Friday, July 4, 2014

"She Was Probably the Tallest Girl In the World...."

P.T. Barnum
About six years ago I went through a phase where I read all the books that had been turned into musicals. I began with Gregory Maguire's Wicked, went straight through Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, made a left at Dubose Heyward's Porgy, went a few miles with Hugo's Les Miserables, and finally ended up in the middle of nowhere with a copy of Struggles and Triumphs, the autobiography of 19th century American showman P.T. Barnum. Struggles and Triumphs wasn't the official source material for the Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart musical Barnum, but the no doubt mined it for material. I thought the book might be a bit of a slog but it was surprisingly engaging. Barnum was famous for his various schemes to amaze, astonish and occasionally humbug his audiences with Siamese twins, dwarves, wolfboys, living skeletons and other human curiosities. I settled in for an intriguing portrait of this "first purveyor of mass entertainment" (as the editors at Penguin Classics called him), already planning to move on to E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime when I was done.

And then, on Page 283, everything changed. A single sentence had the same effect as a flat tire on a road trip; it was something which forced me to stop for breath.