The first time I ever set foot on a stage, it was in the role of Mayor Shinn in a high school production of Music Man and a few years after that, I was part of the barber shop quartet in a community theater production. I’ve also attended various other productions, as well as countless viewings of the 1962 movie version, so I guess I qualify as an insufferable expert on the show.
The most important thing to know about the Goodman’s version is that it was directed by Mary Zimmerman. Zimmerman has built quite a reputation over the years as an innovative director. She appears to have a made a career out of radically reimagining established works, which makes her an intriguing choice to direct such a well-worn chestnut as Music Man. She has won fistfuls of awards in the Chicago area and has also extended her talents to directing operas in both Chicago and New York. So Mary Zimmerman qualifies as a heavy hitter in the theater world; someone who has carved out a unique identity on the theatrical landscape.
On to last night’s festivities — I’ll start with what went well, and I’ll move on to my complaints later. The show was handsome to look at from a design standpoint. The architecture had a stripped-down simplicity to it, as if it were inspired by Edward Hopper landscapes, but it was a good, clean look. The chorus was strong and filled with life and character. The choreography was well executed if a tad simple, though this actually became a kind of strength, because it served to reinforce the turn-of-the-century, plain-spoken Iowan character of the townspeople. The chorus should really have been half again larger, as some of the “crowd” scenes weren’t quite crowded enough. Whether this shortage of bodies could be attributed to either budgetary constraints or a directorial choice, I couldn’t say.
The romantic leads in the show are flim-flam man Harold Hill and town librarian Marian Paroo. Much of a production’s success comes down to the abilities of these two as performers and the chemistry between them. Here, the results were mixed (since the performers were all unknown to me, I will speak of them only by their character’s names). To pull off Harold Hill successfully, one must present a silver-tongued con man and – here’s the hard part – manage the transition to falling in love with Marian and giving it all up. So in the earlier scenes, we have to like Harold even as we see him robbing the townspeople blind. We have to see a genuine charisma and a latent humanity in him that finally bursts out at the end. I didn’t see it last night. Oh, he was a slick enough con man, but I never saw much reason to like him. The scenes in which he seemed to dote on Marian’s troubled brother Winthrop came across as either false or incongruous. I’ll grant you that Meredith Willson has constructed a narrow opening through which Harold has to fit his conversion, coming as it does only a few pages before the end of the show, but I expect a production at this level to pull it off, so when it doesn’t work, I’m a little disappointed.
As for Marian, her performance was everything you’d want your Marian to be — she was believable as the most well-read person in River City; her relationships with her mother and brother were sincere and lucid; and she nailed every note that the score asked of her. She made it clear – clearer than most Marians I’ve seen – that her affection for Harold was rooted in seeing how Harold’s presence had helped her emotionally troubled brother. While her actual happy ending romance with Harold didn’t quite add up, I don’t think she gets any of the blame.
Now we get to director Zimmerman. It seems, on the evidence given, that The Music Man may not have been a good fit for her theatrical philosophies. At so many points in the show, big and small, she seems to be straining at the seams to find ways to reinvent how moments work. I’m not dogmatic about this – I don’t insist that things have to be done the way they were in the movie – but there are too many moments when Zimmerman seems to be doing things differently just to be different, and in so doing, she ignores Willson’s text and makes it something less than it was originally. A big example: The romantic scene between Harold and Marian in Act II was not set at the foot bridge in this production; it was set by the town’s water tower. What we see on the stage are two huge metal legs of the tower on a stage that is otherwise bare except for the suggestion of a distant cornfield. As the legs are flown in during the scene change, it seems as if we’ve just switched over to a stage adaptation of The Day the Earth Stood Still. There is nothing at all romantic about the setting. It looks stark and industrial. If Zimmerman was trying to make a comment about the ongoing industrialization of America at that time, it came out as a clanking note from a different score.
There are also many small moments in the show where direct textual cues and clues are missed or mangled out of a seeming intention to find new ways to do them. The “Pick-a-little-talk-a-little” ladies in particular were robbed of what should have been good comedic and character moments. Look, I’m all for experimentation; that’s what rehearsals are for. And during those rehearsals, when we try something and it doesn’t work, we keep trying until we find something that does work. We don’t hang onto a wrong choice solely because it’s new; we look for something that’s both new and successful. And if the new way just won’t work, maybe we go back to an old idea and realize that it was done that way for a good reason. This is where the director’s desire to be innovative needs to be balanced by a consideration for the final product.
But after all of that, I come to praise The Music Man, not to bury it. This production often comes off as a really, really good summer stock production rather than as a cutting-edge professional reimagining, and that’s not a bad thing. Meredith Willson’s story and score – and a fine band playing in the pit – ultimately prevail. I may have my issues with it, but the many folks standing and cheering during curtain call clearly did not share my reservations. I told you at the outset that my history with the show makes me an insufferable expert on it, and I think I’ve lived up to the “insufferable” part. On the balance, River City, Iowa, circa 1912 was a pretty good place to be last night.