I love stories about underdogs defying all odds and proving they are stronger than people realized. This helps explain my unbridled enthusiasm for the new movie musical The Greatest Showman.
But there is so much more to this film than the baseline plot: a story of society’s outcasts finding success through unconventional means. Above all, The Greatest Showman is a tribute to the resilience and power of the entrepreneurial spirit.
The film tells the story of P.T. Barnum, the man responsible for the founding of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I don’t know much about the real-life P.T. Barnum, but the character in the film, as depicted by Hugh Jackman, is the hero I wish to discuss.
You’re More Than You Can Ever Be
Born into nothing, Barnum is a lowly servant with big dreams working in a wealthy household. Without a family or support system, he is forced to learn how to rely on himself from a very young age. And no matter how cruel the rest of the world treats him, he is unfazed by the opinions and actions of others.
After getting in trouble for teasing his employer’s daughter, Barnum is struck hard in the face. But this does not lessen his resolve for greatness. Surrounded by luxuries far beyond his own means, Barnum gets a glimpse of the life he could live if he were to rise above his circumstances. So he commits himself to achieving something amazing and larger than himself.
In the song, “A Million Dreams,” young Barnum demonstrates his unbreakable optimism when he sings:
‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make
But instead of merely obsessing over daydreams, Barnum made his dream a reality. He grew up, married the same girl he was beaten for teasing years earlier, and works a series of mundane factory jobs. When he gets laid off, again, he decides that enough is enough and searches for his true calling in life. As all entrepreneurs understand, setting off on your own comes with a fair set of risks, and Barnum faces plenty. But, from high risks often come high rewards.
Using all the money he has, he purchases a building and turns it into “Barnum’s American Museum.” Unfortunately, this venture is a dud. The only tickets he sells are to his wife and two daughters. So, like a good entrepreneur, Barnum goes back to the drawing board to figure out what the people actually want.
What is most admirable about this part of Barnum’s life is his unwavering dedication to hard work. Stories about lackadaisical dreamers often place too much emphasis on the dreams themselves, and not what it takes to make those dreams become a reality.
In the song, “Come Alive,” Barnum is seen working diligently to manifest his dreams in reality and reflecting on the fact that through this hard work, his dreams can unfold. He sings, “And the world becomes a fantasy, and you’re more than you can ever be, ‘cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open.”
The Market Is the Great Equalizer
Barnum longs to give the world something extraordinary, the likes of which they have never seen. But he realizes he cannot do this by merely imitating what has already been done. He decides to do something bolder, and by doing so, he ends up adding value to the world in ways he never imagined.
The market is the great equalizer, as this film drives home. Barnum’s original museum highlighted the spectacular and unbelievable marvels of the world. Unfortunately, none of these rarities were real. His original museum relied on poor quality replicas of mermaids and other mythical phenomena, which were not appealing to consumers. But the lack of customers drives Barnum to go in search of real, and rare, human acts.
Lettie Lutz, later known as “the bearded lady,” is resigned to a life of shame and isolation. She has no aspirations aside from keeping her head down while doing laundry for a living. But that was before she met Barnum.
After putting up signs looking for rare and exotic acts for his upcoming production, Barnum stumbles upon Lettie and is taken aback by her stellar vocal abilities. He begs her to join his act as a singer.
Barnum’s enthusiasm for his project is contagious, and Lutz agrees to come aboard. His excitement from finding Lutz redoubles his resolve to put together the greatest show on earth.
Barnum goes around collecting other so-called “circus freaks,” ranging from the incredibly tall to the incredibly tattooed and even a death-defying trapeze act. Barnum’s gang of outcasts set out not only to prove they deserve to be a part of society but that they have value to add to the world through entertainment. And this is when Barnum’s production really begins to take off.
As Barnum predicted, audiences were both shocked and thrilled to see such unique individuals brazenly performing. In 1850, when the film is set, being different was no cause for celebration. If you did not fit into society’s prescribed boxes, you didn’t belong. It was as simple as that. But by offering something consumers craved, these unconventional performers took their supposed “flaws” and turned them into a sought-after market entity.
Not only did this allow a ragtag gang of performers to earn livings far beyond what they originally thought possible, they also became a family and found inner peace and acceptance.
While many of these performers were chastised for being different, even by their own families, Barnum gave them a sense of belonging and a camaraderie they had been searching for their whole lives. In the song, “This is Me,” Lutz belts out a ballad of acceptance, proclaiming that she is okay with who she is, despite what people may say. She has created value and through that has gained a new sense of self-worth.
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.
Film critics have been quick to condemn this aspect of the film as “exploitation,” since Barnum earned a profit off of his rare performers. But each member of Barnum’s circus was there because he or she wanted to be. Voluntary association is not exploitation, especially when the performers themselves were able to improve their standard of living and their own emotional well being.
Reframing the Narrative
In the AMC series, Mad Men, the main character and ad man extraordinaire Don Draper famously says, “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.” Barnum puts this kind of advice into action.
A highbrow, snooty, and prominent theater critic attends one of Barnum’s performances and writes a particularly nasty review. He even goes as far as to dub Barnum’s act a “circus”–which, at the time meant “a public scene of frenetic and noisily intrusive activity,” hardly a compliment and according to the critic, unworthy of high-class audiences. But this didn’t discourage Barnum.
Instead, he changes the name of his show, “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome” to include the word “circus,” establishing a new definition for the word. By not only refusing to be offended but also going so far as to adopt the offensive name for his show, he is able to reclaim the narrative and continue proving that he is more than what others may think.
Yet he doesn’t stop there.
He then decides to add some credibility to his act. After hearing of Jenny Lind, a woman dubbed, “the greatest singer in all of Europe,” Barnum offers her an exorbitant amount of money to join his act.
While his performers are talented, none are classically trained, nor are they known among high-class circles in Europe. When Jenny takes center stage and blows the audience away, Barnum proves that his “circus” is anything but: a fact the theater critic later admits.
But he soon confronts a crisis. A mob of citizens angry that such unconventional performers were being allowed on stage set fire to his building, turning his dreams into ashes.
After a brief period of doubt and desolation, Barnum snaps back into entrepreneur mode and finds a way to continue his show. Since he cannot afford to rebuild or purchase a new facility, Barnum has the genius idea to save on overhead costs by using large tents instead: the same tents that are now so closely associated with circuses. Little did we know as children that these tents first emerged as an entrepreneurial response to tragedy.
But the entrepreneurial spirit is one of dedication and resilience. And through all of the disappointment and struggles, Barnum was able to leave a legacy behind not only for himself, but for each performer who found personal liberation through his show. He was also able to provide for his family and give them the life he dreamed of as a young boy.
While this movie has been unjustly panned by many critics, it is resonating with entrepreneurs and reminding them to hold fast and work hard to make their dreams a reality.