Thursday, 31 May 2018

Re The Music Man

In this show, the classic which won the Tony Award for Best Musical ahead of West Side Story in whatever year that was, 1957 or so, much selling occurs. The travelling flim-flammer, Harold Hill, separates gullible townsfolk from their money to pay for a boys' band. Marion the Librarian, who sees through him easily, nevertheless falls in love with him. Shy, lisping kids become confident teens. The townspeople, with no musical training from Hill (who has none either), become a polished marching band equipped with a full set of instruments and brand new uniforms. All petty squabbling and hard times vanish. Contemporary audiences must tolerate the sexist dynamics of pre-World War I Middle America. Not to mention the usual conventions of musical theatre, which require us to accept that people keep breaking into song and ensemble dance numbers. These dance numbers are sensational--true show-stoppers--and most of the songs utter winners. But the show will work only if all the selling works. All the selling, every bit of it. And that job falls mainly to the central performer. Harold Hill has to dazzle us all, has to make us believe it all, has to cast the spell that gets us all prancing through the town to "76 Trombones." On Broadway, and in the 1962 movie, that performer was Robert Preston, who pulled it off. In the case of the revival I saw at the Stratford Festival the other night, however, the performer (whose name I'll look up later) didn't. Why would Marion fall in love with this guy? How did the band come together? Where did they get those uniforms and those horns? How did the spirits of the entire community somehow lift? Why didn't the locals run such an obvious grifter out of town as soon as they heard his sketchy pitch? In our me too moment, why would we bother with such sexist clap-trap? If any one of these questions trouble us, the show won't work. 
This kind of thing highlights for me the stakes of trying to do what I'm trying to do. Anything is possible--you'll all be marching!--but the material (book, music, lyrics) has to be written in such a way, and the performers have to sell it in such a way, that you'll believe, that you'll freely and utterly suspend your dis-belief. 
Good luck with that, I say to myself, taking heart from the many years (and trials and cuts and revisions) Meredith Wilson took to get his show to the stage.

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