The Greatest Deception

Ed Ramsey

I do not like The Greatest Showman. Wow, I know right, how could I possibly say such a thing? But if you would read on, I shall explain my reasoning- which, by the way, is threefold.

Reason number 1: The music and lyrics are not as good as people are saying they are. For perspective, let me do a side-by-side with my favourite work of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to compare. What’s more, to make it fair, the two songs will be exploring similar themes (granted not the same, but very similar).

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Extra points for knowing both songs. Spoiler, on the left we have the most popular anthem of The Greatest Showman ‘This is Me’, and on the right we have a section from Dear Evan Hansen’s ‘You Will be Found’. Ok, so let’s examine them in slightly more detail. See how in ‘This is Me’, we have a fairly simply structured AABCC (then repeated) chorus, with only a couple of the rhymes even being full rhymes. And then we have a ‘post chorus’ which is a bunch of ‘oh’s, granted, catchy, but not clever. Then as we know ‘This is Me’ also contains a bridge (or middle 8), as pretty much most songs in the universe do, and again it’s reasonably simple, especially since only two lines are new. We could also mention that everything about this song, from its 4/4 rhythm, lack of complexity, simple rhyme scheme and its ‘oh’s is basically the embodiment of modern pop music, or rather lower level pop music, since its safe to say Ed Sheeran writes better than this. Dear Evan Hansen on the other hand, and even La La Land arguably, takes inspiration from pop music, such as vocal technique for instance, but does not simply copy pop music entirely, as to do so wouldn't make for a creatively interesting musical.

Now let’s examine the song on the right, ‘You Will be Found’. Notice how, experimenting with an exciting theatrical style used frequently in good musical theatre, the song has several tiers to it, including spoken word which fits into the rhythm so cleanly and pitches its fair share of responsibility for a good deal of the emotional strength in the song. It plays around with voice, the music is just as catchy as on the left, if not way more so; but also this song utilises many characters, each one offering their own energy and lyrics to it. ‘You Will be Found’ is notably longer than ‘This is Me’, and in its larger (and arguably more meaningful and relevant) purpose, also experiments with the contrast of company and isolation. Those who know the song would know it begins very isolated and simplistic, drawing our attention to Evan (Ben Platt’s wonderful acting- I mean he won a freakin’ Tony guys), and then grows and grows as well as advancing the plot as it does so; and finally ending with the isolation again, increasing poignancy as well as planting a subtle motif. ‘This is Me’ does not do this. ‘You Will be Found’ also features a much stronger bridge which not only is a wider variation on the song’s tune (in contrast to ‘This is Me’, which is much closer if not the same), i.e. more interesting and engaging, but also lasts longer. I hope at least someone agrees that there is an obvious winner- and yet which is the one people seem to be obsessed with right now? Hmm.

Now let’s dig a little more seriously. Reason number 2: This musical has already been made. The Greatest Showman is about P.T. Barnum’s rise to fame (if we can call it that) and his work with characters such as Jenny Lind and General Tom Thumb. ‘Barnum!’, with music and lyrics by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart respectively, which premiered in 1980 and was performed as recently as 2017, is the same story. Actually no, that’s not true, because it is in fact much closer to the real history of Barnum than The Greatest Showman really is; and this is the same musical which begins with the line “there’s a sucker born every minute” which was something Barnum himself probably never said. So here’s my question: why recreate and increase the fictionalisation of a musical for literally no other reason than to have something to do? La La Land was better than this, it was original and thought-provoking, and the songs were fantastically well written, why has everybody gone off that, and onto this? The answer is simple, it plays into the new fad-attitude of liberals (of which I am one by the way) ‘everyone is amazing, nobody should be treated as inferior because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or of course any of the “freak” examples featured in Barnum’s show’. Now this is, of course, an attitude I agree with, but a musical or film shouldn’t get a free VIP pass to the ‘great art’ section of culture just because it brandishes this attitude like a trophy animal head. And this actually brings me to my third and hopefully most jarring reason…

Reason number 3: P.T. Barnum himself was a producer and great advocate of blackface minstrelsy. Not only this, but it was his promotion of minstrel shows (including his own) which led in part to his financial and celebrity success. Now, admittedly, he was eventually anti-slavery (though he owned a slave himself- Joice Heth- and had no issue purchasing her so he could earn money by exhibiting her in his acts), but that doesn’t quite excuse Barnum from what we would definitely consider to be messed up today, whatever the context. In fact, while we’re on the subject, when Joice Heth died, Barnum set up an autopsy to be observed by around 1500 people, and charged everyone for admission. Let me just get through that again, let’s give it its own paragraph:

P.T. Barnum charged people to watch the public autopsy of a dead slave he owned and made part of his acts. But yeah, sure, Hugh Jackman is so hot.

Fine, those times were those times. I’m not rejecting that argument, but we certainly shouldn’t be promoting this character as being a modern idol. We just shouldn’t. The only equivalent I could think of would be Columbus day, which is obviously worse, but it’s worth some thought, I’d say.

Extra points for knowing both songs. Spoiler, on the left we have the most popular anthem of The Greatest Showman ‘This is Me’, and on the right we have a section from Dear Evan Hansen’s ‘You Will be Found’. Ok, so let’s examine them in slightly more detail. See how in ‘This is Me’, we have a fairly simply structured AABCC (then repeated) chorus, with only a couple of the rhymes even being full rhymes. And then we have a ‘post chorus’ which is a bunch of ‘oh’s, granted, catchy, but not clever. Then as we know ‘This is Me’ also contains a bridge (or middle 8), as pretty much most songs in the universe do, and again it’s reasonably simple, especially since only two lines are new. We could also mention that everything about this song, from its 4/4 rhythm, lack of complexity, simple rhyme scheme and its ‘oh’s is basically the embodiment of modern pop music, or rather lower level pop music, since its safe to say Ed Sheeran writes better than this. Dear Evan Hansen on the other hand, and even La La Land arguably, takes inspiration from pop music, such as vocal technique for instance, but does not simply copy pop music entirely, as to do so wouldn't make for a creatively interesting musical.

Now let’s examine the song on the right, ‘You Will be Found’. Notice how, experimenting with an exciting theatrical style used frequently in good musical theatre, the song has several tiers to it, including spoken word which fits into the rhythm so cleanly and pitches its fair share of responsibility for a good deal of the emotional strength in the song. It plays around with voice, the music is just as catchy as on the left, if not way more so; but also this song utilises many characters, each one offering their own energy and lyrics to it. ‘You Will be Found’ is notably longer than ‘This is Me’, and in its larger (and arguably more meaningful and relevant) purpose, also experiments with the contrast of company and isolation. Those who know the song would know it begins very isolated and simplistic, drawing our attention to Evan (Ben Platt’s wonderful acting- I mean he won a freakin’ Tony guys), and then grows and grows as well as advancing the plot as it does so; and finally ending with the isolation again, increasing poignancy as well as planting a subtle motif. ‘This is Me’ does not do this. ‘You Will be Found’ also features a much stronger bridge which not only is a wider variation on the song’s tune (in contrast to ‘This is Me’, which is much closer if not the same), i.e. more interesting and engaging, but also lasts longer. I hope at least someone agrees that there is an obvious winner- and yet which is the one people seem to be obsessed with right now? Hmm.

Now let’s dig a little more seriously. Reason number 2: This musical has already been made. The Greatest Showman is about P.T. Barnum’s rise to fame (if we can call it that) and his work with characters such as Jenny Lind and General Tom Thumb. ‘Barnum!’, with music and lyrics by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart respectively, which premiered in 1980 and was performed as recently as 2017, is the same story. Actually no, that’s not true, because it is in fact much closer to the real history of Barnum than The Greatest Showman really is; and this is the same musical which begins with the line “there’s a sucker born every minute” which was something Barnum himself probably never said. So here’s my question: why recreate and increase the fictionalisation of a musical for literally no other reason than to have something to do? La La Land was better than this, it was original and thought-provoking, and the songs were fantastically well written, why has everybody gone off that, and onto this? The answer is simple, it plays into the new fad-attitude of liberals (of which I am one by the way) ‘everyone is amazing, nobody should be treated as inferior because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or of course any of the “freak” examples featured in Barnum’s show’. Now this is, of course, an attitude I agree with, but a musical or film shouldn’t get a free VIP pass to the ‘great art’ section of culture just because it brandishes this attitude like a trophy animal head. And this actually brings me to my third and hopefully most jarring reason…

Reason number 3: P.T. Barnum himself was a producer and great advocate of blackface minstrelsy. Not only this, but it was his promotion of minstrel shows (including his own) which led in part to his financial and celebrity success. Now, admittedly, he was eventually anti-slavery (though he owned a slave himself- Joice Heth- and had no issue purchasing her so he could earn money by exhibiting her in his acts), but that doesn’t quite excuse Barnum from what we would definitely consider to be messed up today, whatever the context. In fact, while we’re on the subject, when Joice Heth died, Barnum set up an autopsy to be observed by around 1500 people, and charged everyone for admission. Let me just get through that again, let’s give it its own paragraph:

P.T. Barnum charged people to watch the public autopsy of a dead slave he owned and made part of his acts. But yeah, sure, Hugh Jackman is so hot.

Fine, those times were those times. I’m not rejecting that argument, but we certainly shouldn’t be promoting this character as being a modern idol. We just shouldn’t. The only equivalent I could think of would be Columbus day, which is obviously worse, but it’s worth some thought, I’d say.