Monday, May 7, 2018

This is Me. . . And Me. . . And Me

I could have titled this article Never Enough, another iconic song from The Greatest Showman that hit theaters last Christmas. But let’s face it. The title I chose is catchy, no?

This story sweeps us into an emotional amusement park ride that we don’t want to end. I had to buy the DVD/Blu-Ray as soon as it came out. Not just for myself, but for my teen grandgirls, who also love the movie, particularly the music...and Zac Efron. Okay, I admit, Zac and Hugh Jackman are quite the draw, even for myself. But I digress.
P.T. Barnum, according to the movie, has a strong inner journey, which is what keeps the audience engaged. He wants to be accepted. A tailor’s son, he was emotionally abused by his father. P.T. assisted him as he measured suits for a wealthy man and fell in love with the man’s daughter. P.T. was told he’d never be good enough to date or, subsequently, to marry the girl.
Charity, P.T.’s intended, sees his heart, not his status. She commits herself to him no matter where he is on the social scale. She loves him with her whole being, enough to defy her parents and marry him. They create a perfect world, despite P.T.’s rollercoaster professional attempts, and two perfect daughters. Life is good.
Enter Jenny Lind, the famous opera star.
I stop here because I want to talk about the Death in the Middle. I have to keep reminding myself that this particular plot device is not just a death, but a paradigm shift. It usually just affects the main character, but when others are involved, it becomes a delicious twist that makes one want to ponder the story long after it ends.
While in England meeting the queen, P.T. has invited Jenny to perform in America. He sponsors the show and uses it as a springboard into the “normal” world—where he longs for acceptance. This is his emotional goal. Charity’s parents had rubbed his poverty in his face, even after he became successful. Once he started his circus, the locals hated him, and worse yet, the critic, James Gordon Bennett, continually slammed the show, never accepting it as true entertainment. No matter how wealthy P.T. becomes, he is never fully accepted by those who have stepped on him.
In the middle of the movie, Jenny makes her American debut as an opera singer. (I would debate that the song she sings isn’t true opera, but what do I know?) The song, Never Enough, is a lyrical device that symbolizes the journeys of all three people. No matter how much money P.T. makes, it will never be enough to satisfy his critics. It also symbolizes Jenny’s view on life, which we’ll see in a moment. Ironically, for Charity, she has had all she has ever wanted in her marriage and children. The song represents the opposite for her.
But as Jenny sings, something interesting happens. P.T. is in the wings watching Jenny. Then we see Charity in the audience watching P.T. watching Jenny. Then we see Jenny turn her head to look at P.T., and the paradigm shifts. Totally devoted to Charity since they were kids, P.T. is now looking at another woman with more than admiration for her craft. He looks to the audience who leaps to its feet in a standing ovation. Jenny is giving him all he ever wanted. And really, didn’t Charity do that already? In his thirst to be accepted by the upper crust, he has somehow slipped down instead of up. We, who are watching this display, gasp as we realize what just happened, and we know that P.T. and Charity are in trouble.

What I love about this shift is that it hits all three characters at the same time. (And a couple of sub-characters. Watch that scene again and see how rich this moment in the middle really is.) Charity suddenly realizes that her perfect marriage is being threatened. P.T. realizes that he can become enamored by someone other than the woman he’s devoted his life to. And Jenny, poor shallow Jenny, gets pinged by a love arrow, but we later see that she’s a spoiled diva whose quest to fulfill that empty hole in her life will stop at nothing, even wrecking a happy home. It is true what she sings:
I'm tryin' to hold my breath
Let it stay this way
Can't let this moment end
You set off a dream in me
Gettin' louder now
Can you hear it echoing?
Take my hand
Will you share this with me?
'Cause darling without you

All the shine of a thousand spotlights
All the stars we steal from the night sky
Will never be enough
Never be enough
Towers of gold are still too little
These hands could hold the world but it'll
Never be enough
Never be enough...
Words and Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Jenny will never be satisfied, and neither will P.T. because, even though he’s not fully aware, he’s willing to trade success for the life he’s built with Charity. And now, thanks to the two of them, Charity’s satisfaction in her life with P.T. and her children is shattered.
This is not only the death in the middle, it’s carnage.
And there you have it. A love triangle that peaks in the exact middle of the story, thus creating the tent pole moment (the prevention of the sagging middle,) and a perfect paradigm shift that changes life for the main character as he knows it.

BONUS: The paradigm shift should also happen at the end of the first act and the end of the second act. Thus, it looks like this:
·         End of first act—the door to no return—death of the ordinary world.

o   P.T. loses his job.

·         Middle of second act—perception shift—death could be a good or bad thing, literal or symbolic.

o   Even in his success, P.T. is set up to lose what he prizes the most.

·         End of second act (going into third)—bleakest moment—All is lost, which is a type of death.

o   Charity walks out. The bank is foreclosing on the beautiful home they built together. She moves back in with her parents, sealing their perception of him as a failure.

Whatever one may feel about plotting, one can’t ignore the fact that it works. Stories make sense. They carry emotion far past THE END. And when done well, audiences/readers will want to come back to see what other spectacular moments you have for them.

If you haven’t already, please get a copy of A Bouquet of Brides, and read my story “Periwinkle in the Park.” I’ve been working hard at getting that Death in the Middle thing into my writing, and I did it in that story, if I may say so myself, perfectly. (Kathy pats herself on the back and proves she could be a contortionist in P.T. Barnum's circus.)