A Theological Interpretation of The Greatest Showman: “From Now On”

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen “The Greatest Showman”, you’ll want to stop reading. But if you haven’t seen “The Greatest Showman”, you should just drop what you’re doing and head to the theater right now.

“The Greatest Showman” is billed as a musical-drama inspired by the story of P.T. Barnum and the creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Though the film received mixed reviews early on (critics gave the film a Rotten Tomatoes score of 55), strong word of mouth and a killer soundtrack have propelled the film to nearly $300 million at the box office worldwide.

At its core, the film is a parable about belonging. Hugh Jackman shines as Barnum, whose character journeys from orphaned pauper to upstart entrepreneur to media magnate to wizened family man. For much of the film, Barnum nobly seeks security and prosperity for the sake of his wife and daughters, only to succumb to the siren song of fame. This may be a familiar trope, but Jackman’s performance draws you in. And there are also the songs. The soundtrack is a #1 smash on both the U.S. and U.K. charts.

Barnum’s ploy for commercial success involves the marketing of a group of misfits and oddities into a “freakshow” of sorts, complete with trapeze artists, giants, albinos, a bearded lady and General Tom Thumb. Barnum helps turn these grotesqueries into showbiz stars, but he also builds a financial empire in the process. In the film, Barnum’s true genius is his monetizing the human fascination with the strange.

When a newspaper critic dubs him a hack, Barnum develops an obsession with being recognized as a legitimate entertainer, fueled in part by his insecurity about his humble beginnings. Inevitably, Barnum’s quest for critical adulation leads him to neglect the gang of misfits upon which he built his earlier fortune and very nearly costs him his family.

In the film’s most pivotal scene, Barnum is reeling from a devastating fire that has destroyed his circus building when he finds himself surrounded by his family of fellow performers. Estranged from his wife and children, it is the encouragement of these “misfits” that brings clarity to Barnum. He finally sees himself fully and truly as a fellow outsider, and in embracing this reality, Barnum resolves to give up the chase for praise from the masses and moves to reconcile with his family. And the scene is carried by this song, “From Now On”:

It is a prodigal moment, an epiphany of pure repentance that paves the way not only for the film’s final scenes, but more importantly, for the true belonging we all desire. “From Now On” is a mantra of resolve and transformation.

From now on
These eyes will not be blinded by the lights
From now on
What’s waited till tomorrow starts tonight
Tonight
Let this promise in me start
Like an anthem in my heart
From now on
From now on

And the rousing ensemble finish gives voice to our universal longing: a place to belong, a home to which we can return.

And we will come back home
And we will come back home
Home, again!
And we will come back home
And we will come back home
Home, again!
And we will come back home
And we will come back home
Home, again!

The central message of “The Greatest Showman” hits like a flash of Good News. We will come back home! Theologians speak of this as eschatological hope — our longing for eternity that was set in our hearts long ago (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This isn’t typically the stuff of Hollywood musicals, I’ll grant you. But this is the substance of our deepest hopes. Everyone wants to go home. And I suspect that one of the primary reasons for the success of the film and the soundtrack is the resonance of this core message. As the ensemble quietly fades out, this “someday vision” lingers as a whispered hope, the reality toward which we are oriented.

“The Greatest Showman” points to a “someday reunion”, an in-gathering of universal belonging that is the hope of misfits, oddballs, and grotesqueries.

And, as it turns out…me, too.

This entry was posted in Eschatology, Gospel, Movies, Music, Scripture, Video and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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