How “A Million Dreams” Brilliantly Foreshadows the Entire Plot of THE GREATEST SHOWMAN
Yes, I am still on a Greatest Showman kick. Cut me some slack, though. My wife and I only saw it for the first time just under three weeks ago. The soundtrack still plays almost daily in our home, providing near endless opportunities for our toddlers to daintily prance and spin as they sing along with “The Circus Man” (as they gleefully call him). Besides, for someone who’s as unhip as myself, it makes sense that I would be taken in by such an uncool (according to critics), and yet wildly popular (according to general audiences), movie.
So, what is my point in writing another post about this particular film? To gush like a fanboy who has staked a personal claim to gold-encrusted, front-row seats on the Greatest Showman bandwagon? Not exactly. (That’s just a happy side effect.) The point of this blog post is to…well, point out a unique aspect of the song “A Million Dreams.” After listening to this song a bajillion times (give or take a few), I’ve noticed something extraordinary about it.
The excellence of this song isn’t just that it provides an elephant-sized amount of exposition in such a small amount of time, or that it sets up the major themes of the movie, or that it quickly develops a three-dimensional protagonist. The song does even more. As I wrote earlier, it “brilliantly foreshadows the major plot points of the film, providing almost a veiled summary of the movie in six wonderful minutes.”
Let’s examine just how the song reveals each major plot point—sometimes obviously and sometimes obliquely. Fair warning: this review includes a heavy dose of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read any further unless you absolutely want the entire story revealed/ruined for you.
The centrality of P.T. Barnum’s relationship with Charity
Based on the trailers alone, one might have been tempted to think the story revolves around the circus performers. In the end, their story is secondary, acting more as a foil (in the literary sense) to the main protagonist, rather than as the central focus (see my wife’s excellent analysis here).
The future living quarters for the Barnums
Young Phineas takes Charity over a closed gate and into an abandoned estate. They explore the inside of the mansion, imagining all that they will do there. Later in the film, Barnum purchases and restores this same estate, where he, Charity, and their children reside.
The creation of the circus
While Phineas leads Charity through what will be their future home, he shines his make-do flashlight on old, decrepit objects in such a way that causes the resulting shadows on the wall to mimic the different acts in his future circus (lions, trapeze, etc.). Phineas also sings about how “a million colors fill my head,” which corresponds with lyrics from “The Greatest Show,” in which the circus is described as being “covered in all the colored lights.”
The involvement—and humanity—of society’s outcasts
After orphan Barnum’s failed attempt at stealing a loaf of bread, he is surprised by the kind act of someone handing him an apple to eat. This generous person is revealed to be a disfigured individual, whose lack of outward beauty cannot hide the attractive nature of their inner worth. (Later in the film, the sight of another apple provides a pivotal motivation for Barnum to start the circus.) One could even argue that the failed attempt at bread stealing anticipates the future failed museum, whereas the true solution comes through society’s outcasts (i.e., the circus).
Barnum’s susceptibility to the temptations of wealth and high society
After Phineas and Charity begin their life together, he is momentarily distracted when he looks through a window into a restaurant, seeing a man and woman sharing a toast while sitting at an elegant dinner table. Charity pulls on his hand, bringing his mind back to where it needs to be: focused on his true love. This points to Barnum’s future pursuit of fame and prestige, to the detriment of his family’s well-being.
How Phineas almost ruins his marriage
The final major set piece of “A Million Dreams” involves Phineas and Charity dancing on the rooftops. At one point, Charity runs toward the edge of the roof, almost leaping into the air before Phineas pulls her back to safety. This is a curious piece of choreography, since Charity is neither suicidal nor attempting to distance herself from Phineas. However, this action hints at a later plot point, in which Phineas almost loses Charity completely—not due to death, but to his neglect and near infidelity. Charity nearly flying off the roof also points to a line she sings in the future song “Tightrope”: “Never sure, will you catch me if I should fall?”
The importance and priority of family
“A Million Dreams” provides something of a twist ending. Ostensibly about Barnum’s ambitious goals—many of which he achieves during the course of the movie—the song comes to a close with Phineas and Charity once more referencing “the world we're gonna make.” But as they sing this last line, and as the camera pulls back from a close-up of the two, we see that Charity is pregnant. Phineas embraces her from behind, both sets of their hands resting on the new life they have created. The grandeur of the public success they are going to experience (the museum, the circus, and the fame and success that come along with them) gives way to something more private and quiet, but arguably even grander—even more grand than the life Phineas promised Charity’s father he would give her.
And so “A Million Dreams” ends in the same way the movie ends, showing how all the glitz and glamor of show business—not inherently evil in and of itself—takes a back seat to something more substantial. Whereas Phineas thought he would be content only to be both recognized on stage and lauded in the public eye, he found a greater contentment by sitting quietly in the audience (literally and figuratively), enjoying a much greater show: familial love, devotion, and commitment. It is everything Barnum ever wanted, everything he needed, and it was standing right in front of him all along.