for and a new generation’s cultural touchstone
When The Sound of Music premiered in 1965, the long-lived wave of movie musicals was already breaking. The movie was ruthlessly panned by reviewers, who mocked it for its supposed sappiness and overly-loose take on the facts. It went on to play in movie theaters for over four years and stands today as the third highest grossing movie of all time.
Fast forward just over fifty years, and we find another movie released to a barrage of criticism aimed at its alleged shallowness and whitewashing of history (and even the positive reviews term it “cornball”). This movie suffers a mediocre opening weekend, due in large part to the poor reviews, but then, something almost unheard of happens. Instead of its attendance numbers decreasing, as is the case with nearly every wide-release film of the recent past, it continues to gain audiences as the weeks go by, elevated by positive word-of-mouth and repeat viewings. Now in its eighth week post-release, its soundtrack has been at the top of the Billboard album charts, and it has recently earned the number-one spot as the “leggiest” film of all time.
Although the critics may not have appreciated them, both The Sound of Music and The Greatest Showman arrived in theaters at just the right time for audiences, tired of the world supported by the aesthetic and political gatekeepers and ready for something new. As the wave of movie musicals begins to swell once more, everything old has indeed become new again, and the cultural forces that catapulted The Sound of Music to cinematic history are again working to make The Greatest Showman an audience-propelled, critically reviled success story and a new generation’s cultural touchstone.
There’s always been a disconnect between what the cultural powers-that-be think people should want and what they actually want, and it’s never been more obvious than in the reviewers’ takes on The Sound of Music and The Greatest Showman. Back in 1965, The Sound of Music Director Robert Wise recalled, “The East Coast, intellectual papers and magazines destroyed us.” Where the critics saw corniness and “romantic nonsense,” the regular viewers saw Julie Andrews singing her heart out in a positive story of self-discovery and righteousness entwined with a sweet, unabashedly romantic tale of love and family.
Even while disparaging the “sugar-coated lie” of the movie, the critics of 1965, at least, recognized that The Sound of Music was just the latest in a long string of musicals that did what musicals are wont to do: refused to let the facts get in the way of the truth. Since the beginning of the form, musicals have been on a quest for a higher level of authenticity than blind adherence to “historical fact” could ever provide.
Somehow, over the ensuing fifty-odd years, the critics have turned that once well-understood conceit of musical storytelling into something to be called out and made-an-example-of. Uninspired writers defend their boring tales with cries of, “but that’s what really happened!” One supposes that if these reviewers were to try their hands as novelists, they would relay thinly-veiled slices of their own lives, changing, perhaps, the color of the shirt they wore on the day in question.
A movie, even one based on real people and events, should never be obstinately about what “really happened.” The changes made to the story highlight the messages the film hopes to convey, to reveal a truth that is “even truer,” more universal, than a mere fact could ever be. These themes are what connect the audience to the story and make them see their own lives in a new light. In a musical, “truth” means a deeper authenticity than fact.
In real life, the von Trapps didn’t hike single-file over the bucolic hills of Nazi-occupied Salzburg, Austria into Switzerland. Check a map. They sauntered over to the train. Audiences don’t care. The final scene of The Sound of Music is magical and awe-inspiring in a way no pedestrian train ride over the border ever could be.
This is a movie musical, and the reviewer’s job is not to dispense a pedantic history lesson on what the movie should have included. No one is pitching The Greatest Showman as historically accurate; for what it’s worth, the movie boasts the tagline, “Inspired by the imagination of P.T. Barnum.” Did Barnum do some unsavory things not reflected in the movie? If viewers really care to find out more, they’re smart enough to know they can read a book about him or watch a documentary.
Given the expected devices of a movie musical, The Greatest Showman’s level of factual accuracy doesn’t even seem too far off the mark. The movie does not portray Barnum as a saint, as many seem to think (perhaps without even seeing the film?). He laughs off a bank scam he perpetrates to snag a building for his circus, shuts the door in the faces of his less society-friendly performers, and makes it clear from his first meeting with Tom Thumb that his motivations are largely mercenary. And, in case people were out getting popcorn, Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Lady, repeats the general idea in the final barroom scene, speculating, “maybe it was just about the money.”
The larger truth here, a truth that fiction is made to reveal, is that our lives never turn out to be “about” only what we plan or want them to be about. Life has a way of taking its own turns, mooting our (selfish or unselfish, take your pick) desires as it creates its own far-reaching ripple of meaning in the lives that surround us. And, if we get right down to it, doesn’t making a showy, fun, fantastically-exaggerated as opposed to slavishly-accurate movie about P.T. Barnum, of all people, just make sense?
The sticklerism and grand pronouncements of fraud may well be a reflection of our current moment in time, and the “fake news” fever sweeping through the culture at large. Any hint of fact-burying or “whitewashing” is to be ferreted out and denounced, and all those who refuse to buy into the facts-at-all-costs witch hunt are to be shamed as, variously, tools or accomplices of the oppressors. Well, come in close and I’ll let you in on a secret. People in real life don’t break into song and choreographed dance at regular intervals either, so just go with it. It doesn’t make a musical a tool of the oligarchy. Sometimes facts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And during a movie musical is one of those times.
TRANSPORTED OUT OF THE MOVIE THEATER
Both The Sound of Music and The Greatest Showman are absolutely best seen on the big screen. Each conveys a sense of being larger than life, one with its breathtaking mountainous backdrop, the other with its whirling, color-studded, a-million-things-at-once circus setting. In fact, both movies grab us right from the start with their magnificent opening sequences of action and energy, making us hold our breath, our primitive bodily mechanisms convinced that this is the only way we can truly take it all in.
The best movie musicals are non-stop visual and musical delights, and they bring immediacy to everything on the screen before us. Much like the nighttime concert featuring the von Trapp Family Singers in The Sound of Music, there are a host of musical moments in Director Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman that make you feel like it’s all a performance happening live before your eyes.
One powerful “performance” song features Rebecca Ferguson, as Jenny Lind and voiced by Loren Allred, singing “Never Enough” to an opera house full of spellbound concertgoers. At the song’s breathtaking conclusion, viewers may need to resist joining in the audience’s standing ovation. And if you wanted to start clapping and cheering at the end of Keala Settle’s showstopper, “This Is Me,” you’re not alone. It’s a natural reaction, because it feels like you’re no longer in a movie theater, but watching a spectacular live production.
Every time the circus performers start singing and dancing in front of an audience, viewers feel as though they belong inside the movie, sitting on the bleachers, singing and clapping right along with them, “this is the greatest show!” Hugh Jackman’s energy and the pure joy he exudes are contagious. The studio even distributed a singalong version of the movie — complete with on-screen lyrics — to take advantage of The Greatest Showman’s immersive feeling. Before the release of The Greatest Showman, the phrase singalong movie was nearly synonymous with The Sound of Music. Every year, thousands of fans jam the Hollywood Bowl (and multiple traveling locations) to watch the film on the big screen and belt out their favorite songs with abandon.
IS IT THE END OF AN ERA…OR JUST THE BEGINNING?
It’s telling that The Sound of Music was such a hit in 1965, arguably the beginning of what we now think of as “The Sixties.” It was released at the brink of a huge cultural transition in America, from the staid and conforming Fifties to the turbulent, volatile Sixties. The Sound of Music, with its Eurocentric viewpoint and straight-laced family, represented the cultural values of an earlier era, one that the aforementioned East Coast intellectuals were happy to see coming to an end.
The film’s tremendous success with everyday viewers, meanwhile, could be interpreted as a desire to hold on to the structures and values of the past in the face of a changing moral and political climate. Many people who thought things were headed in the wrong direction embraced this lovingly-told story of the triumph of people with good, old-fashioned values and unwavering moral compasses as a welcome escape from the world as it was becoming: unpopular war, vulgarity, drugs, sexual liberation, political turmoil, racial conflict and, generally speaking, out-of-control youth. People clung to the innocence of The Sound of Music in the waning days of what was, for many, a less complicated era.
Well, here we are in 2018 and how things have changed! Or…not. Well, war’s still here, the drugs are now legal, and the political, racial and gender-relations climate is still, shall we say, strained. We’ve been living, essentially, through a fifty-year backlash against the old-school values reflected in The Sound of Music and it seems like people are ready for another change. Not a return, mind you. There are a lot of things we wouldn’t want to go back to, but a cultural shift…a redirection. And this shift is forward-looking, not nostalgic. It’s a reflection of the fact that we, as a society, have become fed up with the way things have been going and know we deserve better. It’s emblematic of our hopes for a different future, a future perfectly manifested — strangely enough — in nineteenth-century America, The Greatest Showman-style.
And it’s worth noting that, this time, secure in their place at the top of the pyramid of cultural elites, the entrenched arts critics don’t want to encourage the future they see on the horizon, the one where the powerful are brought low and the voices of the long-ignored are increasingly viewed as more attuned and relevant (with their increasing cluelessness, the critics are losing out to IMDb). The high-level critic is no longer a pioneer of the counter-culture, smirking and rolling eyes at displays of traditional values, but an entrenched cultural gatekeeper, attempting to marginalize anything that runs counter to maintaining his or her spot at the top. Those who once fancied themselves at the vanguard of a changing world are now clinging desperately to the power that cultural stasis continues to afford them. Nothing to see here, folks. Move it along.
THE STOMPING OF THE AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS
So, how exactly does The Greatest Showman (a movie about the circus!) pose a real and direct challenge to the status quo and those who have benefited from it for decades? The answer is in a break from complacency — in the rejection of the erstwhile-unconsciously accepted notion that there is no progress without the lowering of standards.
It’s no secret that the American middle class has been struggling, and shrinking, for years — perhaps not coincidentally, since the 1960s. The four years The Sound of Music ran in theaters are considered some of the most volatile of the past century, with 1968 specifically — with its high-profile war protests, resurgent women’s rights movement, civil rights marches, and assassinations — widely deemed the most tumultuous. The year of the film’s premiere, 1965, is considered by many to be the turning point in public opinion about the war in Vietnam.
People wanted an escape from the worries and stresses of their lives and The Sound of Music, with its promise to deliver them to a brighter, more beautiful and positive world for a few hours, obliged. It was a trip to a clear-cut universe, where good and evil were easily distinguishable through both thematic and historical lenses, and would either escape triumphant or be left shaking their fists in the dust, as was appropriate.
Jump ahead fifty years to the premiere of The Greatest Showman, and the national outlook is quite similar. People feel that not only is the country on the wrong track, but their own lives are too. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, only fifteen percent of American workers feel any real passion for their jobs.
People feel stuck in a polarized, dehumanized society, working jobs they don’t like, making wages that never go up, all while paying more for the basic needs of life, and kept busy on the treadmill of an increasingly technology-driven society. Just surviving in the modern world has become a full-time job. And it’s worse than standing still, because it feels like moving backwards. Put bluntly, the American worker feels ceaselessly stomped on for an increasingly small reward. We’re mice in a maze that keeps getting longer and more complicated, while the chunk of cheese at the end keeps shrinking. Though it may be an unconscious concession, many have chucked the dreams of their youth for the drudgery of a despised but necessary job and everything that comes with it.
Enter P.T. Barnum, to remind us of those million dreams we, too, had as children. The gears of our minds start up. That’s all well and good, but we’re talking the nineteenth century; there was much more opportunity out there. You could totally leave your boring desk job next to the cemetery and try something new. In today’s world, go out on a limb for your dreams and you’ll be eating cat food within weeks. Right? Wait, did he just call me a zombie in a maze, stumbling through my day? Huh, well, that is kind of apt, I guess, but…
And by the time the song “Come Alive” is over, we’ve fully convinced ourselves. Yes, by God, it’s not my job to prop up a rigged economy with the last remaining drops of my life energy. I will get off the colorless corporate treadmill and follow my dreams! When the movie is over, we leave the theater joyful and inspired to do more with our lives, to ditch lazy consumerism and dedicate our time and money to doing what matters.
That, my friend, is the power of musical theater. And it’s the reason it strikes fear in the hearts of all who benefit from the status quo. Don’t believe that 105 minutes of viewing has that kind of power? Let me introduce you to the advertising industry, where a thirty-second ad during the 2018 Super Bowl will run you five million dollars.
FAMILY IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT
The typical American family has changed quite a bit since the 1960s. Its cultural importance as the bedrock of society has been called into question, as more people have chosen to divorce, remain single, and not have children. Those who maintain that an intact nuclear family — while not for everyone — is still an essential building block for a successful and well-adjusted society have found a reassuring like-mindedness in both The Sound of Music and The Greatest Showman.
Both movies center around the importance of family and how life pretty much boils down to this fact: whatever happens, even if you lose everything material to your name, you have people on your side and you’ll be all right. The von Trapps hiked over that mountain with nothing but each other and hope for the future. The audience knew it was all they needed, just like we know that Barnum, in the end, has everything he needs as he sits with his wife in the audience watching their daughters on stage. For good measure, he even spells it out for us: “It’s everything you ever need, and it’s here right in front of you.”
And The Greatest Showman takes the notion of family one step further, suggesting that a family is what you make it. This idea resonates strongly with modern audiences, who often feel just as close or closer to their friends or “tribe,” the people they feel truly understand them, as to their family. Barnum’s “oddities” have formed their own family, living and performing together in a place of mutual acceptance — something that Lettie Lutz observes, they’d been denied their whole lives. Trapeze artist W.D. Wheeler notes simply, they were a family and the circus was their home.
The Sound of Music and The Greatest Showman are movies that take pains to be not only about family, but for the family. They are rated G and PG respectively, are appropriate for nearly everyone, and speak to the challenges and joys of both childhood and adulthood. Unlike most popular live-action musicals of recent times (including the PG-13-rated Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, Les Miserables and 2016’s genre reigniting La La Land), The Sound of Music and The Greatest Showman are treats of a rare cinematic variety — outstanding films that multiple generations can truly enjoy together (and not just sit through with gritted teeth, as with so many movies marketed to kids).
LOVE IN AN AGE OF DISRESPECT
Most people put thought into what to watch with their kids, wanting media to reflect the values they hope to pass on to the next generation. As a society, we’ve been overdosing on violence, vulgarity and, quite honestly, annoying irony for a long time. The Greatest Showman is a cultural antidote — decidedly earnest, embracing the classical musical form rather than subverting it with a sly wink at the audience. While La La Land had its moments, it turns out people like sincerity at least as much as cleverness. Watching The Greatest Showman, much like breaking out your trusty copy of The Sound of Music, is like taking a refreshing trip to the cinematic past, where people don’t curse voraciously, kids aren’t rude and annoyingly precocious, things don’t blow up every thirty seconds in deference to our diminished attention spans, and music and love reign supreme.
Anyone who’s wondering why The Greatest Showman has hit such a chord with women (and why The Sound of Music remains so popular), look no further than the current state of male/female relations, typified currently in the split-second Tinder swipe and Time’s Up movement. Women want respect, and many of us feel like we’re not getting it.
Enter the beautiful world of feel-good musicals, and all of a sudden, we’re in an alternate reality where men and women treat each other with respect, and not just because they’re expecting to get something out of it. Respect writ large onscreen highlights its real-life absence. The clothing and streetscapes should remind us that The Greatest Showman is set in the 1800s, not the fact that men don’t expect to sleep with women they’ve just met or cheat on their wives because, hey, they’re on a business trip.
Want your son to grow up respecting women and your daughter to demand respect (and, of course, vice versa)? Kids are great at modeling what they see, and while it’s obviously not as simple as watching a movie or two, for anyone looking to pass on positive messages about love and respect to their kids, The Sound of Music and The Greatest Showman are a great place to start.
STAND UP TO EVIL AND INTOLERANCE
It may have taken him a few spins of that Nazi flag in his hands, but Captain von Trapp eventually found just the right spot and ripped that angry spider right down the middle. Joining in the Nazi war effort? Not just a bad idea, but “unthinkable,” he said.
Though Nazis may no longer be our biggest battle, we are still regular witnesses to evil and intolerance, and we’re called, as ever, to stand up to it. Our political climate thrives off of the fact that it is part of our inborn human nature to fear “the other.” It’s something that many people consciously work to counter, but that others hijack and twist for their own ends.
It’s nothing new, and there’s more than enough intolerance to go around in The Greatest Showman too. Audiences cringe when the local protesters at Barnum’s circus claim to hold the moral high ground as they alternately beat on, spit on, and decry as “offensive and indecent” the performers Barnum has recruited for their uniqueness. He tells them to get lost. Phillip Carlyle’s parents tell him, “you forget your place” when he’s seen with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler, who is black. He calls them “small-minded.” And Charity Barnum’s high society parents apparently all but disown her, including never meeting their own grandchildren, after she chooses to marry the tailor’s son. She doesn’t care that this judgmental society won’t accept them.
These particular examples of intolerance may seem both quaint and yet still relevant to modern audiences. The fear, arrogance and parochial thinking they evidence hasn’t gone away; it’s just moved into a different century. One of the movie’s anthems, Settle’s “This Is Me,” is resonating strongly with people, especially those who’ve felt excluded or looked down upon. It’s already won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and has been nominated for an Oscar, a reflection of both the prevalence of the exclusion experience and the deep-seated urge to move beyond flash judgments.
And in its unabashed proclamation that everyone is worthy and has something to contribute, The Greatest Showman may be especially relevant today. A modern-day American may find more to relate to in the every-color-shape-and-size “celebration of humanity” of the mid-nineteenth century New York depicted in The Greatest Showman than the relatively cookie-cutter 1930’s Austria of The Sound of Music. In a time marked by negativity and division, a movie that recognizes and celebrates our differences has found an audience not just ready, but hungry, for its message of diversity and acceptance.
A NEW CLASSIC
The Greatest Showman, like The Sound of Music before it, is an audaciously optimistic, family-friendly musical without a hint of irony to hedge its bets. It goes all in on sincerity and doesn’t let up for a second. It isn’t happy until the audience (and even Hugh Jackman) is out in the parking lot, using their phones to download a soundtrack they won’t stop playing on repeat for weeks. And just like The Sound of Music, The Greatest Showman is both of-the-moment and timeless in its take on humanity and the motivations and passions that drive our being. It’s the movie we’ve been waiting fifty years for. And it is destined to become a classic.
We make classics out of the movies that speak to us across time and generations, that allow us to escape whatever circumstances we find ourselves in for a glimpse into a better version of our world. The world The Sound of Music evoked looked fondly backward to a beloved but rapidly disappearing past. Five decades on, The Greatest Showman looks with hope toward a nascent future — different from the one we inhabit in all the ways that matter, evoking the energy of positivity and possibility and only now beginning to approach the horizon just beyond the cinema.
Attempting to Quantify Cheryl’s Enthusiasm for The Sound of Music & The Greatest Showman:
The Greatest Showman: I’ve seen eight times in the theater, including one cross-state journey for the singalong version. (Was the last time really on 1/27? Huh, writing about TGS really cuts into my TGS viewing time.) Making plans to go…a few more times. Who’s in?
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