While I have spent a lot of time excited about films coming out, be they sequels, superheroes from my past, or books that have inspired my imagination, I usually do not spend as much time reviewing something as I have for The Greatest Showman. Maybe it was just the way the first trailer I saw struck me. And maybe it’s because of the exciting cast. It could be because I seem to love historical pieces. Or possibly, it’s because The Greatest Showman is a musical, and I love musicals. It’s most probably a bit of all four of those things. Because when it comes to The Greatest Showman the sum of the parts points to movie magic.
So for the last two weeks, I have included fake interviews of the real man P.T. Barnum. And while it’s possible he would not have said everything I wrote, or maybe he would have but phrased them entirely differently, I spent a good deal of time doing research into the man behind the Greatest Show on Earth. The sad thing is our children will never get to know what that means, or how amazing a spectacle it was in its time. Even when I was a child, when Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town, everyone knew about it. It wasn’t a cheap circus with second-rate acts that would have better been suited to someone on Venice Beach. And it didn’t spend its time abusing the animals in its care. Whether you think people should be keeping animals or not I leave for you to decide. But this circus took pride in caring for the animals under its purview.
And so when the torch was snuffed out earlier this year, I knew I was never going to be able to take my daughter to the greatest circus there ever was. Sure, they have lesser known circuses that come into the area. But they do not seem to take care of their animals as well, and honestly, they scare my daughter because of the clowns. She was willing to overcome her fear of the other circus though.
Maybe circus shows should be relics of a bygone era where entertainment was hard to come by, and entertainment for the masses even harder to accept. I certainly would not want to relive that era with slavery and the Civil War. But in our rush to condemn our own pasts, I feel it sad we do not distinguish between good and bad. We tend to want to throw everything into the ash heap of history.
With this in mind, I admit excitement about celebrating a time gone by. I feel happy we could capture a little bit of the glory on film, and celebrate the man behind it all. And if you are going to celebrate anything, what better forum than to do it joyously through music. Which is why I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the World’s Greatest Showman representing the World’s Greatest Show.
For the past week, I have been listening to the Soundtrack of this movie musical, delving into the deeper meaning behind the words expressed. I loved the music, but I couldn’t just leave it on a surface level. It’s like your favorite band where you are excited about the fun music you hear, but you know it really resonates with you when the words transform the music into something greater. The big power ballad may be the first song released, but your favorite one almost always finds its way near the end of the track list.
So I thought I would review the songs before the release of the movie today. (Although it may already be a couple of days ago depending on when you are reading this.) I will pick out the things which stood out to me. Key phrases, or musical interludes which jump out. And of course, all of those will tell the tale of The Greatest Showman when all is said and done. So without further ado, The Guide presents The Greatest Showman Soundtrack Review.
1. The Greatest Show (Hugh Jackman, Keala Settle, Zac Efron)-
The music thumps into your consciousness as you await the first song on the soundtrack. I have to say this is one of my daughter’s favorite songs. The beat kind of reminds me of Queen’s We Will Rock You. And it begins slowly with a very understated Hugh Jackman singing in time with the thumps of the background. I think it tries to imagine that you hear the dull roar of the crowd outside the big top. The thumping draws you in until you reach the crescendo of the chorus. Then the music gets more complex as the voice of the conductor booms through the crowd and you are amazed by all that’s around. The one thing that keeps coming through the lyrics is Barnum as savior. Sections like “where the lost get found in the crown of the circus king,” and “it’s the preacher in the pulpit and you’ll find devotion” clearly make reference to Barnum as not just purveyor of oddities, but setting people free.
2. A Million Dreams (Ziv Zaifman, Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams) / A Million Dreams Reprise (Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Hugh Jackman) –
Ziv definitely imbues this song with a softer touch than other adult singers here. But he definitely plays to the song what is necessary. The song focuses on the whimsical nature of dreams and making them into reality. As a person who focused so much on dreams, this song perfectly encapsulates the vision of the man we know at P.T. Barnum. He transformed all of our imaginations into a gallery of curiosities. He might have lied about what he actually displayed, but he certainly had a vision he made a reality and brought into our world. The music is, on the one hand, dreamy, and the other hand soars with the potential of things to come. I love how they integrate the duet with Michelle Williams who is both Barnum’s partner (wife) and our eyes and soul as we enter into the world of The Greatest Showman.
3. Come Alive (Hugh Jackman, Keala Settle, Daniel Everidge, Zendaya)-
With music more electric in nature, Come Alive separates itself from all the other pieces in the album. I am still not sure whether this is a good thing. But the sustained reverb and electronic music with synth voices are so different than the rest of the pieces. Thematically, on the other hand, this piece is very much in line with the rest of the work. In it, Jackman calls out to his band of misfits to come alive. But the language almost feels like Jesus calling Lazarus from the dead, or even Paul in Corinthians telling his audience to be dead to sin and alive before God. Barnum makes specific calls to his people to be the light of the world.
4. The Other Side (Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron)-
Fast becoming one of my daughter and my favorite pieces of the album, it feels the most like a classical musical. Musicals were supposed to be when the person on stage ran out of words to say and could only communicate what they wanted to through song. This feels very much like that moment. It’s one thing to call those who are in the shadows out into the light. It’s another thing to call the rich man into the kingdom of “heaven.” And Zac Efron as Phillip as that rich man. But instead of writing the rich man off, Barnum dares Phillip to taste and see that this new kingdom on earth is good. Barnum emplores Phillip to see the invisible walls which surround him and make him no happier than any member of his troupe. In a departure from a Messiah like story, Barnum is forced to pay Phillip to experience this new life. It takes love to convert Phillip, which comes later.
5. Never Enough (Loren Allred) / Never Enough Reprise-
This song is one of the two major power ballads on the album. As Barnum has raised the expectations of his troupe, we get full buy-in from the people who are there. And they can see the life they lived as the only way to live. They cannot live it half way but want more.
“I’m trying to hold my breath
Let it stay this way
Can’t let this moment end
You set off a dream with me
Getting louder now
Can you hear it echoing?”
She cannot accept the ending of the moment. But wants to make this life, these moments last forever. She fully loves life the way she has been living it and cannot go back. Once the dream is given, it is passed on and lives through each and every person it touches.
6. This Is Me (Keala Settle) –
The other power ballad of the piece, This Is Me defines so much of what The Greatest Showman is supposed to be about. It is at once contemplative and triumphant. It comes when each individual comes to accept who they are and the inner beauty that each person has. I think people will have varying different opinions about what the meaning of this song is. But I think the beauty of a good song like a good piece of literature is how it’s received. People can come to very different conclusions. I think the best reading of any work is in context. And in this context, I believe it translates a recognition of what heaven on earth should look like. Because it’s not about the outward appearance, but the heart which means the most. I believe references to “we are warriors” and “we are glorious” both back up my assertion.
7. Rewrite The Stars (Zac Efron, Zendaya)-
Zac Efron and Zendaya come together for the most romantic of the songs in the movie. They mesh the lovely voice of Zendaya with the deep tones of Efron in a duet. The song starts off with a point and a counterpoint by the couple. On the one hand, we have Phillip, who by now has fully bought into the dream of Barnum. On the other, we have Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) who believes the dream will not stand up to the scrutiny. But by the time the voices join in unison, they realize a world of possibility. Our young lovers are caught fully into the possibility of a future as we are swept up by the chorus. The bridge near the end of the peace says it all. “It feels impossible? It’s not impossible? Is it impossible? Say that it’s possible.”
8. Tightrope (Michelle Williams)-
I wasn’t sure what to think of Michelle Williams voice after hearing her in A Million Dreams. It was a pretty voice but I wasn’t sure whether it carried the depth I wanted to hear. Tightrope made me realize that Williams could carry a song. It is a beautiful piece where Charity Barnum sings of the delicate balance she agreed to when she agreed to a life with the great P.T. Barnum. I think my only complaint here, and I will have to see how this plays out in the movie, is that she seems too certain of P.T. But there doesn’t seem to be any complexity of thought here. No concern for her own well-being. I feel this might be a weakness given the concluding song. But I will get there in a moment. As for the song itself it beautifully tells the life and heart of Charity Barnum who fully commits herself to her husbands’ craziness. It’s a beautiful sentiment.
9. From Now On (Hugh Jackman)-
The Grand Finale of The Greatest Showman is at once contemplative and stirring. Barnum comes to a great realization. He let the idea of who he was to take over Barnum the man. Barnum realized he was not a savior, even if he called for heaven on Earth. Because everything for him came down to the love of his life. His wife both inspired and brought him back down to the ground. While she may have accepted the tightrope, Barnum realized this life was also not the life he promised his wife. Repeated references to “I will not be blinded by the light” and “we will come back home” refer to his understanding of being lost. And ultimately the call of home is the most important thing. A second possible reading could be the recognition earth and its trappings is not our home. For the kingdom of heaven may be possible to bring on earth but is ultimately not of this world. Although I think that tortures the lyrics and the character of Barnum himself. What I will say is that the audience is transported by the combining of Jackman’s strong vocals and the choral music in the background.
Continue The Conversation
I am sure many could take a lot of different readings into the music, but this was mine. I am not sure the lyricists intentionally inserted religious imagery into the work, but I definitely believe it runs throughout, even if unintentional. But as I stated before, I think most art can be viewed in a variety of different ways. And no one way is necessarily right, or necessarily wrong. If you have listened to the soundtrack, I am curious as to your thoughts. How do you interpret the music? What has been your favorite so far? And if this is not your thing, what music have you liked the best? Or what was your favorite musical? This will be the last of The Greatest Showman posts, aside from a possible review. What things did you find the most interesting from these posts?
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If you did like these posts, please like the post at the end, and follow me here at the Guide. All email followers will be sent a message with a password to the Dad Rules. These are ten rules every dad should know about and follow. Thanks for stopping by these last few weeks. And be sure to check out some of my other film posts.
Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, Single Dad’s Guide to Life