Currently in US cinemas there is a new film called The Greatest Showman very loosely telling the tale of PT Barnum in an extravagant musical. I have seen the film twice now and after my recent visit I tweeted out:
I have to admit Greatest Showman‘s flaws are more obvious on rewatch but in many ways I think it is the Ultimate Mormon Movie
I then promised to explain this tweet and so here I am to elaborate!
First, I should state that I enjoyed the film. It’s an old school, classic family musical. It is written by the same people who made La La Land, and I honestly prefer it. I like the songs better. I like the message better, and I just think it is more of a fun time. Take your family and go enjoy yourselves at the movies!
Obviously The Greatest Showman has no Mormon characters and is not a faith-based film, so how can I say it is the ultimate Mormon movie? Well, it comes down to themes, style and messaging that will ring true for many Mormon people (obviously speaking in broad generalizations here but I have yet to find a Mormon who dislikes the film…).
So let me explain why I think The Greatest Showman particularly resonates with a Mormon audience:
Mormons are Misfits
The first reason is that Mormons see themselves as ‘peculiar people’. Several times in scriptures we learn that the “Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself” (Deut 14:2). This is something Mormons take very seriously and wear with a kind of pride. For example, each year BYU is voted “the most stone cold sober school in the US.” Most of us are are very proud of this designation and boast of it when promoting the church. Look at this video BYU put out heralding the accomplishment.
But this idea of the Mormon Misfit goes back to the church founding where such practices as polygamy and communal living certainly made the people peculiar.We were literally expelled from several states and an extermination order written against us by a state governor (another source of pride).
However, this ‘rebelliousness’ obviously takes a very PG rated form and this is what makes The Greatest Showman so perfect for Mormons. The peculiar people of Barnum’s circus are different from the world but in a sweet, very clean cut way. This is a PG rated movie but it has a ‘freak show’ the whole family can enjoy
If you watch this video on ‘This is Me’ you will see what I mean about the clean cut misfits of The Greatest Showman
Mormons Love Marriage
Mormons have unique views on marriage that helps them bond with The Greatest Showman. We believe that marriage in the temple can be for time and all eternity and that the bond between a couple lasts forever. Children are an important and sacred calling for a couple but it is a marriage between 2 people that the highest ordinance of the church is based. There is nothing more important than a faithful marriage to most Mormons.
In The Greatest Showman PT Barnum is shown as a young child who is the son of a poor tailor. He meets a young girl named Charity who he bonds with immediately and the two are obviously destined to be together. These children grow up to be Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams and they leave her parents, get married and have two beautiful daughters. This is literally the dream of nearly every Mormon person.
In the movie Barnum’s marriage is tested by a woman named Jenny Lynde played by Rebecca Fergusson. In most Hollywood movies he would give into the temptation and betray his marriage. Not in The Greatest Showman. He stays true, even after she publicly shames him and implies scandal. He is true to his wife and the two make up and stay committed to each other. This is very appealing to a Mormon audience. It’s certainly more appealing than say the characters in La La Land who have premarital relationships and give up on their relationship fairly quickly. No such luck in a Mormon musical fantasy! LOL
Barnum is also very sweet with his daughters creating a world that shelters them from the troubles of his work and other stresses. This is encouraged in Mormon households as we have Family Home Evening and other family time to teach, fortify and bond as a family. The scene where Barnum gives the girls a special lamp might as well have come out of a church movie.
Mormons Are Theatrical
People that did not grow up in Utah or Idaho may not be aware of the theatrical traditions of the Mormon people. In fact, when the Saints arrived in Utah one of the first buildings they erected was a theater. Along the pioneer trek the Saints were known for having dances, reciting poetry and singing in choirs.
Today there are few places that support regional theater the way Utah does. Literally every town has their own little theater. We also have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Utah Symphony, Utah Opera, Ballet West and the Utah Shakespeare Festival- all institutions that have received national recognition (to name a few).
Utah is very dance focused and whether it is team dance or ballroom dance students are taught young and are encouraged to display their talents. These performances are usually clean cut, boisterous shows that are very similar to what you get in The Greatest Showman.
Look at this video of the BYU Young Ambassadors and tell me it does not seem right out of The Greatest Showman playbook:
Before every temple dedication there are cultural celebrations with grand theatricals and BYU is famous for its acapella, dance and show choirs. People eat that stuff up and it’s just part of the culture.
This is totally the style of The Greatest Showman. Big boisterous and cheerful:
You could argue that Zac Efron became a star based off of the Mormon template of entertainment. All the High School Musical movies were filmed here and are very emblematic of the type of musical that is popular.
Mormons have a Pioneer Spirit
I am well aware that the version of PT Barnum we get in The Greatest Showman is mostly fictitious, but I think that is largely irrelevant for the effectiveness of the musical. Nobody cares that The Sound of Music is wildly inaccurate to what happened with the von Trapps. Certainly no one should be looking at a fluffy musical for historical accuracy.
So, if we just take the character presented in the movie it is a very appealing for a Mormon audience. He is literally the man who invented the phrase ‘show business’. He gathers his group despite everyone laughing in his face and Mormons relate to that spirit. I mean most Mormons are either returned missionaries or related/married to one. The idea of being a bold thinker and being rejected is very attractive.
He is also kind of a prophet type character that leads with great charisma and enthusiasm. This type of evangelism is encouraged as we have no paid clergy and must all be responsible for public speaking and motivating our fellow church members. Barnum might as well be a bishop in this movie! LOL
The Greatest Showman is not a perfect movie. The script could be better, but it does a good job selling itself to a Mormon audience and evidently the producers thought so as well because they did a very early screening of it in September here. Whether that will turn out to be a good approach to take across the country will be interesting to see. It certainly selling out here! Pretty much all my local friends on facebook and twitter who have seen it, loved it. Just it being a PG live action film alone is enough to excite people here but you add in grand musical spectacle and you have a winner!
It’s not often we get an old fashioned family friendly musical so go see it! Have fun and enjoy it whether Mormon or not. My Dad hasn’t seen a movie in the theater since Les Miserables but I know he will love this. 🙂