It's December 19th again, which means I can't let the day go by without acknowledging that 61 years ago, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre (okay, I wrote about it on its 59th and 60th anniversaries as well, so sue me!). Though by no means the greatest musical ever written, it does count as my all-time favorite. How so? Let me count the ways.
I readily admit that its charms may not be universal. There are many who think it’s cornball and a bit silly (which it is). But it’s also deep and true, which is why it has endured for so long as such a popular title in schools and regional theatre. Willson based it on the people he knew from his home town of Mason City, Iowa. The young boy in him never really grew up and his ability to reproduce 1912 Iowa on a Broadway stage grew out of his knowing its denizens so well. The fictional River City, whose populace are so “Iowa Stubborn” that they can stand touching noses for a week at a time and never see eye-to-eye, were essayed with great affection. Dropped into their daily routine comes a con man with a patented scam, whereby pretending to put together a boys’ band during a boring, hot summer, pries open wallets and purses, taking money for something which he has no intention to deliver.
Robert Preston as "The Music Man" (1957).
One of the reasons the original Broadway production was such a rip-roaring success was the performance of Robert Preston in the title role. It’s hard to imagine the element of surprise that played a part in how highly praised this actor was when the show premiered six decades ago. Having only recently returned to the stage after twenty years of making films in Hollywood, the theatre-trained Preston had first been discovered at the age of nineteen at the Pasadena Playhouse. Quickly signed to a Paramount contract, he had no say over what films he appeared in for the next two decades. Frustrated, he chucked it all, moved to New York for the first time in his life, and managed parts in nine shows over six seasons between 1951 and 1957. Not only was The Music Man his first musical on Broadway, it was his first musical! And what a natural he turned out to be.
But The Music Man is more than any actor’s interpretation of its leading roles. It’s a model of construction, its action never lags, it has a glorious score accompanied by an accomplished and funny book, and it builds the love affair between Harold and Marian the Librarian to its logical conclusion slowly and effortlessly. You believe it, which is why it works so well.
Three days ago, I had the pleasure of rediscovering it all over again, when I saw a well-thought-out new production, directed by Tony nominee Jeff Calhoun at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. I went mainly due to it affording me a chance to visit my brother, who recently moved there, as well as to see my old friend, Lenny Wolpe, take on the role of Mayor Shin (for the fourth time in his long and varied career in the theatre). I was delighted too, when the conductor lifted his baton, that there was another old friend: Steve Orich, who as musical director, did a superb job with the arrangements. Then when the curtain went up, I spied ANOTHER friend, Mel Johnson Jr, a true-blue Broadway vet (soon to appear in the Roundabout's revival of Kiss Me, Kate), portraying one of the members of the barbershop quartet. How much more comfy could things get?
Noah Racey in Asolo Repertory Theatre's The Music Man.
However, what most roused my curiosity in revisiting my favorite musical was to see what Noah Racey was going to do with the title role. For this was a deliberate choice in casting, since Racey, one of the best tappers out there, would be a "dancing" Harold Hill, gliding through the streets of River City from his first entrance to the final seconds of the show. Did it work? You bet it did. From every masterful maneuver with his hat (astounding), to each step of his fancy footwork, he shuffled atop a movable pool table in "Trouble;" soft-shoed with Marcellus (played by an equally brilliant tapper, Danny Gardner) in a dance break for "The Sadder But Wiser Girl" that was genuinely thrilling; and joined in on "Shipoopi," never more enjoyable (and all smartly choreographed by Paul McGill), than on this past Sunday afternoon. Just take a look at this collection of songs and dances to get a taste of what I mean:
Besides the aforementioned cast members, there was a lovely Marian the Librarian offered by Britney Coleman; a very funny Mrs. Paroo from Alison England, an adorable Winthrop from the non-pro Charlie Shoemaker, and last, but not least, a hilarious and spot-on rendition by the actor portraying the Mayor's wife, Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn. It wasn't until "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little," a half-hour into the show, that I turned to my brother and said, "I think Mrs. Shinn is a guy!" And sure enough, opening the program at intermission revealed that she is played by Mathew McGee, in a first-rate performance. I immediately surmised that McGee was a skilled and experienced female impersonator, confirmed when his bio said he was voted "Tampa Bay's Favorite Drag Performer." You simply cannot be THAT convincing as a woman on a whim without years of know-how. McGee is so good, he should be cast when The Music Man returns to Broadway (as it undoubtedly will sometime soon), considering it's been nearly twenty years since its last revival.
Matthew McGee as Mrs. Shinn ("One Grecian Urn!").
In short, I couldn’t have celebrated the anniversary of my favorite musical in a grander or more apt fashion. And I have yet another Music Man to look forward to, when for a five-day limited run, February 6–10, it will play the Kennedy Center, starring Norm Lewis and Jessie Mueller. Washington, D.C. here I come!
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.