Theatre yesterday and today



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It’s December 19th again, which means it must be acknowledged that 63 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 people he knew well from his hometown of Mason City, Iowa. He never fully abandoned the young boy who grew up there and his ability to reproduce 1912 Iowa on a Broadway stage grew out of his affection for its denizens, benefited by a keen satirical eye: 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.” 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. The self-named “Professor” Harold Hill can’t read a note of music.

Preston as Harold Hill selling a bill of goods to

Barbara Cook as Marian in The Music Man (1957).

For what else is The Music Man other than a story of one young man’s yearning for family (the little boy Winthrop, whose father has died), and a community longing to put their faith in something (or someone)? And if they find out shortly before its conclusion that they may have chosen the wrong vessel, they quickly figure out what has been missing from their lives and that what this salesman offers is badly needed. For want of a better phrase, it’s the sound of music — the rhythmic heartbeat of the play — and its power to feed the soul. I know that I’m playing directly into the hands of the criticism this musical has faced over the years, but I know these attributes are the real thing. At the center of what we experience in every great musical is how its music transports us out of ourselves and into a realm where limited possibilities seem unlimited for a time — usually about two-and-a-half hours.

Barbara Cook as Marian and Eddie Hodges as Winthrop in The Music Man (1957).

Of course, one of the main 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 then only recently returned to the stage after twenty years of making films in Hollywood, the stage-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.

Of course, I never saw Preston on stage as Harold Hill since I was n months old when it opened. Naturally, I’ve always been curious about what it was like to see Preston in the show and I have asked anyone who was a theatregoing regular back then what they thought of his performance. The reactions and commentaries never vary on what a sensation he was. Those who got to see him on stage over the ensuing two decades, especially in musicals, were indeed lucky. Fortunately, I got to experience him in later shows like Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’s I Do! I Do! and Larry Gelbart’s comedy Sly Fox. Seeing him on stage was pure joy, as Preston was present (in the best sense of the word) with his fellow actors and audiences alike. Fleet of feet and with a larger-than-life persona, he somehow stayed grounded. As he put it himself: “A great old character actor once said to me, ‘Wherever you’re acting, you reach up and take hold of the proscenium arch, and you pull it down around your shoulders.’”

“76 Trombones led the big parade.”

Modesty forbade Preston from stating that in his case, this was something he co