What Does the Show Must Go On Mean?

The show must go on is an extremely popular phrase. But do you know what this idiomatic expression means? Keep reading to find out.

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What Does the Show Must Go On Mean?

Although typically it can be difficult to look to the individual words within an idiomatic expression to try and understand its intended meaning, that’s not exactly the case with the phrase the show must go on. (Learn much more about idioms below.) If you were to take the expression at face value, just as it is, stringing together the words and their definitions, what would you gather it meant? Simply that the show—whether a play or other live performance—needs to continue, right? Indeed, that is nearly the full meaning of this idiom! Nearly…

The expression has long been used in the theater community (read on for more details). But over time, as is the case with many idioms, it came to have broader implications. Today, when you see the expression written or hear it used, a person is saying that whatever has already been planned or scheduled, be that a theatrical performance or plans for a surprise birthday party, must be carried out. What’s more, they’re saying that plan must be carried out no matter what—regardless of the circumstances, be they good or bad, and even in the face of difficulty or disruption. It is often used as words of encouragement.

Here are some example sentences using the figurative meaning of the phrase the show must go on:

  • The show must go on: Even though it’s raining on the day of my outdoor wedding, I can’t wait to walk down the aisle and say “I do.”
  • I forgot the candles for his cake, but the show must go on so we’ll sing him “Happy Birthday” all the same. 
  • Mary didn’t get the job in Paris she was hoping for, but she told herself the show must go on, and she packed her bags for the big move anyways. 

Of course, the expression can be used more literally as well. For instance:

  • Tom forgot his lines in the middle of his monologue, but knowing the show must go on, his castmates took turns reciting the rest of his speech for him. 
  • Even though only a handful of people showed up to see the performance, the director told the actors the show must go on. 
  • When the lead actress fell sick, her understudy was called up to play the part because the show must go on. 

The Origins of the Phrase the Show Must Go On

As shared above, the expression has long been used in the theater to suggest that no matter what happens before or during a live performance, the show must continue for the patrons who’ve purchased tickets or are already sitting in the audience. 

However, rumor has it that the phrase may have originated in circuses, dating back to the 19th century. When a circus performer got injured performing their death-defying or otherwise demanding act or when an animal got loose, supposedly the ringmaster and the band would keep the entertainment going so that the crowd wouldn’t worry and panic. And thus the expression was born.

At some point, the phrase came to apply to show business in general, and eventually it came to have the figurative meaning we know today. To reiterate, now it can be used to say that any event, activity, or plan of any kind (show-business-related or not) must continue no matter what problems come about.

Popular Uses of the Phrase

When you hear the phrase, perhaps you instantly think of the chart-topping hit by the same name from the British hard rock band Queen. The song’s lyrics, written by Brian May, along with John Deacon and bandmates, tell the story of singer Freddie Mercury continuing to perform and front the band despite feeling ill after his diagnosis with HIV/AIDS. 

The expression is used repeatedly in the song’s chorus:

“The show must go on
The show must go on, yeah
Inside my heart is breaking
My makeup may be flaking
But my smile, still, stays on”

“The Show Must Go On” is the final track off of Queen’s 1991 album Innuendo. Other songs on the album include “These Are the Days of Our Lives” and “I’m Going Slightly Mad.” Elton John performs lead vocals of a live version of the song on Queen’s Greatest Hits III album.

Pink Floyd also has a song titled “The Show Must Go On,” which can be found on the band’s famous 1979 album The Wall, as do many other musical artists. The phrase is the title of countless movies as well. A popular YouTube channel aptly called The Shows Must Go On shares show tunes and full performances from Broadway musicals such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

What Are Idioms?

As has been mentioned already, the phrase the show must go on is an idiom. But what is an idiom exactly? An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

While you can use the show must go on literally, you now know that as an idiom, it is typically used figuratively, to mean that an event or activity, not necessarily a live  performance or theater show, must continue on as planned—for example, a dinner or holiday gathering. What’s more, you know that the idiom is used to express that it must continue despite any difficulties or hurdles that arise, a meaning that can’t be teased out or uncovered just by looking at the individual words that make up the phrase.

Synonyms for the Show Must Go On

There are many other ways to say that something must continue or to encourage a person to forge ahead with a plan, no matter what. Indeed, you could actually use another idiomatic expression and tell someone to keep on truckin. Here are a few more possible synonyms or near-synonyms (a similar but perhaps not exact match) for the show must go on

  • Carry on
  • Press on
  • Keep going
  • Stay the course
  • Continue on
  • Push forward
  • Don’t stop
  • Don’t give up
  • Keep moving
  • Never surrender
  • Persevere
  • Stick with it

Summary

Although once very popular in the theater, the phrase the show must go on is used today to express that whatever action or activity has been scheduled, it must be carried out, no matter if problems arise or not. It is often used to encourage someone to keep going and continue with a plan even in the face of difficulties.