Never Enough

Never Enough

I’m surprised by how simple this song is lyrically. It’s a powerful piece. I will admit that the first time it came up, the lyrics didn’t sink in; it’s really in the tearful reprise that you realize that what Jenny Lind has been singing is so devastatingly descriptive of the realization Barnum is about to have visited upon him.

All the shine of a thousand spotlights
All the stars we steal from the nightsky
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

While the full version is a torch song, this chorus, sung in the reprise absent the love song, exposes the emptiness of the ambition Barnum has fallen prey to. Driven by the class-based disrespect he faced as a child (at the hands, literally, of his now-father-in-law), he sells out to achieve acclaim in respectable circles, neglecting his circus family (and his real family) to travel the country promoting the world’s most famous (opera) singer. He achieves what is his most burning desire, and in Lind’s chorus the curtain is pulled back to reveal that popularity, riches and power would never be enough to satisfy him.

This harkens back to the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, when the devil offers Jesus, on a 40-day fast in the wilderness, with variations of all of these things. Where Jesus resists, Barnum surrenders. (Although, he gets a good bit of credit from the audience for not acquiescing to Lind’s adulterous advances, even as his rejection of her spurs his undoing.)

But I want to use this song to circle back to a theme that runs throughout the show, one which I mentioned earlier. I want to talk about why I think that God is a god of the outcasts.

The joy that comes through faith is often long in coming and marbled through with sacrifice and loss. It is not easy to give up the idea of control of our lives, even if that control is overstated and maybe illusory. We are wired to embrace our ability to transcend and conquer our environment, and we are also wired to deny and avoid our finitude. It is psychically and emotionally easier to buy into a worldview in which temporal power and riches signify success. After all, they are manifestly evident. The people who get ahead in this world are the ones we notice.

In Christian circles, this has led to a heresy (I would say) referred to as the “prosperity gospel,” which holds that if you are holy enough, God will bless you with prosperity on earth – riches and cars and the like. I cannot for the life of me see how someone can profess with a straight face that this is coherent with a faith in a God whose own Son was crucified, whose earliest followers were all martyred (many in unspeakably tortuous ways), and whose current church flourishes most in areas of extreme poverty. In reality, you have to choose. You can’t serve God and wealth at the same time, and you can’t treat God like a vending machine that you feed in order to transactionally receive a goody.

If you are fortunate enough to be a (temporally) successful person, or even someone who has an outside chance of becoming such a person, it is really hard to choose not to pursue temporal success but to focus instead on cultivating spiritual virtues and a life of self-sacrfice. On the other hand, those who have hit rock bottom, and those who have never had a shot at respectability, they end up embracing the church, because that’s all they have. This is how the Beatitudes play out every day. To paraphrase Frost, church is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

There is a piece of this in-group, out-group dynamic that shows up in the show quickly but powerfully. In a conversation between performances, Lind discloses to Barnum that she, too, is an outcast; born out of wedlock, her family was ashamed of her. Might that have driven her to her success? Maybe. But even at the apex of her ambitions, she clearly is unfulfilled, still an outcast. All the shine of a thousand spotlights will never be enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: