The Great American Musical

Greg M. Smith

I'm a sucker for the idea of amateur theater. I still bear the influence of my high school reading of "Who Am I This Time," Kurt Vonnegut's short fantasy about the transformative possibilities of nonprofessional theater.  That story tells how a phone company employee and a hardware store clerk fall in love with each other, or rather for the actors underneath their everyday selves.  These dullards become larger-than-life characters when they step onto the boards as Stella and Stanley Kowalski.  The couple interacts best not when they are in the real world but when they are reading plays to each other or performing them. "I've been married to Othello, been loved by Faust," the woman says at the end of the story.  "Wouldn't you say I was the luckiest girl in town?" Both the narrator and I nod our heads.

Or at least we should all be lucky to act in so varied an amateur company.  Has anyone ever picked up a local little theater schedule and seen that lineup:  A Streetcar Named Desire, Othello, and Faust?  Instead amateur theater is forced by limitations (of economics and talent) to stick to the tried and true:  the umpteenth production of The Fantasticks or Barefoot in the Park, with perhaps a “big production” (Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls) as the season’s climax.  As much as I love the transformative potential of nonprofessional theater, the repertoire tends to emphasize the repetitive over the revolutionary.

One of the standards in this limited repertoire is Meredith Wilson's The Music Man.  To use a bit of homespun wisdom that would fit in River City, The Music Man is known by the company it keeps. Because it is such a warhorse of amateur production, it seems a little shabby.  Unlike Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma, it never achieved the status of critical landmark, and so its place in amateur company seems just about right.  It's lukewarm theater, just right for the limited capabilities of amateur performers.

And yet I think The Music Man has been sorely misjudged (by me, among others), and I've been led to this conclusion by my eight-year old son.  My wife loves the 1962 film version of the musical, and after she shared it with us on a family viewing night, my son was hooked.  We bought the CD, and my son plays it over and over in the way that children do when they try to absorb something totally (while having the added benefit of driving their parents insane).

Through my repeated (and not quite voluntary) exposure to the musical, I've changed my understanding of The Music Man.  Its depiction of small town life, like Our Town's, is often read as pure romanticization, as the dramatization of Saturday Evening Post covers.  This lighthearted gloss on The Music Man may make it safe material for amateur companies looking for comfortably salable nostalgia, but it also ignores how bang-on the musical's picture of America is.  The remarkable thing about this portrait of a small town in days gone by is how well it fits our urbanized society of today.  The more I look at it, the more The Music Man looks to me like the Great American Musical.

For those who don't recall, The Music Man is "Professor" Harold Hill, a flim-flam man whose current line is selling boys' bands to gullible small towns.  Hill wins over influential townspeople in River City, Iowa with fast patter and even faster feet, but the toughest sell is the spinster music teacher and librarian Marian.  He worms his way into her heart by singing songs about moonlight and by encouraging her withdrawn, lisping young brother Winthrop.   Harold Hill collects payments for shiny instruments and for personal instruction with his own distinctive method: the "think" system.  He instructs students to think and sing the Minuet in G as a means of learning to play it (thus taking full advantage of his total inability to play any musical instrument).  His plan is to dance nimbly away from suspicious townsfolk until the sparkling red uniforms arrive, and then to catch the first train to the next town of suckers.  Of course salesman Hill gets his foot caught in the door when he actually falls for Marian, and he chooses to stay even after he is found out by the town.

The musical actually begins with a rap, or at least with a 1950's precursor:  the speech song.  In "Rock Island" a chorus of salesmen "bicker, bicker, bicker" about the infamous Harold Hill, repeating their exclamations ("Whaddya talk? Whaddya talk?") and syncopating their rhythms. Following the cadence of a train, the song celebrates the musicality in the salesmen's patter in a way that reminds us of Walt Whitman's poetic commemoration of American plain speech.  In "Iowa Stubborn" Meredith Wilson echoes Whitman's love of the lyrical list, using commonplace city names ("Dubuque, Des Moines, Davenport, Mason City, Keokuk, Ames, Clear Lake") to make us listen to the beauty of their sound.  It is a rare work that can bridge the gap between Whitman and Eminem, and The Music Man announces its utter topicality in its opening moments by showing the connections between these two extraordinarily American forms of expression.

The Music Man is deeply concerned with revealing the underlying structures that bind different forms of music together.  Wilson combines the all-male sound of the barbershop quartet ("Goodnight Ladies") with a female gossip number ("Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little") to connect the genders in song.  At first hearing, the rousing tribute to Sousa that Harold belts out ("Seventy-Six Trombones") could not seem more different from the tender lullaby Marian sings ("Goodnight, My Someone").  In the end, however, composer Wilson shows us that they are the same tune when Harold and Marian alternate lines of their respective songs. He reveals how these characters have changed by having them swap songs, showing that at heart these tunes (and these characters) are deeply linked.  Certainly Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber have used this same trick, but never more elegantly.

The topicality of The Music Man depends less on its aesthetic strategies and more on its social critique. Hill begins his crusade by first ascertaining what is new in this town so that he can demonize it.  He latches onto the single new item in this sleepy burg (a new pool table in the billiard parlor) and transforms it into the cause of the decline of Western Civilization.  The insidious influence of pool leads young men down the slippery slope toward a whole host of sins, including using slang (like "swell" and "so's your old man") and dancing to ragtime.

Substitute "rap" or "video games" or "TV violence" for "pool" in the lyrics, and you have a song that Hillary Clinton could sing today (I'll admit that the slang terms would require a bit of updating, though).  The Music Man makes a big point of reminding us that it's always the newest form of cultural expression that raises our social outrage. Blaming the new for eroding old treasured values is a standard song-and-dance, and The Music Man doesn't let us forget how arbitrary this all is.  Politically savvy Harold Hill makes certain not to insult any billiard players by praising the game's moral tutelage, making pool's different configuration of pockets the source of its devilry.  Pool will lead to horse racing (not a proper trotting race but one where the jockey sits right on the horse) and to dancing (not to waltzes but to ragtime).

These tiny distinctions separate not the wholesome from the evil but instead the old and familiar from the new and shocking.  Add a particular poster boy (the boy caught reading Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang, or Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris in Columbine) and you've got a rhetorically persuasive argument, even if it depends on the slightest of connections ("we've got trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool").
(Notice how there's no question of why Hill should be creating a boys' band (not to be confused with the recent trend of packaged sanitized boy singers into groups more 'N Sync with our times).  Why not a band for boys and girls?  Because we all know who the troublemakers are who are in danger of responding to pop culture's siren call.  It's the boys who need a more wholesome form of activity to keep them out of the devil's workshop.)

The "think system" that Hill proposes to turn boys into musicians could easily be sold on an infomercial today.  It combines pure wish fulfillment with the true-blue American love of achievement, adding in some cockeyed optimism and good old-fashioned laziness to boot.  We all would love to do something so complicated and so gloriously flamboyant as playing a musical instrument well.  (I think almost all artists have a bad case of the wannabe's.  Screenwriters would rather be playwrights who would rather be novelists who would rather be poets, and the poets dream of being musicians, the very pinnacle of the hierarchy)  The trouble is that it takes so much damn practice to get to Carnegie Hall.  There's nothing an American loves better than a shortcut.  The best shortcuts, of course, require no real effort, just a different habit of mind.  We would love it if Norman Vincent Peale or Dr. Phil were right, and it simply required positive thinking to transform ourselves.

Movies and television have worsened this American tendency because they are structurally incapable of conveying a sense of prolonged effort.  Because these media are bound to fairly standard commercial lengths (the 30 or 60 minute TV program or the 90 minute full-length film), they cannot show us the tedious, uneventful hard work that is required to gain proficiency at anything.  Not only do the movies retell the American myth that anyone can do whatever they put their minds to, but also they show us that they can do it instantly.  Want to be a championship-level boxer, Rocky?  Hollywood can handle that with a three-minute musical montage.  How about piloting a helicopter, Keanu?  We can download that ability directly from the Matrix.

The film version of The Music Man doesn’t take too many liberties with the original stage version, but one of those liberties is right on the money.  Using a camera trick, the film instantly changes an untutored lad in his faded uniform and baton into a flawless drum major with polished buttons and even more polished execution.  In a flash the musically inept boys become the ultimate marching band sung about in “Seventy-Six Trombones.”  It’s unclear if this coda shows us the band from the idealized view of their mothers and fathers, or if it shows us what Harold’s ragtag band will become.  The point is that the difference between the two doesn’t matter.  The constrained nature of time in commercial media makes it seem that all you have to do to is think, and you can achieve your dreams.

I’m currently trying to teach my eight-year old son this difference between the real world and the mediated one.  He divides the world into things he can do with little effort and things he’s not good at, with little awareness that there are things he could become better at if he practiced.  If he’s not good at something when he initially tries it, there’s no reason to pursue it.  I try to tell him that on the other side of difficult and unpromising practice, he will discover that he has far greater capabilities than he knows.

When I try to encourage him to make this awkward leap of faith, I remember that I’ve only learned this lesson fairly recently in adult life.  Now that my own self-concept is pretty well stable, I’ve learned to ignore those playground voices making fun of my physical ineptitude when I go to the weight room.  But still I have difficulty tuning out Charles Atlas, thinking that I should metamorphose from a mouse to a man in just six weeks.  Harold Hill and his think system are still enticing.  How can I blame my son for believing what I’ve believed for so long?

The Music Man, like any good American fantasy, is about the transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary.  There are plentiful one-line solos for chorus members, brief showcases for the rough-hewn voices of amateur singers.  Everyone gets a chance to sing along, and in so doing they are changed.
The most remarkable choice about the film version is that the director hides the musical's most crucial transformation from us.  Marian the librarian is skeptical of this brash impresario throughout the first half of the musical, and she avoids his attempts to gain her backing.  The moment in which she is won over is when she witnesses her own brother’s metamorphosis.  No one in River City seems to know what to do about young Winthrop.  His stuttering has made him so painfully shy that he is barely able to communicate with his own family.  And yet when the shiny brass instruments arrive in the town, Winthrop sprays Marian with a flurry of words.  It is at this juncture that Marian realizes the magical transformations that Harold Hill makes possible, and she becomes a supporter.

Astonishingly the film has Shirley Jones facing away from the camera as she embraces her beloved, excitingly lisping brother.  What restraint director Morton DaCosta shows here (or what cruelty to Shirley Jones), denying us the chance to see Marian’s face!  But this restraint encourages me to put myself into Marian’s place, viewing my own son getting excited about a new endeavor.  In that moment I simultaneously remember how important music was in breaking me out of my own childhood solitude, how the excitement of performing exploded the narrow role I played in the schoolyard.  In this quiet, subtly staged moment, I am won over as surely as Marian is by the possibility of change, no matter how irrational.

Harold Hill’s influence does revolutionize the young people as promised, but something else happens along the way.  The adult townspeople show that underneath their no-nonsense Iowa demeanor they all have the desire to be fabulous.  Harold Hill is a tempter, indeed, but these characters need very little seducing.  All that is required to lure the town fathers away from their serious consideration of Hill’s qualifications is a brief song fragment, and off they go, singing an old barbershop standard like “Lida Rose” without a second thought about anything other than the rapture of making music.

The Music Man tells us the story of the Puritan transformed into the Pentecostal, which Americans love to tell.  The stuffed shirt always loosens its collar in these tales.  Uptight Cary Grant has no chance against chaotic Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, nor can proper Ginger Rogers withstand the flamboyant charms of Fred Astaire in Top Hat.  Even standard bearers for dignity (such as an old maid librarian and the mayor’s wife) melt when given the opportunity to dance.

The film version explicitly connects the evangelist and the huckster when Harold Hill lifts his hands above his head and shakes them in charismatic fashion during “Ya Got Trouble.”  Clearly he’s preaching his gospel of outrage at sin, and the River City Iowans are the choir.  This is a familiar critique to point out the similarities between the snake-oil peddler and the traveling preacher.  Arm in arm with this portrait of the shaman salesman is the corresponding understanding of their naive audience.  P.T. Barnum and Jim Bakker both depend on a constant supply of suckers who literally buy their act.  Films such as Elmer Gantry and Network emphasize not only the charisma and duplicity of these leaders but also the gullibility of the clods who follow them.  When movies depict audiences, they usually show them as being helplessly under the sway of a man or a medium.

The Music Man, however, has a subtler point to make.  It’s not simply that people can be conned, but that people want to be conned. We may overtly protest the con man’s trickery, but deep down we need and want him to fulfill that function.  We are not gullible souls led to see something we don’t wish to see; instead we deeply desire to see a false view of the world provided by the con artist, even if we know it's not real.
Wilson’s musical baldly makes this point in the climactic first performance of the boys’ band.  The musically untrained Hill, on the verge of being tarred and feathered, steps up to the baton and conducts the boys as they play the Minuet in G, their lips touching the instruments for the first time as they perform in front of their parents.  The band is genuinely horrible.  The surprise comes in the reaction of the parents, who exclaim “That’s my Barney!  That tuba's my Barney!”  The parents hear the band they want to hear, which is making music very different from the noise we are hearing.  When faced with a clear demonstration of the band’s ineptitude, they are not outraged at having been taken.  Instead they blithely face the other way, choosing to hear the band the way they want to.

Harold Hill does deliver on his promise to produce a boys’ band, but the band exists in the community’s mind (and probably always had).  This community was waiting for someone like Hill to reveal the music (the barbershop songs, the interpretive dance) underneath their ordinary lives.  All that Professor Harold Hill does is to nudge them in a direction they already wanted to go.  There were bells on the hill, but they never heard them ringing.  When the film magically changes this band of squawkers and honkers into a precision marching band, it is merely extending the narrative to its final logical conclusion:  we the film audience want to see the band playing as perfectly as the parents did.  We want to be conned, too.

Although we decry the faker and belittle the idiots who swallow his line, we nevertheless love to be taken.  Give us a choice between the way things are and the way we wish them to be, and we’ll choose the unreal every time.  When the movies show people being transformed, it’s usually because they are wishing upon a star.  Harold Hill is one of a long line of godmothers who turn our pumpkins into royal carriages.  Sure, The Music Man shows us that that the wizard is an ordinary man behind a curtain.  What’s exceptional about this musical is that it blatantly shows that we just don’t care he’s not real.  We know that George W. Bush is merely a genial figurehead for a more venial authority, but that makes him even more believable.  That fact that we didn’t find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq no longer matters.  We so needed to hear a confident martial tune again after 9-11 that we needed only a hint of the weapons’ existence before we sent our boys’ (and girls’) band off in their uniforms.  “We got trouble,” Bush said, and we believed.

A part of me wants to argue, therefore, that The Music Man is just too rich a piece of cultural criticism for amateur theater, that it belongs in the hands of professionals.  But then again the musical is about transforming ordinary people into musicians, and so it’s heartening to see ordinary people living the arc traced by the story.  The Great American Musical should be something that can be explored by both professionals and regular folk.
The reason that a musical like The Music Man now looks a little shabby is because of the professionalization of the American theater repertoire.  There has long been a professional theater, certainly, but the amateurs and the pros were playing the same game, although admittedly at different levels.  No one expects true Agnes DeMille choreography from an amateur version of Oklahoma, but at least amateur companies are capable of putting on a production of the same show.

The professional musical theater has rejected its connection to the amateur, concentrating on spectacles that cannot be reproduced by nonprofessionals.  Where can you find an amateur company with the dancing talent to perform Cats, the elaborate stage pageantry to perform The Lion King, or the voices to handle Sweeney Todd?  The reason we pay ninety bucks to see a professional show is that the value is obvious:  we’re seeing something that we could never do ourselves, like a circus act. The professional theater performer has as much to do with the amateur as the contemporary steroid-enhanced Olympian has to do with high school sports.  The amateur theater is left to recycle the old repertoire endlessly, having been abandoned by the professional American theater.

As much as I love many of the works produced by this theater (and I believe that Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is the best musical ever, though it feels too British to be called a Great American one), I am saddened by the enormous chasm separating the professional from the amateur.  It seems downright un-American for the pinnacle of theater to seem so far out of my grasp.  I still want to believe (despite evidence to the contrary) that I’m capable of playing Antony or of playing one of those seventy-six trombones.  I still long for Harold Hill to come to my town to light the fire of enthusiasm in my son, something that I cannot do because we are embroiled in the age-old battle of parent and child.  Until Prof. Hill arrives, my son and I can sing “Goodnight, My Someone” to each other at bedtime, each one of us not quite sure what the words mean to the other and yet joined together for a moment in song.