|Meredith Wilson's The Music Man|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 11 November 2003|
Meredith Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa, in 1902. He learned to play the flute professionally enough to be part of the John Philip Sousa Band and the New York Philharmonic. He was musical director for many radio programs, and composed scores for "The Great Dictator" and "The Little Foxes," among other work.
A lot of people kept encouraging him to do a musical about his Iowa boyhood; though he thought it was a good idea, Willson Iowa-stubbornly refused for years.
Then wrote one of the greatest American musicals, "The Music Man." It went on Broadway in 1957 with Robert Preston as the crafty con artist who calls himself Professor Harold Hill. The show was a hit and led to a big-scale movie version in 1962, thankfully still starring Robert Preston. His performance is so dynamic, so funny, so mesmerizing that almost everyone who sees the movie flips for Preston, and probably tries to memorize "Trouble," his best number. ("We got trouble right here in River City....")
The movie was and remains immensely popular. There have been many other companies that performed the show; Forrest Tucker toured in the first traveling version of the play, and I myself saw Dick Van Dyke as Harold Hill at the Pantages in Hollywood. I'm sure Tucker was good as Hill, and I know Van Dyke was. But still, the bang-beat, bell-ringin', big-haul, great-go, neck-or-nothin', rip-roarin', every-time-a-bullseye Harold Hill for almost everyone was the great Preston. (He had a movie career in the late 40s and early 50s, but rarely rose above Best Friend of the Hero. When he went to Broadway in the later 50s, without really being a singer he became one of the greatest musical stars in Broadway history.)
Some "Music Man" fans were aghast to learn that Matthew Broderick, that pipsqueak, had been cast as the spellbinding Hill in a TV movie of "The Music Man." Though it was the product of the same executive producers as of the movie "Chicago," people were skeptical. And some were disappointed -- they could only be.
But others, like me, were delighted with the result. Preston was a thoroughly masculine sharpster, here to fleece the greenhorn citizens of 1912 River City, Ioway (as they say themselves). Broderick is an elfin scamp, every bit as much a con artist, full of himself. It's a completely respectable, appropriate interpretation of the character, and Broderick is a delight. It doesn't matter whether Preston or Broderick is better in the role; both are fine.
The brashly confident Hill cruises into River City on a passing train, sizing up the townsfolk as he wanders among them. He meets an old friend (who calls him "Greg"), Marcellus (David Aaron Baker), once Hill's partner who's now settled down in River City. Once he sold steam automotives, but then "someone actually invented one." As the title says, Hill is now a Music Man without knowing a lick of music himself. He intends to sell the townsfolk instruments and uniforms for a boys' band, then to skedaddle on the last freight out of town.
But as he says himself, this time the traveling salesman gets his foot caught in the door. He falls in love with Marian the Librarian (Kristin Chenoweth) and she with him, but even more, he falls in love with the town. River Cityzians (as Mayor Shinn calls them) have been Iowa-stubborn and Iowa-arrogant for years; they tell us they'll give us a shirt and the back to go with it if our crops should happen to fail, but mostly they're cramped, cranky and ungenerous.
But Hill's promise of a glorious boys' band, with all the kids in town having a part, strikes a chord in the hearts of the townspeople, and the entire community joins in with a will and a lot of songs. It's not just the characters who have graceful story arcs, it's the whole damned town. ANY version of "The Music Man" has the power to charm us; the appeal includes nostalgia for a time none of us have seen, but which we all knew was out there in America's past, but it's not limited to nostalgia since the characters themselves are instantly recognizable: they're us. The hell with "1776," "The Music Man" is the most purely American musical ever made.
Willson only wrote three musicals, "The Music Man" being his first. His later "Unsinkable Molly Brown" and "Here's Love" were good but not bellringers. That's okay; doing just one "Music Man" is enough to make Willson one of the immortals of musical comedy.
This new version was directed by TV veteran Jeff Bleckner. He began in 1975 with "Welcome Back, Kotter," and has been busy ever since, moving from series episodes ("Kots Landing," "Bret Maverick," "Remington Steele") to primarily TV movies and miniseries, including "Fresno," "Rear Window" and "Flowers for Algernon." There's nothing particularly distinctive about his handling of "The Music Man," and sometimes he crowds in on the performers too closely, cutting off their feet; at other times, he over-edits during numbers, fragmenting them. But then he also can use movie technique playfully, as with Hill's here-and-there movements during the "Marian the Librarian" number, or how he skips from one location to another in "76 Trombones."
The movie is more cinematic at times than the original movie (directed by Morton Da Costa, who directed the play) with less reliance on theatrical gimmicks like moving sets. But Da Costa's comedy timing was considerably better, and the budget gave scope and scale to the Robert Preston movie that's distinctly lacking here. This is rather too much of a made-for-television movie.
The cast, on the other hand, is terrific, particularly Kristin Chenoweth, who's even better as Marian than Shirley Jones was in the original movie. Chenoweth is very small -- she sometimes looks like a child when confronting, say, Victor Garber as Mayor Shinn -- but lordy what a voice, and what acting talent. She had a short-lived TV series not long ago, and was on Broadway just now in "Wicked." She has the potential to be the first great musical star of the 21st century. She's funny, sexy, charming and has a voice as big as Judy Garland's.
The cast also includes Debra Monk, a perfect replacement for the perfect Pert Kelton of the original movie (and play), Molly Shannon as Mrs. Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn (Willson is great with names), a bit more human than the grand Hermione Gingold. Victor Garber is an acceptable Mayor Shinn, but he seems way too hip to Harold Hill's jive, unlike the splendid Paul Ford of the earlier film.
There are more songs than in the earlier film, which omitted "It's You" and "My White Knight." Here, it's a little more clear than in the movie that "Goodnight My Someone" and the glorious "76 Trombones" really have the same melody. Every song, no exceptions, is outstanding, and well-handled here, even if everything seems a little cramped, and a little loose in the choreography. "You Got to Know the Territory," the railroad patter song that begins as soon as the play does, was done better in the first movie partly because of those theatrical elements that are annoying elsewhere. But it's fine here, too. The several barbershop quartet numbers here, "It's You," "Lyda Rose" and "How Can There Be Any Sin in Sincere" are excellent, almost showstoppers in themselves. Unlike the movie, "Pick a Little," the chicken-rhythm song of the ladies of River City, has a reprise late in the film as they now welcome Marian Paroo into their company. Also, "Gary, Indiana," that song with hardly any S-es, is heard twice, once without lisping Winthrop (Cameron Monaghan), Marian's little brother, once with his enthusiastic participation.
Several of the numbers go on longer than expected, including the railroad patter song and "Marian the Librarian;" the latter even switches at one point to what Marian imagines the song should be like. This is neither effective nor intrusive, it's just there.
As for the DVD itself: since this was a TV movie, the commercial breaks are annoyingly obvious, occasionally damaging the rhythm of this most rhythmic of musicals. The songs frequently sound looped when they should seem fresh and realistic, but the sound throughout is excellent -- as it should be in a musical. Surround sound is used for atmosphere, with dog barks, train whistles and other natural sounds coming from the side speakers.
The excellent dialog is still full of period language; "I couldn't make myself any clearer if I was a buttonhook in the well water!" exclaims the fulminating Mayor Shinn. The songs, too have period slang, particularly "Trouble." "tryin' out cubebs, tryin' out tailor-mades like cigarette fiends!" That number here is acceptable, and keyed to Broderick's understated performance -- but it's done so brilliantly by Robert Preston in the first movie that in this case, there simply is no comparison.
Many people complain about remakes, but I've put all that fuss and fury behind me. I finally realized that remakes are going to happen no matter what my opinion might be. If the remake is bad, eventually it will be forgotten, and the original movie -- which is always available -- will again be the only one of that title that anyone recalls. If the remake is good, as here, then great -- we have TWO good movies on the subject.
And "The Music Man" 2003 is a very good movie, one of the best of the year. Too bad it hasn't been given anything other than cursory treatment on this DVD. The cover is dull and unattractive, and the only extras are Chenoweth singing "Till There Was You" at a mike -- and not doing it as well as she does it in the movie, as well as a brief, perfunctory "making of" documentary. It's so inadequate it doesn't discuss any of the cast except Broderick.
But if you're a fan of "The Music Man," and almost everyone seems to be, this is a fine production in a different style than the earlier movie. Matthew Broderick is a very different Harold Hill than was Robert Preston, but he's a good one.