Keeping the Showman Great: Of P.T. Barnum, Vows and Fatherhood

I think every movie is about fatherhood — especially ‘The Greatest Showman’

(photo: Fox Movies)

The Oscars are around the corner, and I’m surprised that The Greatest Showman is up for only a single award – Best Original Song for “This is Me.” After we’d gone to see it as a family back in December, we drove home singing the numbers we could remember, and I immediately attempted to order the CD – but it was already out of stock. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones bowled over by the film’s string of buoyant, evocative songs, one after another. They frame and flesh out the movie’s tale of sin and salvation in an invigorating, enormously entertaining way. What a fabulous ride, what a joyous treat!

A couple of weeks ago, we finally got that soundtrack I’d backordered and my Katharine (12 years old) has been wearing it out on the player. Consequently, the film’s music has been fresh on our minds, and happily so. “What was your favorite song in The Greatest Showman?” Nick asked as we drove to school the other day. “Mine is ‘This is Me.’”

Kath piped up. “My favorite is ‘The Other Side.’”

“I’m with Nick on this one,” I said, “but Jenny Lind’s song made me cry – what was it called?”

“Never Enough,” Kath answered, adding, “but I don’t like that song because I don’t like her.”

I probed a bit for her rationale. “She was taking Barnum away from his circus and his family,” Kath explained – which reminded her of something. “And this is definitely not a movie about fatherhood. Barnum was not a good father since he left them all.”

Kath was referencing one of my more annoying dad-isms: Every movie is about fatherhood. I trot it out regularly, especially when we see movies together as a family, and it’s generally derided as a gross oversimplification. But I think it’s accurate because all movies are stories, and any story worth telling – any story, that is, that’s worth spending millions of dollars on to turn into a major motion picture – is a story about sin and salvation. And sin is always, at its heart, a rebellion against the Father (CCC 1850), however he is represented in our narratives.

“The father-son paradigm is ageless,” St. John Paul II observed, and original sin is the primordial resistance to that paradigm. “This is truly the key for interpreting reality.” Sin isn’t just breaking an arbitrary rule, but breaking trust with the rule-giver, who is the father – or, for believers, the Father. Substantive stories (and movies) always touch on this rebellion in some way and, whether implied or explicit, the need to repair (or reinforce) that breach.

In the case of The Greatest Showman, it’s a father in rebellion against his own fatherhood. In the first part of the movie, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) clearly demonstrates selfless love for his wife and daughters, as well as a paternal love for his circus performers –embracing and celebrating their offbeat personas and gifts that otherwise sideline them from general society. But as he ascends the ladder of success, he loses touch with those first loves. The growing chorus of accolades associated with his promotion of the singer Lind pull him away from his gritty ringside identity and family commitments. His pride balloons, and Lind’s tantalizing charms tempt him to consider abandoning those commitments for something altogether different.

But he firmly rejects the singer’s advances and he returns to his wife and children – and the family of his circus. In other words, he clings to his vows for dear life, which not only sustain his marriage, but also makes possible the restoration of his paternal role.

“It’s true that Barnum was leaving everybody,” is how I put it to Kath, “but he did come back and he did make a new home for the circus and for his family.”

“But they had to bring him back,” Kath protested.

This exchange transported me back to last August when I experienced a little fatherly epiphany at a weekday Mass. St. Paul set things in motion with his exhortation to the Thessalonians. “We proclaimed to you the Gospel of God,” he writes, adding that his readers “received it not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God.” All right – I get that. Easy-peasy. But then this line jumped out at me (emphasis added): “As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his children…” – a clear reference to a first-century understanding of fatherhood that the Apostle took for granted. In other words, Paul’s apostolic simile assumes a common vision of a dad’s role in the family, and he went on to summarize that role in terms of “exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you walk in a manner worthy of the God.”

And isn’t that indeed the essence of fatherhood? Simultaneously we’re called upon to fully support our children in their youth and cheerlead them from the sidelines as they grow older, yet all the while, in their youth and beyond, maintaining the highest moral expectations of them.

As a father-in-training, I mulled over Paul’s simile in my pew as the lector went on to the day’s Psalm, a portion of Psalm 139. It seemed to go along with Paul’s implied observation regarding a dad’s calling. “Where can I go from your spirit?” the psalmist asks. “From your presence where can I flee?” There’s an inference here that the Father is everywhere present, both externally in his creation and other people, but even in our own selves and consciences. It makes sense, then, for a dad to similarly call his kids to account – it’s the right thing to do and in their best interests. They can’t escape God, that is, so we ought to raise them to fully acknowledge that fact and act accordingly.

Then came the Gospel reading from St. Matthew – the kicker. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees,” it starts, “you hypocrites.” Yikes – no resting on my dad-laurels, even if I had any to rest on. The message I gleaned from the juxtaposition of these readings was that, yes, as a loving father, I have to hold my children accountable and hold them to the highest standards, morally and otherwise. Yet, at the same time, I must live up to that standard as well. I can’t appear righteous by what I tell my kids and then act otherwise – choosing “hypocrisy and evildoing.”

This is true with reference to modeling virtues of temperance, justice and fortitude, to be sure, but it’s particularly true when it comes to keeping promises, there’s no promise more important than our wedding vows – our solemn twofold promise of permanent fidelity and marital cooperation in raising up the children God sends us.

That’s what I found so inspiring in the musical retelling of P.T. Barnum’s story. Contrary to Katharine’s assertion that The Greatest Showman isn’t about fatherhood, I’d argue that it’s precisely about that. It’s a powerful illustration of the connection between our vows and the communal dimension of human fatherhood – that we’re called to lead in our families, but that we’re also reliant on our families to lead us as well when we mess up.

We tend to think of wedding vows as the bedrock of marriage, which they are, but they’re also the bedrock of parenthood – of fatherhood in particular. Our marital faithfulness is both the tether that keeps us in touch with our grave responsibilities as husbands and fathers and the pivot that allows our families to call us back to those responsibilities when we drift away.

In its explication of the Fourth Commandment – “Honor your father and mother” – the Catechism lays out a simple directive regarding our role as leaders. “Parents should teach their children to subordinate the ‘material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones’” (2223). We do that largely by our example, and for us dads that begins, at the barest minimum, by being true to our wives – like the cinematic Barnum.

That unshakable fidelity allows for the flipside of the Fourth Commandment to come into play, for although we might be faithful, we’re still fallible, and so prone to sin and error and screw-ups – just like our children. Consequently, dads also have to give good example in how they “acknowledge their own failings to their children,” according to the Catechism, even when those failings appear to undermine their very identity as dads.

Once we do that, our children, along with our wives, can call us back from our failings and insist that we fulfill our paternal duties to protect, provide and lead. Like Barnum’s family and circus crew, those we’re responsible for can give us “moral support…in times of illness, loneliness, or distress” (CCC 2218), and I love it that the Catechism drops in a couple snatches from Sirach here that zero in on this two-way responsibility: “O son, help your father,” Sirach tells us. “Even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance; in all your strength do not despise him.”

In other words, far from being dictators in our homes, we’re more like ringmasters who are part of the show. We’re all in it together, and the only requirement is that we refuse to give up.

As we pulled up to school, I did my best to respond to Kath’s critique of Barnum as a dad. “It was OK that the family and the circus had to help him do what he’s supposed to do,” I said. “And that was only possible because he was so solid on his marriage vow.”

“I dunno, dad,” Kath replied before she climbed out. “I’ll Google it when I get home.” OK, daughter, you do that. Just be sure to let me know where I’m wrong.