by Pat Perry
Is there anyone who doesn’t love “The Music Man”?
By any reasonable measure, “The Music Man” is one of the most enduring and popular warhorses of Broadway’s Golden Age, one that has permeated all realms of pop culture. The Beatles recorded its eleventh-hour romantic ballad (“Till There Was You”) and even performed it in their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. Two of its most memorable numbers (“Trouble” and “Shipoopi”) have been lovingly spoofed on “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” respectively. Even the lyric catchphrase “We’ve got trouble, right here in River City!” has remained in the common parlance for over fifty years.
Few musicals of this vintage are so beloved or so frequently mounted on both amateur and professional stages. But for many, the 1962 film version is their first and most memorable experience of the show, and rightly so. Remarkably faithful to the stage original and featuring a good cross-section of the Broadway cast, the film is the best and most accessible evidence of the qualities that give “The Music Man” its lasting, generation-spanning appeal.
First and foremost, there’s Robert Preston as the charismatic con man, Harold Hill. Has any performer ever put such an indelible stamp on a musical role? Certainly other characters in musical theatre have been tough to separate from the actors who originated them (Barbara Streisand’s Fanny Brice, for example, or possibly Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins), but Preston’s Hill goes further than that. It has become the defining characterization on which virtually every other Harold Hill is based. I’ve seen more stage productions of “The Music Man” than I can count – I’ve even acted in a few – and I’ve never seen a wholly original interpretation of this role. To a man, every actor plays not Harold Hill, but Robert-Preston-as-Harold-Hill, right down to the line readings and mannerisms. (Even Craig Bierko, in the 2000 Broadway revival, was taken to task by some critics for channeling Preston too accurately
in this clip he even sounds like Preston.)
Preston’s irresistible charms are on full and glorious display in the movie; his performance dominates and energizes the film without overwhelming it. Hill has the seemingly impossible task of convincing hard-shelled, small-town Iowans to fork out their hard-earned cash for the musical instruments and uniforms that will transform their town’s potential juvenile delinquents into a shiny, wholesome boy’s band. (A band he has no intention of leading – he’s just there to collect the cash and scoot out of town before the townspeople find out he doesn’t know a note; the “professor” status he claims for himself is a total fabrication.) His sales pitch kicks off with the legendary musical jeremiad “Trouble” in which he warns the citizens or River City that the new pool table being installed in the billiards parlor is “the first big step on road to degred-ay!”
See the whole thing here:
His breathtaking performance here gets the town’s horrified attention. Over the subsequent summer weeks, he uses his “spellbinding” powers to turn the perpetually bickering, four-man school board into a harmonious barber shop quartet. He entices the mayor’s wife (Hermione Gingold) and her band of clucking acolytes to stop gossiping and start dancing, and gains the trust of a little boy who’s barely spoken since his father died (a seven-year-old Ron Howard, billed as Ronny). As per his usual routine, he sets out to seduce the town’s resident piano teacher/librarian, Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones); in a surprising, late-breaking turn of events, the previously resistant Marian comes on to him, even knowing full well that he’s a fraud. The role requires a truckload of charisma and then some; Preston’s got both the inexhaustible energy and the nimble, roguish charm to keep everyone happily off balance, including those of us in the audience.
But Preston’s performance isn’t the only defining element of the musical that’s captured here, nor the only one that’s come to dominate most subsequent productions.
Onna White’s choreography, recreated here from the Broadway production, has become almost as iconic of the show as the lead performances. White was an assistant to Michael Kidd before coming to “The Music Man,” and Kidd’s influence is apparent in the exuberant, athletic dances she created for “Seventy Six Trombones,” “Marian, the Librarian,” and “Shipoopi.” You’d be hard pressed to find a stage production that doesn’t reproduce those dances almost entirely, especially in “Shipoopi” which incorporates the ”cakewalk” step created by early 20th century dancers Vernon and Irene Castle.
Morton DaCosta, who directed the original 1957 Broadway show reprises his directorial duties here. That’s likely the reason that the film captures and reproduces so much that is emblematic of the stage production, but may also explain the film’s sometimes “stagey” feel and occasional lack of visual inspiration. In particular, the scenes from the Fourth of July pageant in the River City gymnasium are bizarrely framed, with Paul Ford’s Mayor Shinn smack in the middle of a large, mostly bare wall and the school board members sitting at his feet just barely visible in the frame. Many scenes end by going dark, save for a spotlight-styled close-up on the key characters, recreating the feeling of a play’s scene-ending stage blackout. When Marian sings “Sweet and Low” in counterpoint to the quartet’s “Lida Rose,” it’s framed to look as if you’re watching her through one side of a pair of binoculars and the quartet in the opposite side; it sounds clever on paper, but watching it is just irritating. (Which side do I focus on? I kept thinking.) The intermittently stage-bound feeling, along with the ill-conceived framing flourishes, are the primary reason that I ranked “The Music Man” a bit lower than some of my fellow voters. It’s not that I don’t love the musical, I just don’t think it’s quite as a great a film; as it could be.
Then again, there are far worse things than a slavishly-faithful-to-the-play “Music Man.” If you want to see just how badly a completely re-imagined version can turn out, look no further than the 2003 television remake, featuring a woefully miscast Matthew Broderick in the title role. Despite a wealth of talent and good intentions (Broadway veterans Kristen Chenoweth, Victor Garber and Debra Monk round out the cast and Katherine Marshall choreographed) it is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. (Of course, for pure freak-show value, you could also check out the 2006 mockumentary “Pittsburgh” in which Jeff Goldblum takes the role of Harold Hill in a regional theatre production. The joke here is that Goldblum is all wrong for the role, but the laughs are uneasy at best; Goldblum’s Harold Hill doesn’t even appear to be from the same planet as Preston’s.)
Much of what draws audiences to “The Music Man,” I think, is a collective nostalgia for the kind of idealized American existence evoked by its 1912 Midwestern setting. It takes us into the kind of simpler, slower world that many long for, but in which few (if any) of us have actually lived: a cozy world of ice cream socials and Fourth of July picnics; a world where public libraries are kept absolutely quiet under the rule of bespectacled spinsters, and everyday speech is liberally peppered with quaint colloquialisms like “I couldn’t make myself any clearer if I’s a Quaker on his day off!” or “Not on your tintype, sister!”; a world where sweethearts’ stolen kisses on the town footbridge are the most illicit activity imaginable.
There’s certainly a family-friendly innocence to “The Music Man,” but it never deteriorates into sentimentality or preciousness. Nor is it entirely idyllic. Listen carefully when Mayor Shinn apprehends young Tommy Djilas for throwing a firecracker at his wife; not only is Tommy the only character without an Anglo-Saxon surname, but the Mayor finds it necessary to mention that “his father is one of them Lithuanians lives out south of town,” and spends the rest of the movie trying to keep Tommy away from his daughter. I’m not sure this little vignette of small-town prejudice was intended as social comment – it gets brushed by too quickly to have any serious impact – but it’s a bit jarring to contemporary ears and gets more so with every passing year.
For all that is great in this musical, we can thank the man who created it. Because, while the recognizable face of “The Music Man” belongs to Robert Preston, its true but unseen star is Meredith Willson.
A native of Mason City, Iowa, Willson had a long and varied career which comprised playing flute and piccolo in both John Philip Sousa’s band and the New York Philharmonic, music directing a number of popular radio shows in the 1930s and ’40s, and composing the Oscar-nominated musical scores for “The Great Dictator” and “The Little Foxes.” “The Music Man” was a culmination of his life-long dream to make a musical comedy about his Iowa boyhood, and it went through many revisions and reworkings over an eight-year-period before finally making it to the Broadway stage. (At various times, it was imagined as a film or television special, and both Bing Crosby and Ray Bolger were courted to play the lead role.) Willson not only wrote the score, but also collaborated on both the the book – and, later, the screenplay – with Franklin Lacey.
The result is a very funny show with one of the most ingenious – and most underrated – scores in musical theatre history. Numbers like “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Trouble” and “Till There Was You” have becomes such well-known standards that it’s easy to overlook just how intricate and accomplished the the show’s score really is.
“Seventy-Six Trombones,” for example, isn’t just the rousing production number than gives River City a vision of its future band. It’s also a reworking of Marian’s first solo number “Goodnight My Someone,” addressed to the beloved she hasn’t yet met but says “goodnight” to on the evening star. This duality comes to light in a duet between Marian in her bedroom, and Harold waiting for her at the gate; they sing snippets from “Goodnight” and “Seventy-Six” respectively, but suddenly switch and sing each other’s songs. In that moment, the romantic bond between the two characters is irretrievably sealed.
Willson also gives us many delightful numbers that play off the everyday rhythms of small-town life. In the opening number, “Rock Island,” a train car full of travelling salesmen exchange information about Harold in a patter song that exactly mimics the rhythm of the train starting up, rolling along the tracks and finally stopping at the next station. Marion argues with her mother while conducting a piano lesson, and their conversation is sung along to the scales Marian’s pupil plays. In “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” the ladies of the town trade frenzied gossip while their heads bob like those of the hens feeding in a nearby lot; “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!” they sing, and the “hen party” effect is is memorably amusing.
As a lyricist, Willson is among the wittiest and best. Ironically, the cleverest lyrics in “The Music Man” are found in the least-remembered numbers, “Iowa Stubborn,” “Marian the Librarian” and my personal favorite of show, “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” in which Harold sings of his preference for “experienced”
A girl who trades on all that purity
Merely wants to trade my independence for her security.
The only affirmative she will file
Refers to marching down the aisle.
No golden, glorious, gleaming pristine goddess–No sir!
For no Diana do I play faun.
I can tell you that right now.
I snarl, I hiss:
How can ignorance be compared to bliss?
I spark, I fizz
For the lady who knows what time it is
I cheer, I rave
For the virtue I’m too late to save
The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.
Willson wrote just two more musicals: “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” which came to the screen two years later with Debbie Reynolds in the lead, and “Here’s Love,” a musical version of “Miracle on 34th Street” that produced the Yuletide standard, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” But the “The Music Man” was his crowning achievement, and one that is perfectly preserved in this film version.
And here’s the greatest personal endorsement I can offer. Last night, just after putting (what I thought would be) the finishing touches on this article, I switched on the television to unwind … and discovered that “The Music Man” was being broadcast on the local PBS station. What did I do? I tuned in and happily watched nearly the entire film all over again. After having performed in three different productions of this show, I like to joke that I’ve spent a significant portion of my life in River City. Apparently, it’s a place I haven’t yet tired of visiting.
How The Music Man made the Elite 70:
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 8 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 11 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 16 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 19 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 31 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 50 choice