(Meredith Willson’s) The Music Man


I was in an outdoor-amphitheatre production of The Music Man in the early 1980s, playing both Salesman #6 (“Look, whaddya talk, whaddya talk, whaddya talk, whaddya talk, whaddya talk—” [“Where d’ya get it?”] “—whaddya talk?”) and part of the family of one of the barbershop quartet characters, so my impressions of this show are necessarily skewed…big-time. Still, because my parents had this film’s soundtrack album among their few LPs the show’s been in my fabric for a very long time.

And even though I was in a production of it (usually a shibboleth for determining that a show is crap) I must say The Music Man is a gas as well as a charmer. It has many weaknesses, but most of these are neatly offset by just how damned good it is fundamentally. The film conveys only a bit of the best of the show, and where it shines best is where Robert Preston is in full tilt as Professor Harold Hill—and nowhere is this greater than in “Ya Got Trouble,” in which Preston whips up a proper frenzy among River City’s populace with a literally mesmerizing array of buzzwords and sociolocial danger flags that has the townsfolk actually running after him at times (as is done to great effect in stage productions of the show).

In fact the only thing that hinders “Ya Got Trouble” is the rapid-fire stream of early-1900s cultural references Harold Hill flings down as tracks for his campaign’s justification: without a checklist explaining each bit of what is now utter trivia, one is left to rely on the general impressions conveyed in reaction by actors in performance. Preston truly is spellbinding and hilarious in that number, but it’s probably only that impressive to people who are either familiar with the show or with early-20th-Century cultural ephemera.

For all Shirley Jones’s many gifts, it can only be lamented that her Marian Paroo sucked dreadfully once Marian saw her brother Winthrop enchanted to the point of speech by the prospect of playing in a boys’ band. For the first half of the film Marian’s a nice taut piece of work with character depth and various complications; then she sees Winthrop get excited by Harold Hill and suddenly she’s just made of frosting as far as I can see, with nary a brain cell to her credit. But maybe that’s just my bitterness speaking…bitterness at the sublime (and personally cherished) “My White Knight” being replaced by the swayingly weak “Being In Love” (which, worst of all, appropriated the centerpiece of “My White Knight” wholesale).

There are many bits of this musical that deserve criticism and debate. More importantly, it provides far more reasons throughout for simply enjoying it and maybe learning a bit about various subjects. Anyone can enjoy the vision of a feather-twitching Hermione Gingold bellowing “BALzac!” but to appreciate the small-town-America politics of the 1910s may take more patience than most people have. Having participated in a production of this show I’m already into it…hell, I even know the lyrics to “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” because of it.

And, if nothing else, there’s always Timmy Everett (as Tommy Djilas) and his breathtakingly taut body. That’s one to make you fan your bodice for hours on end, girls. Gasp-inducing at times…with a little imagination this becomes soft-core porn thanks to him.

“Ohhh, my dear little librarian…you pile up enough Tomorrows and you’ll find you’ve collected nothing but a lot of empty Yesterdays.”