theater review

The Music Man Finally Marches In, Looking Backward

From The Music Man, at the Winter Garden. Photo: Joan Marcus

The Music Man wants you to know that the old ways are best. For the production now on Broadway, every detail has been retrogressed to the days of yore, from the typeface on the playbills to the red-white-and-blue title cards outside to the heavy reliance on Star Quality. This ain’t one-a-them newfangled, updated, anti-nostalgia versions of a classic. Instead, you can set yourself down at the Winter Garden where it is 1957’s version of 1912 again. You won’t need to trouble yourself with anything beyond the sweetness of Meredith Willson’s con-man-redemption musical, itself a tribute to both Willson’s own Iowa upbringing and his flute-playing years with John Philip Sousa’s band.

Certainly it feels like a glitzy, age-of-musicals move to cast Sutton Foster and Hugh Jackman; it’s increasingly rare to see a pair of stage stars of this megawattage sing and dance together. Their celebrity and undeniable presence seem to have overcome any little concerns about fissures between the performers and their characters — there are places where Foster’s mezzo strains in the high stuff and Jackman goes sour. But director Jerry Zaks solves that by bringing ’em front and center, to stand (or dance) on the stage lip and radiate Golden Age glamour. Every t that stands for trouble has been crossed, every choice feels rose-colored and flannel-cozy. The young, talented, dance-mad company spins and leaps with all the vigor of a remembered childhood. A teeny-tiny clockwork horse even gallops onstage right out of our shared deep memory. There’s only one single solitary thing that feels modern in River City, and that’s the ticket prices. I hate to tell you, but these folks are asking you to part with nearly $700 to sit up close. Don’t do it, neighbors! That’s flimflam, that’s roguery. That’s grift. 

Although I have known this show for most of my life, I admit I’ve never entirely understood why Harold Hill is supposed to be such a crook. In Willson’s story, the salesman “Professor” Hill tricks entire towns into believing he can shape their boys into a brass band though he doesn’t know anything about music himself. He orders them cornets and trombones and uniforms via the Wells Fargo wagon, but he’s a tin-ear and a fumble-fingers himself, so he can’t actually teach them any music. Instead, he introduces the Think Method, which requires no practice, and which Marian the librarian slash town music teacher sees right through. But — shouldn’t she step up? Hill does actually deliver the items they order; it’s not a swindle. And Why is no one showing these kids how to play an instrument seems like an odd problem for Marian to feel so helpless about. I played the clarinet quite poorly in the fifth grade. I promise you, I did not get angry at the man who rented it to me for not showing me how to change the reed. I had a town music teacher for that.

But anyway, Hill’s a rapscallion, happy to snow the townspeople like Mayor Shinn (Jefferson Mays, apoplectic) and his wife, Eulalie (Jayne Houdyshell, majestic), with a combination of flattery and distraction. Hill manages to divert some suspicious town fathers by coaxing them into becoming a barbershop quartet, at which point the bliss of straight-tone mixing overwhelms all their good midwestern sense. Hill’s genius with children lets him Pied Piper them immediately, whispering in their ears to engineer a hilarious book-throwing library jamboree (a coup for choreographer Warren Carlyle), and kindest with the lisping 10-year-old Winthrop Paroo (Benjamin Pajak), the librarian’s shy little brother. Hill is irresistible: Everyone turns to follow him — in Carlyle’s cakewalk, on the street, whenever he enters a room — but Marian notices that he turns to check on Winthrop, and so she falls in love.

When we say a theater is like a barn, we are not usually paying that theater a compliment. The enormous Winter Garden stage foreshortens weirdly if you sit upstairs, but it looms if you’re in the orchestra. Set designer Santo Loquasto steers into the skid: The front drop for The Music Man is the side of a barn — instead of a velvet curtain, a giant red wooden wall keeps the stage hidden before the show. Behind these boards is a copy of Grant Wood’s Midwest, literally. Huge versions of his paintings like The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere or Parson Weems’ Fable make this Iowa seem airless and still, all the trees clipped round and smooth, the hills as neat as rolled socks in a drawer.

More has been smoothed besides. All Willson’s looking backwards did peer into a few awkward corners of his Iowa upbringing, and where those memories have grown too offensive, cuts and elisions have been made. Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman have delivered a kinder, gentler version of the charm song “Shipoopi,” which used to be about girls who put out. Shuler Hensley (strangely unnerved and overloud) now shouts “Shipoopi! Shipoopi! The boy who’s seen the light. Shipoopi! Shipoopi! To treat a woman right!” instead of the slightly more assault-y lyrics of the original. There has been progress, but that progress has happened in a song called “Shipoopi.”

As cheeseball and predictable as The Music Man might be, it will still surprise you. It’s impossible to grow jaded to Willson’s opening “Rock Island,” the best curtain-raiser in the business, with its train car full of salesmen, making the accelerating chugga-chugga of the train with just their rhythmic speak-singing. “Cash for the merchandise, cash for the buttonhooks — cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods …” they say-sing as they pull out of a siding, a green Iowa sliding past their windows. Willson found a dozen startling ways in and out of songs, whether it was through contrapuntal echoes (the march “Seventy-Six Trombones” and Marian’s lovelorn “Goodnight, My Someone” share a melody) or a piano exercise that turns into a full-blown song, or his fondness for barbershop. In the first hour and a half, the show barely gives Jackman a minute to doff his straw boater before he’s tearing into another dance-and-speak about how risky pool is to young people, or whatever pitter-patter guff Willson has shaped into a song for him. The velocity of those inventions in the first act is undeniably thrilling — the train is moving at speed, the governor is off.

In Willson’s more laborious second act, there are pockets of emptiness in this production, longueurs when finally Carlyle’s splendiferously go-big choreography starts to wear thin, the lovey-dovey ballads start to seem a little much. The shift to more conventional songs does not serve Jackman in particular — as the show goes on, Foster’s voice grows stronger and richer, but Jackman’s tone narrows to a pinched, unlovely sound. He does though, finally turn to his scene partner. He has twinkled, and hoofed, and flung himself around a library set; he has tap-danced, and winked, and clambered all over a Wells Fargo wagon. In other words, he has spent the first act seducing us. In the second, he turns at last to Marian, and you see the effect of the full Hugh Jackman spotlight, which has been beaming out at a thousand seats, when it is focused on one face.

Stars have their own style of stardom: Jackman’s is always Jackman’s. When his character, Harold Hill, lets something slip, Jackman lets us see that he, Hugh, the magnetic movie idol, catches it — he makes visible how hard he has to work to keep up with the astonishing dancers around him, or he breaks character just a smidge (I’ve seen it twice, and this seems to be a pattern), a sparkling con that dazzles and flatters the audience. Foster, though, has the other kind of star quality: gravity as opposed to shine. She’s so physically precise! She drops a shoulder, it’s enough to button a scene. She drops her voice? She can turn anything into a joke. Funny, wry, deep, kind, her Marian Paroo draws our sympathy until the whole show rotates around her. To see if those $700 seats were really so important, just before the opening I bought a cheap(er) seat and sat in the balcony. I wish it weren’t so, but some parts of the show do get lost up there in the thinner air. Foster, though, is a true musical-theater miracle — she only gets bigger and brighter as you get farther away.

The Music Man is at the Winter Garden Theatre.

The Music Man Finally Marches In, Looking Backward