A tradition continues. After an exemplary production of Fiddler on the Roof in 2017 followed by an audacious but successfully re-imagined Man of La Mancha for 2018, Arizona Theatre Company proceeds with its recent new direction of including at least one classic Broadway musical in its season’s lineup. This year it’s the gloriously old-fashioned piece of fourth of July Americana, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.
Like the recent revival of Hello, Dolly! which opened on the same night across town at ASU Gammage, there’s no attempt to re-imagine a proven classic with modern-day relevancy or uncover hidden nuggets that might relate to a new generation of musical theatre-goers raised on Rent, Fun Home, and an array of pop/rock jukebox musicals. Director David Ivers clearly knows there’s little to find under the bold, brassy arrangements of blaring trumpets and those seventy-six trombones, and there’s no point in looking. Instead, he keeps things chugging on the rock island line in the way it was always designed, and that’s as it should be.
Of course, that’s not to say the production doesn’t have its issues. It does, but by not reinventing the musical theatre wheel, after years of sitting through countless mediocre and often sub-standard productions, there’s a keen sense of satisfaction that automatically kicks in when finally getting to see a full-on professional version of The Music Man with great voices, good dancing, on-the-mark timing, and an accomplished lead that helps you temporarily forget that you won’t be seeing Robert Preston.
Writer/composer Meredith Wilson based the show on his background of what it was like growing up in Iowa. Mason City became River City. Plus it was his years as a flute and piccolo player with John Phillip Sousa that inspired the show’s marching band theme. It was Wilson’s only Broadway success. The Unsinkable Molly Brown may have worked as a star vehicle for Debbie Reynolds but most of the score was a dud, plus his Here’s Love, later retitled as the musical version of Miracle on 34th Street, was a flat-out Christmas turkey. His fourth and final attempt at Broadway was 1491, a musical of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. It played on the west coast, then sank and never made it east. But with The Music Man he struck musical theatre gold.
Once it opened on Broadway in ‘57 it was an instant smash. The story of the salesman trying to sell boy band instruments and uniforms to small-town America with the intention of skedaddling with the money before a single note was ever played was considered an overnight success. But as most students of theatre know, there were several years of tryouts when the book was written then re-written (thirty-two drafts), songs performed then removed (forty songs originally written; twenty-two cut), cast changes made, and the issue of not being able to find a marquee-value lead.
Bing Crosby said no. Ray Bolger was unavailable, and no one else quite captured what the producers were looking for. But when Robert Preston auditioned and talked his way through Ya Got Trouble, the pieces suddenly fell into place. The problem, of course, is that with his aggressively energized performance and that distinctive voice, Preston didn’t lose himself in the part, the part became Preston, something that has always been a problem for anyone who dares follow in his footsteps short of doing a direct impersonation.
Now playing at Herberger Theater Center until January 27, ATC’s The Music Man has framed the theatre’s main stage with what appears like the painted wooden walls of a large barn with a memorial plaque at the center above reading Iowa Est. 1846. By peerng in the frame, everything that follows feels as if you’re watching an Iowan barnyard production. The stage is initially sparse except for a single piano at its center. Then once the brassy overture concludes and the show begins, the stage fills with color and light as the piano is removed and the traveling salesmen enter riding the steam train as it crosses the state line into River City, Iowa. Their song Rock Island, telling of how they no longer give credit, is spoken to the clickety-clack pace of the train, Broadway’s late fifties precursor to rap, perhaps.
Among the salesmen is huckster Professor Harold Hill (Bill English) who becomes intrigued by the talk of the stubborn residents of River City. Sensing a challenge and a new market of green, small-town locals, he jumps train, ready to create a need to solve an imagined problem. He whips the citizens up into a lather and gets them to sign for a boy’s band in order to save themselves from the terrible trouble they’re in, “Indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community.” Ya Got Trouble is one of the truly great moments of American musical theatre history. It’s not easy to perform. When done poorly, which it often is, the whole show fails. Bill English pulls it off admirably. With his fast-paced, slick charm, and a clear spoken voice to boot, you’re convinced that when this con-artist dances, the piper really will pay him.
However, a problem with the source material is that the show doesn’t end well. It never did, but the situation is made worse in this production by what feels like a rushed conclusion. (Warning: If you’ve truly never seen this sixty-three-year-old show before – Plot-spoiler. Skip to the next paragraph.) Before the town is ready to tar and feather the con-man, they force him to conduct. The hilarity of hearing a whole uniformed marching band unable to play a lick of music should sound hilarious, but instead of giving the moment time to breath and allowing us to savor its awfulness, director Ivers immediately has his cast of town folk loudly crying the praises of what they think they hear the moment the instruments play. “That’s my Barney!” cries a doting mother. The show doesn’t then fade, it just stops.
But up until then, there is good musical theatre to enjoy. The score and those great songs aside, another successful factor of The Music Man is how funny it is. The character’s names alone can’t help but raise a smile. Monikers like Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (Leslie Alexander), Ethel Toffelmier (Kara Mikula), Winthrop Paroo (Nathaniel Wiley) and the mayor’s daughter Zaneeta (Carly Grossman) all populate the residents of River City making outsider Harold Hill’s real name of Gregory sound downright ordinary.
Plus, there’s Wilson’s ‘G’ rated use of dialog, full of descriptive middle-America cornball that when spoken has its own peculiar rhythm. Professor Hill is described as a “Bang-beat, bell-ringing, big haul, great go-neck-or-nothing, rip-roaring, every-time-a-bull’s-eye salesman.” The River City locals are “Neck-bowed Hawkeyes,” and when the huckster tells Marion the librarian (Manna Nichols) he’ll disturb the peace of the library by dropping a bag of marbles, he warns her he’s carrying “Six steelies, eight aggies, a dozen peewees, and one big glassie with an American flag in the middle.”
Perhaps the strangest and one of the most genuinely gonzo interpretations of a Music Man character I’ve ever seen is Danny Scheie’s performance of River City’s Mayor Shinn. What he does with the role and the pronunciation of the English language is hard to describe. “Don’t counter-dict me,” he tells teenager Tommy Djilas (Kyle Coffman) when the boy tries to defend himself. When Scheie speaks it’s as if he’s attempting a language he’s never quite mastered; words have to be squeezed out of him. It’s bizarre, but beyond a doubt, it has to be the funniest rendering of a Mayor Shinn ever.
The Music Man continues at Herberger Theater Center until January 27