Friday, August 17, 2012

Musical Spotlight: The Music Man

In my last musical spotlight blog, I promised you something a little less poppy in the next one. I decided to go all the way back to what is probably my favorite classic musical - The Music Man, with music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. I love pretty much everything about this musical. I love the music, I love the lyrics, I love the story, I love the dancing, and I especially love the 1962 movie version with Robert Preston reprising the title role he played on Broadway. There's a 2003 TV version as well, but that stars Matthew Broderick, whose charisma seems to have been cut in half every year since Ferris Bueller. Although I dearly love Kristin Chenoweth as Marian, the title character has all the best songs, and if he's not wonderful, the show doesn't come together. So don't bother watching the new one - if you're going to watch this movie, look for the original.

All right. Now on to a few of my very favorite songs. (It was HARD to cut this one down.)

1. Rock Island
A brilliantly original opening number that gives us a nice amount of exposition. A group of traveling salesmen on a train complain about how life is difficult for a traveling salesman these days, and how a lot of it is due to a con man named Harold Hill who poses as a traveling salesmen selling boys' bands. (We learn later that "he don't know one note from another" - he simply collects money for dues, uniforms, and lessons, and then skips town.)

The song is spoken in rhythm instead of sung - in the rhythm of the train they're riding. The words move fast, following the chugchugchugchug pattern of the moving train. And let me tell you, this is one VERY satisfying number to sing along to. Or talk along to. Or whatever.

2. Ya Got Trouble
OK, I just finished rewatching this to write about it, and I can't stop smiling. Robert Preston is incredible in this role.

Anyway, on to the song: Traveling salesman Harold Hill shows up in the tiny town of River City, Iowa, and knows that before he can start peddling his wares, he needs to create the illusion that this town is in deep trouble and that only a boys' band can save it. In a very TV evangelist kind of way, he latches onto the new pool table the town has just gotten and manages in the span of about 3 minutes to convince the entire town that "that game with the 15 numbered balls is the devil's tool."

This song, like Rock Island, is mostly spoken in rhythm (I swear this musical does have some actual singing in it). I love how quickly the words go by, certainly imitating the slick, fast-paced talk of an experienced con man, who knows that the more he keeps talking, the less time people have to process what he said and find the holes in it.

3. Seventy-Six Trombones
In this song, Hill riles up the River City citizens about the pool table again at a city meeting and then jumps in as the hero, painting with this song an image of a patriotic, healthy community bonding together over their band, if they'll only let him save them all. He manages to get the entire town up and dancing around and through the streets with imaginary instruments. Only the town librarian Marian Paroo is not taken in by Hill's slick charm and vivid imagination, and when the mayor gushes about how great their band is, she calmly responds, "What band?"

I think this is the song that captures for me what I love most about this movie and, really, about musicals in general. Hill is a storyteller, a picture painter. He grabs people's hearts by helping them imagine what *could* be, and then convinces them he can make that happen. When he's accompanied by actual music with brassy instrumentation and dance sequences, it's just as infectious an image for me as an audience member. I don't even *like* brass bands or community activities, and yet I find this song engaging, inspiring, and kinda wish I was there.

Embedding disabled, but you can watch this clip here.

4. Marian the Librarian
Another one I can't stop smiling at. In this one, Hill goes to the library to... well, not quite seduce Marian, as it is a very public place, but he definitely wants to win her over to his way of thinking. And while it doesn't work entirely, she does let her guard down and allows herself to enjoy even something as forbidden as tap dancing in the library.

Admittedly, while this song is *really* sexual harrassment-y, I really like it. It's another song that very smartly uses rhythm - it incorporates organic, context-driven sounds into the music (for example, the stamping of the library books and the other library patrons shushing). Its varying in volume is context-driven, as well; the singing keeps rising to non-library-approved standard and must be brought back down again.

Random fact: When I was like eleven, I took my movie soundtrack, took the first "a" sound in "Marian," looped it for like a minute and inserted it back into its place in the song, just because it was hilarious to me to hear him sing "Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarian," like he'd forgotten what the end of his word was.

To my great distress, there is no available video of this song (why is this one taken down for copyright and none of the others are? Hmm), just audio. But here is the audio:

5. 'Til There Was You
I figured I should include not just Harold Hill songs, and I've recently grown to really love this song, sung by Marian to Hill at the end of the show. When I was younger, I dismissed it as being too generic, but rewatching it this time, I realize it's actually *very* specific to the situation. There are a lot of songs that sing about "you opened my eyes to the beauty around me," but that is EXACTLY what Harold Hill does for this town. The town grows to love Hill not just because he's charismatic and they yearn for his approval - they grow to love him because he (perhaps inadvertently) teaches them how to love their own lives. He brings music and community and adventure to them.

Also, this song is just really pretty. The Beatles covered it, but it was less pretty then and more cheerful.

Overall, The Music Man has a smart, funny script, great songs, a very satisfying story, and, if you watch the original movie version, some really fantastic performances. I think I might stick with the older musicals for awhile and explore a few of my other favorites in the next couple spotlights. I have a tendency to lean toward newer musicals stylistically, but there really are some wonderful ones from pre-rock opera days. And the nice thing is, most of my favorites are available as movies, since they were all about musical movies back then.


  1. You may be surprised by this, but I genuinely like this one. It's one of very few musicals I can say that about, but I honestly dig this one. I think I always liked the idea that the whole scheme really is built around wooing a librarian with baggage. She's not a princess or someone from a noble family or anything grand. In fact, in most stories, Marian is the woman that girls don't want to grow up to be. But here, a flim-flam man falls head over heels over her.

    Plus, the songs are fun and I don't recall ever being taken out of the movie and annoyed by them the way I often am with musicals. "Ya Got Trouble" and "Seventy-Six Trombones" are very likely my favorite songs from a musical; at the very least, my favorite from a musical that isn't The Wizard of Oz. Every now and again, part of one of them will run through my head even though I haven't seen the movie in probably close to twenty years. That's pretty impressive.

    1. That *does* surprise me, but I am delighted. I obviously think it's a great musical and a great movie. And I do love Marian's character - she's the closest I can find to a female character even remotely like me in musical theater, heh.

    2. I really like that these characters are both flawed and ordinary. Their aspirations are really very universal: they're each just looking for some stability and happiness, and for someone to take a chance on them. I related to that, even as an adolescent when I first saw it in middle school music class.

      As a film, I felt the story was pretty focused - particularly for a musical, which tend to meander by indulging song numbers. The songs in The Music Man are organic to the story and help advance the narrative. The pace is brisk, never lingering too long on any one point but not rushing us through the proper character development. And if I'm being entirely honest, I always loved that bridge set. It's existed as part of my ideal romantic scenario ever since I saw this movie. (I'll deny this if you tell anyone.)