The Greatest Showman, Michael Gracey’s colorful, true-ish musical tale of how OG circus showrunner P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) built his empire in 19th-century New York, has received mixed reviews since its Dec. 20 debut. With a score of 56 percent on film review site Rotten Tomatoes, choice adjectives used by critics for the biopic range from “artificial” to “wholesomely enraptured.”
Popular response to the film’s soundtrack, on the other hand, is near unanimous.
The Greatest Showman soundtrack hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart dated Jan. 13, marking the first soundtrack from a theatrically released musical to top the list since Pitch Perfect 2 in May 2015. This week, four songs from Showman earn a spot on the Billboard Hot 100: Jackman’s “The Greatest Show,” Zac Efron and Zendaya’s duet “Rewrite the Stars,” Loren Allred’s “Never Enough” and Keala Settle’s “This Is Me,” which earned songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul a Golden Globe for best original song on Sunday (Jan. 7). With the exception of love ode “Never Be Enough,” these tracks and more from Showman champion diversity, promoting acceptance of both oneself and others through Barnum’s circus “freaks” — no doubt a metaphor for all marginalized communities, from Barnum’s 19th-century world to present day.
While quasi-theme song “The Greatest Show” celebrates a space where “the runaways are running the night” and “the lost get found,” the tender, heartbreaking “Rewrite the Stars” finds a wealthy playwright (Efron) and trapeze artist (Zendaya) questioning the social boundaries of their interracial relationship (“there are doors that we can’t walk through”). In “The Other Side,” Barnum implores Efron’s character to abandon the rigid social rules of the elite for “something colorful” — his circus crew; with “Come Alive,” Barnum urges his band of outcasts to “take the world and redefine it.”
But it’s crowd favorite “This Is Me” — sung by Broadway singer-actress Settle, the circus ensemble’s bearded lady — that embodies the film’s theme of acceptance most prominently. “I am brave, I am bruised / I am who I’m meant to be, this is me,” Settle roars, proclaiming her self-worth in one particularly heart-rending number after Barnum slams the door (literally) on the circus members at a fancy theatre reception. It’s telling that the song received a cover from Kesha, whose own “We R Who We R” in 2010 made her an icon for self-love and the LGBTQ community.
The track’s uplifting message is no mistake. Earlier this week, Pasek and Paul told Billboard that “This Is Me” was inspired by “people who had lived in the shadows their whole lives and for the first time wanted to feel love and acceptance … they make a statement — not only to [Barnum], but to themselves — that they declare to love themselves for the first time.”
Of course, Showman’s apparent metaphor of circus performers as today’s marginalized groups borders on preachy and far-fetched. After all, Barnum’s seemingly heartfelt interest in the town’s outcasts is, in the end, economic. (Let’s not even get started on debating the film’s historical veracity, or the ethics of circuses in general.)
Showman may not be fueling the musical resistance a la Kendrick or Kesha, but its unexpected success is a sign that listeners are hungry for songs that spotlight the disenfranchised and spread messages of inclusivity and self-love. And that’s a reason to be hopeful for 2018.