The Music Man (1962)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Song & Dance | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: A wholesome small Iowa town is infested with, if you can believe it, a con man, billiards, Wells Fargo Wagons, and Balzac. Eegads!

Though I love it, at two-and-a-half hours The Music Man drags longer than most adult viewers can stand, let alone kids. The film slows with the half-dozen love ballads, dance sequences that go on far too long, and even the barbershop quartet that breaks up the action like a Greek chorus. Still, I can’t deny my love for this Broadway musical adaptation. Sure, a solid 45 minutes should have probably been shaved off, but it still makes for excellent entertainment in the background on a rainy day as the fam delves into coloring books or card/board games. And that’s precisely the kind of thing that got me hooked on The Music Man as a kid.

The revue is based on the book, music, and lyrics penned by Meredith Willson (The Unsinkable Molly Brown). It hit Broadway in 1957 to instant success, with five Tony Awards and 1,375 performances. “If Mark Twain could have collaborated with Vachel Lindsay, they might have devised a rhythmic lark like The Music Man, which is as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July oration,” wrote The New York Times’s Brooke Atkinson.

Set in the fictional town of River City, Iowa (Willson was born in Mason City), we follow con man Harold Hill, whose latest rouse is organizing boys bands. He goes from town to town, selling folks on instruments and uniforms for their kids, promising they’ll be the next wunderkind under his direction. He then proceeds to skip town, pockets full of cash, before they learn a note. But with their highly conservative and status quo nature, the folks of River City present a challenge to Hill (especially the town’s bright librarian and bumbling mayor).

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Morton DaCosta (Auntie Mame), who directed The Music Man on Broadway, likewise headed the film as both director and producer to ensure its faithfulness to the stage adaptation. This was especially true for the casting. While the studio wanted Sinatra, Willson and DaCosta insisted on the actor who mastered it on stage: Robert Preston (Dick Van Dyke took over on stage in the 80s alongside fresh-faced Christian Slater). And how right they were. Most viewers may recognize him from previous roles like Victor/Victoria or The Last Starfighter, but his most iconic is that of the fast-talking swindler Harold Hill. Shirley Jones fills in as the librarian and love interest, Buddy Hackett plays the comic sidekick, and young Ron Howard plays one of the town’s boys.

Despite the cheesy scene breaks (in which the stage fades to a spotlight and freeze on the action), the show is a blast. At its core, you’ve got a hilarious parody of being sheltered and conservative, unable to be open for change or something new (the mayor’s wife and her “smutty books” embodies this perfectly). Surrounding this is a barrage of songs, a few which are lame and several of which are superb. I think especially of the opening train sequence with the traveling salesman pacing their conversation to the locomotive sound, the expositional introduction to the town, a red herring and sales pitch  (Ya Got Trouble, my personal favorite), gossiping women mimicking chickens, a charade in the library, a simple tune about Indiana, and the good ole’ Wells Fargo Wagon.

The Music Man came out in 1962. This was no longer the era of lavish musicals marked by the 40s and 50s (Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis among them), but the nation was still yearning for them plenty and The Music Man was a huge success (with six Oscar nominations) in a decade jam-packed with The Sound of Music, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Hello Dolly, and Oliver. Not too shabby of company.

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