I love The Music Man. It has everything a musical should have — traveling salesmen, a con man with a heart of gold, a piano teacher, a barbershop quartet, and trombones. It proves that the American heartland is a land of unlimited possibilities, where if you can imagine something, you can do it.
This year’s Music Man at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) is a lot of fun. It’s led by one of the Stratford’s own, Jonathan Goad, who as Harold Hill, a traveling musical instrument salesman, convinces the good people of River City, Iowa that only a brass band can save the its young men and women from lives of vice and immorality.
Hill promises the children’s parents that if they buy trumpets, clarinets, and uniforms, he’ll teach them to play — never mind that he can’t actually read a lick of music. But two women stand in his way. To Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife, Harold Hill is a threat to her reign as the cultural leader of River City. Even more dangerous to Hill is Marian Paroo, the River City librarian and piano teacher, who really does know music and has the goods on Hill.
We loved the scenes in which Harold Hill distracts the school board from demanding his credentials by getting them to sing barbershop harmony. This running gag gets us every time, and the quartet was polished and tight. In fact, it’s been a good year for barbershop in Ontario theater; there’s also a great barbershop quartet scene in Wonderful Town, still playing at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake) (see Emsworth’s review).
Not to be missed is the wild library dance scene that accompanies “Marian the Librarian”; if you’re not paying attention to the choreography, you might miss Tommy (Eric S. Robertson) and Zanetta Shinn (Rachel Crowther) enacting Romeo and Juliet from beginning to end in pantomime. (The Stratford Festival is putting on the real Romeo and Juliet this season. See Emsworth’s unenthusiastic review.) The real sparkplug of this show, though, is Fiona Reid as the feisty, bossy Mrs. Shinn. With her hilarious pretensions to culture, she’s nearly as great a fraud as Harold Hill.
The Music Man is a tale of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. Harold Hill comes to River City as a wicked man whose plans include fleecing the townspeople and seducing the librarian. Marian Paroo (Leah Oster, whose nightingale-like voice more than compensates for her limited range as an actress) is never deceived, but she forgives and protects him after she sees how much good a shiny new trumpet has done her shy, stuttering little brother.
Unlike another salesman in American drama, Willy Loman, for whom no redemption ever comes, Harold Hill is, in the end, saved by unmerited grace. To his own surprise, the “think system” actually works, he finds himself loved by a beautiful woman who already knows the worst about him, and the very townspeople he intended to cheat draw him to their bosoms. I don’t know whether playwright Meredith Willson was a man of faith (he also wrote the song “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You”), but he must have been familiar with Genesis 50:20: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
For lovers of trivia, The Music Man is a gold mine. What was the only song from a musical play recorded by the Beatles? “Till There Was You,” from their 1963 album “With the Beatles.” What musical uses the same melody for two entirely different songs? The Music Man, of course: “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Goodnight My Someone.”
The cult of multiculturalism and its flacks give the Stratford Festival their stamp of righteous approval, but say the Shaw Festival still hasn’t gotten religion on “diversity”. Emsworth loses patience in this post.