It has been over a decade since I did any kind of personal blog, but this particular topic has been pressing on my mind for so long (over three years!) that it warranted creating a whole new website to share. Social justice? Racial equity? Educational reform? Police-free schools? Human trafficking? Disability rights? Bragging about my son? Nope. Those likely will come in the future…but today it’s all about the most underrated character in The Greatest Showman…the hat!
Just to open, I am not writing about the hat in the context of a literary symbol: To me the hat is a character in the movie, and an integral one at that! In the 19th century virtually every adult – at least males – wore hats – and you see that throughout the movie. But this hat, (or hats since there are several top hats that make an appearance) represents the heart of Hugh Jackman’s character of P.T. Barnum as it pertains to this script. In many ways the hat is Barnum’s conscious. It connects Barnum’s past with his future, his dream. When you see the hat you see the smile, the spirit, the passion. The hat is not just a piece of clothing but an extension of his body and a way to send a message without saying a word. And it touches everyone important in Barnum’s life at various points in the movie.
Before I jump into the complexities of man and hat, a quick note that I switch between citing Jackman and Barnum on purpose: either when the hat is connected to what Jackman is doing as an actor or when the hat is connected to Barnum as a person/character.
The intersection of hat and lyrics reflecting Barnum’s soul starts from the very beginning, with our star Jackman dressed in the marque P.T. Barnum ringmaster outfit in the opening sequence (The Greatest Show) as we see what the future will be. As Jackman starts to mouth the opening words to The Greatest Show, we see the silhouette of Barnum in his outfit, hat and all, under the grandstands. The camera zooms in as we see Jackman (still as a silhouette) run his hand around the rim of the hat right as he is singing the lyrics “And buried in your bones there’s an ache that you can’t ignore”. As the opening sequence ends, and the music and scene fades, you transition from Barnum whispering “It’s everything you ever want…It’s everything you ever need…And it’s here right in front of you” to a young Barnum staring at the hat (and similar outfit) on display through a store window. The reflection of young Barnum is on the store window makes the hat look like it was on him, and you can feel his longing to wear that outfit as he looks down at his disheveled shoes before being dragged off by his father.
When the young Barnum loses his father to illness, the only possession he seems to keep is his father’s hat, which was sitting on top of the coffin before burial at the graveyard. Timing and movement is everything in this movie and you hear the line “a million dreams are keeping me awake” being sung in the background as young Barnum takes the hat from the coffin and holds it tightly against his chest.
Speed up to the adult Barnum, and you see Jackman fidget with the hat in his hands, rotating it around with his fingers, feeling an air of nervousness as he walks up the driveway of Charity’s childhood home, in anticipation of finally having her come with him to get married after years of exchanging letters as kids. You then see the hat on him as he leaves with great glee holding on to Charity. As subtle humor, in the early days of the Barnum’s museum (before the circus) one of Barnum’s pitches to draw in people is “half price for anyone wearing a hat.” The hat in on display again in the Come Alive number, as Jackman puts on the colorful red ringmaster outfit for the opening of his circus: as he puts on the dazzling red coat you hear “Come alive, come alive, Go and ride your light, Let it burn so bright” and then right as he puts on the hat you hear him singing “Reaching up, To the sky, And it’s open wide, You’re electrified…” Later in the number, as all the acts are in full regale, Jackman touches his hat around the rim as it’s on his head and moves it around as part of the choreography, as you hear the lyric “Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open“. Additionally, the character Barnum specifically uses the hat as a message, as he wears a gold “prince of humbug” hat in a following show after a headline called his circus humbug. Of note, as Hugh puts the gold plated hat on, you hear the lyrics “To anyone who’s searching for a way to break free” and then during the (rousing) choreography, Jackman lifts the golden hat off his head as a sign of triumph as you once again hear the lyrics “Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open“.
One more side note before I move to the three core moments that stand out to me with the hat. Jumping timelines a moment, Barnum does not actually wear his hat the majority of the time when he is with the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, suggesting he is not his core self around her.
Now for the really fun part (if you watch the movie). Yes virtually the whole movie is my favorite musical number, but the first of my favorite three musical numbers with the hat comes with The Other Side, in which the hat plays a major part in the storytelling. The character Barnum is trying to get Zac Efron’s character Phillip Carlyle to invest in Barnum’s circus. During the sequence (at a bar) Jackman puts the hat on, tosses it off, picks it up with his foot to put on again, all as Barnum is trying to play psychological games pretending not to care if he just leaves and Carlyle does not become partners. As with before, the timing of the lyrics match the significance of the hat representing Barnum’s dream and persona: at different points when Jackman puts on the hat we hear lyrics like “You can play it sensible, a king of conventional, Or you can risk it all and see.” and “Oh, damn! Suddenly you’re free to fly.” Carlyle puts on his own hat (a dapper red one) to leave the bar, then takes it off as he decides to negotiate, then both put on their hats after agreeing on the partnership. As they put on the hats together, the flames burst up as the scene transitions back to the location of the circus – and they switch hats walking up the stairs at the circus while singing the end chorus “We’re going to the other side“. In a sign of respect and awe, Carlyle takes off his own hat right as he sees Zendaya’s character Anne Wheeler (the trapeze artist) fly towards him in the air for first time.
Jump ahead past more astonishing, should have won the Oscar, scenes (Never Enough, This is Me, etc.), and the circus fire, and you get to another pivotal moment where the hat shows how Barnum finds himself again. Right before From Now On starts, you see Barnum in the bar again – which he might own or frequent at this point (why else would they have all his photos on the wall). The hat is clearly situated on the counter but away from him when he is getting a drink. As the scene starts, the character “General Tom Thumb” climbs up on the counter and sits on the hat as support, getting to eye level as he talks to Barnum about who is there for him – and then the rest of the performers file in to the bar and surround Barnum. Jump to the climax of the lyrics of From Now On, and Barnum yells “Yes!” as everyone is singing “We will come back home, We will come back home”, and then Barnum looks at a picture on the wall of his family in front of the original museum, and you can just tell how he is remembering what this is all for (as you also hear in the lyrics). In that moment, Keala Settle’s character of the Bearded Lady hands the hat to him and he takes it and runs out the door after kissing her. As he sprints down the street in what can only happen in the movies, Barnum puts on the hat and runs to hop on the train and get back to his family who are staying at his wife Charity’s parents’ house.
It then all comes together at the end with the final scene again playing The Greatest Show as they perform in a new location under the ionic bright lights and circus tent. Hugh bursts out of the smoke in his dazzling ringmaster outfit including the hat. As you hear the lyrics “It’s everything you ever want…It’s everything you ever need…And it’s here right in front of you…This is where you wanna be”, Barnum hands his hat to one of the elephants, who hands it to Zendaya’s character, who gives it to the Strong Man and then Lord of Leeds character, who passes it on to the conjoined twins as the hat rolls along their shoulders to the Bearded Lady, who hands it to Barnum right at her climax high note of “This is where you want to be“. Barnum smiles and runs off stage and gives the hat to Carlyle, saying this is for you. Fittingly, in that moment as Barnum passes on what represents what had become part of his core, his passion, Carlyle puts on the hat and asks ”What will you be doing?”