It’s no mystery why Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical is so beloved: The songs are terrifically tuneful, the lyrics terribly clever. But the story of a con artist who in 1912 seduces an entire gullible American town, and especially its librarian, is also problematic in several ways. The new Broadway revival of “The Music Man” acknowledges only some of these problems, and clumsily. The result, for all the production’s star quality, eye-catching choreography, and professional gloss, is at best a missed opportunity. And the production’s perkiness can sometimes be an alienating experience to sit through.
Viewed strictly from its stagecraft, “The Music Man” is in the hands of pros. The creative team is nearly identical to the one behind the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly” starring Bette Midler (director Jerry Zaks, choreographer Warren Carlyle, set and costume designer Santo Loquasto, sound designer Scott Lehrer, even the hair and wig designer Campbell Young Associates.) Only the dancing, though, ever really thrills. In the musical number “Marian The Librarian,” to pick an unexpected example, the huge ensemble doesn’t just tap dance; they throw around books to one another with acrobatic daring and precision; not an activity of which a librarian can approve, but the audience surely does.
The casting of Hugh Jackman as Professor Harold Hill, the fake bandleader selling musical instruments and bright red band uniforms to the rubes, is obviously the main reason why the producers feel they can get away with selling tickets to theatergoing rubes for as much as $700. Hugh Jackman is a movie star; that’s why he gets raucous applause for simply appearing on stage. It is great to see him back on Broadway; he’s a charismatic performer who seems to be enjoying himself. Sutton Foster as Marian the librarian, the woman he targets, is also a winning performer – so much so that it feels churlish to point out that, at her age, she is unlikely to have a brother (played by standout Benjamin Pajak) nearly 40 years her junior. (The original Tony-winning Marian on Broadway, Barbara Cook, had just turned 30; Shirley Jones was 28 in the Oscar-winning movie adaptation.) Jackman and Foster are fine musical theater performers – and that’s how they come off, never as credible characters so irresistibly drawn to one another that both are redeemed and transformed.
Some great theatrical talents have been cast in supporting roles – among the notable examples, Jefferson Mays and Jayne Houdyshell as the pompous Mayor Shinn and his pretentious wife, Shuler Hensley as Hill’s past and present accomplice Marcellus, the grand Irish actress Marie Mullen as Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s matchmaker-minded mother. Tony winners all, their performances in “The Music Man” are a revelation – and not in a good way. This was through no fault of their own. It’s just that the contrast between what’s expected of them in “The Music Man” and the challenging roles they have taken on in the past makes clear how one-note the characters of this production.
The characters in the fictional River City, Iowa are said to be based on the citizens of Willson’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa. Indeed, over the years, much has been made of how “The Music Man” reflected the reality of small-town America in the twentieth century – “as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July oration,” critic Brooks Atkinson described the original Broadway production.
This increasingly has its downsides. In the original production, the townsfolk led by the mayor’s wife dress up in headdresses and spout gibberish as if they are speaking in “the Indian tongue” for a presentation at Town Hall of “The Wa Tan Ye girls of the lower wig wam of Hiawatha.” Mercifully, in the revival, that scene is replaced by one on a patriotic Americana theme.
Other embarrassments aren’t as easily deleted. Yes, characters no longer refer to Marian as “maiden lady” and “girly-girl,” and Hill no longer says: “Point her out to me. I’ll back her into a corner and breathe on her glasses.” The word “accost” is changed to “annoy.” Most noticeably, there is a complete rewrite of the unfortunate song “Shipoopi.” A sample of the original lyrics:
Well a woman who will kiss on the very first date is usually a hussy
And a woman who’ll kiss on the second time out is anything but fussy
… The girl who’s hard to get
Shipoopi Shipoopi Shipoopi
but you can win her yet
This has been turned around to:
Well, a fella who goes on his very first date
is usually shy and fretful
And a fella who tries to get more than a kiss will end the night regretful…
The man who’s seen the light
Shipoopi Shipoopi Shipoopi
To treat a woman right
All that these word changes manage to do is underscore how much the misogyny is baked into the story of a serial seducer whose aggressive predations are rewarded.
The production’s edits start to feel weird. In the original, Hill is said to be trying to imitate an Italian bandmaster from Joplin, Missouri. The word “Italian” has been deleted. In the original, there is a reference to the young character Tommy being “the son of one of those Lithuanians south of town.” That has been completely eliminated. It’s as if the creative team is afraid that any ethnic reference will be found offensive by somebody somewhere. The ironic result is that they’ve white-washed the show – made it even whiter (and white bread) than it was at the outset (despite a diverse cast.)
The oddest aspect of “The Music Man” to me is how this supposedly quintessential reflection of small-town America features a main character who is an outright scam artist. I’ve never seen anything written about how jarring this is.
I suppose the unspoken truth is that Americans love a good grifter, whether fictional or real -from Frank Abagnale, the inspiration for Catch Me If You Can, to Anna Sorokin, the subject not just of a current nine-episode fictionalized series on Netflix but several bizarrely sympathetic interviews with her from prison in otherwise prestigious publications..
We even elected a grifter.
A smarter, braver production could have made much of this especially timely aspect of American culture. This would have required little if any change in the text. As it is, the scam takes place in Iowa (the first caucus state in every presidential race) and the charlatan wins the townspeople over by fabricating a moral crisis and declaiming: “Let’s protect our children. Resist sin and corruption.”
But that’s not what this “Music Man” is about. It aims to be tame — chippy, peppy, perky, sure; an endorphin-stimulating experience, absolutely – but nothing that might tax the frontal lobes of your brain. Like any good con, “The Music Man” wants you to leave in a happy daze, in exchange for your cash.
The Music Man
The Winter Garden Theater
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission
Book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson
Choreography by Warren Carlyle
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto, lighting design by Brian MacDevitt, sound design by Scott Lehrer, hair wigs and makeup design by Luc Verschueren for Campbell Young and Associates, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, vocal and dance arrangements by David Chase, musical director Patrick Vaccariello
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster, Marie Mullen, Shuler Hensley, Jefferson Mays, Jayne Houdyshell, Emma Crow, Gino Cosculluela, Remy Auberjonois, Benjamin Pajak, Kayla Teruel, Garrett Long, Linda Mugleston, Jessica Sheridan, Rema Webb, Phillip Boykin, Eddie Korbich, Daniel Torres, Nicholas Ward, Nick Alvino, Jordan Beall, Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr., Maria Briggs, Audrey Cardwell, JT Church, Kammie Crum, Aydin Eyikan, Carlee Flanagan, Ethen Green-Younger, Emily Jewel Hoder, Curtis Holland, Eloise Kropp, Ethan Lafazan, Kayla Lavine, Drew Minard, Sean Montgomery, Tanner Quirk, Lance Roberts, Ann Sanders, Sherisse Springer, Mitchell Tobin, Branch Woodman
Photographs by Julieta Cervantes