The Music Man: Trouble With A Capital T

by Gretchen Wirges

The Music Man

Bill English as Harold Hill and cast of The Music Man. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

The Music Man opened for the first time in 1957. It went on to Broadway, critical acclaim, and nearly 1400 performances. Arizona Theater Company has taken on the task of staging this nostalgic musical as part of it’s 2018-19 season. The show is larger than life and has a history to match.

Let me start by saying that I grew up loving this musical. I loved the stage version and I loved the 1962 film adaption. When I sat down to view ATC’s production, I was excited, giddy even, to recapture the joy I remembered feeling from watching this show. So let’s dig into the good, the bad, and the “trouble” with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for confused.

Let’s start with the good–the ensemble was incredible. The dancers were talented, the townsfolk were animated and lovely fun to watch. Among those I enjoyed most were the ladies ensemble which included the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Shinn, played by Leslie Alexander, the character of Ethel Toffelmier played by Kara Mikula, Mrs. Squires played by Chanel Bragg, and Alma Hix played by Brenda Jean Foley. The scenes that included these actors were filled with joy and humor and memorable vignettes. Mikula’s hilarious facial expressions and deft physical comedy made me smile throughout the show.

Another good note about this show is the diverse representation in the casting. Bravo to directors who cast people of color in roles that have traditionally gone exclusively to white actors. Every step toward diversity is important. As many contemporary shows have shown us, taking bolder steps toward diversity by casting the leading roles with such awareness is a win for everyone. I hope ATC moves further in that direction. We want to see ourselves on stage. The stories will support it and so will the audiences.

Okay, the bad. While the sets are beautiful and expansive, they are also numerous to a fault. It may sound counter intuitive, but I think the over-abundance of sets moving in and out was distracting. It took away from the magic and the burden of the material and the performance to create the world we’re watching. I think that the show relied too much on this aspect of the production, and not enough on the performances itself.  As a whole, the show felt lacking in joy and energy for me.

Harold Hill, the lead character, is arguably one of the most charismatic and over-the-top musical characters of all time. Hill, played by Bill English, was played way too flat for my tastes. The charisma and power just wasn’t there. And honestly I don’t fault English, I fault the director. Many of the songs, led by English, were choreographed in a subtle way that didn’t capture the joy and excitement of the script. 76 Trombones, one of my favorite Broadway songs EVER, felt like more of a throw-away number than a showstopper. The Wells Fargo Wagon song was almost boring, save the fantastic bright spot of Winthrop’s solo by local Nathaniel Wiley. There needed to be more fun, more joy, more reckless abandon in this show. As whole, it was just a buttoned up version that needed to break loose.

The Music Man

The cast of The Music Man. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

And finally, the “trouble with a capital T” of this show really is the story and the script, which of course is no fault of the these particular performers in this particular staging. I think this is a show that needs to be retired. Frankly, it is incredibly misogynistic, to the point where more than a few people in the audience audibly gasped at many of the horrifically offensive lines. Much like the recent debate over the holiday song Baby, It’s Cold Outside, I’m sure the show wasn’t written with this sensitivity, but we know better now. And when we know better, we need to do better.

The Music Man

Manna Nichols as Marian. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

In the anvil salesman scene, the character makes several leering, disgusting, predatory comments to Marian. Her response to this is to seduce him in order to keep him from chasing after her lying, cheating love interest, Harold Hill. Hill himself  basically stalks her throughout the majority of the show trying to win her over so he could distract her from his illegal pursuits. She says no, many many times, and he continues to follow her.

Many of us have watched movies that we once saw as kids, only now realizing the “adult” jokes that we didn’t understand at the time. This was my experience with listening to these songs 20 years later than the last time I’d seen it.  “The Sadder but Wiser Girl” was especially cringe worthy:

A girl who trades on all that purity
Merely wants to trade my independence for her security.
The only affirmative she will file
Refers to marching down the aisle.
No golden, glorious, gleaming pristine goddess–

I snarl, I hiss: How can ignorance be compared to bliss?
I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is.
I cheer, I rave for the virtue I’m too late to save
The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.
No bright-eyed, blushing, breathless baby-doll baby
That kinda child ties knots no sailor ever knew.
I prefer to take a chance on a more adult romance.
No dewy young miss
Who keeps resisting all the time she keeps insisting!
No wide-eyed, wholesome innocent female.

The song Shipoopi includes the following lyrics:

Now a woman who’ll kiss on the very first date is usually a hussy
And a woman who’ll kiss on the second time out is anything but fussy

Walk her once just to raise the curtain
Walk around twice and you’ve made for certain

Squeeze her once when she isn’t lookin’
If you get a squeeze back, that’s fancy cookin’
Once more for a pepper-upper
She will never get [mad] on her way to supper

To have a man sing these lyrics in 2018 is a bit mind-boggling. To be honest, it was mind-boggling for 1957 as well, but that sort of inappropriate behavior was accepted, even applauded. However, I’ll say it  again, now that we know better, we should do better. This show is antiquated and does not hold up to modern awareness. Let’s put it to rest and find new stories to tell.

The Music Man plays at Arizona Theater Company through December 30th. Tickets can be purchased through arizonatheatre.org or by calling the box office at (520) 622-2823.

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