The Music Man - a skeptic is converted in river city

The Music Man, Christopher Van Hagen as Winthrop Paroo and members of the company; Photo: David Hou

While I’ve always admire the talent and dedication that go into producing a large-scale musical, and I can respect the musical’s place as a mainstream art form, I must confess that it just isn’t my thing. I walked in to The Music Man a skeptic. But I came out a fan.

By now, the story is familiar: con man Harold Hill comes to a small Iowa town to sell instruments, uniforms, and dreams of a marching band, but finds much more than he expects, including a good woman, the gratitude of the townsfolk, and a decency that had been previously lacking. Made famous by the 1957 film starring Robert Preston, the piece is a sentimental look back at composer-lyricist Meredith Willson’s Iowa childhood, and an exploration of the intersection between old world values and modern mores.

The production has all the corny pitter-patter and song-and-dance routines standard for most musical theatre pieces. What separates this production of The Music Man is the care that’s gone into digging up the themes of the script and the intelligence behind the characters. It’s thoughtfully directed, acted, designed, and sung, while still retaining a true sense of joy. In the hands of award-winning director Susan Schulman, The Music Man becomes much more than a series of set-pieces around the work’s famous “Seventy-Six Trombones” number. While there’s plenty of smiling and dancing, Schulman has unearthed a fascinating take on what happens when insularity meets modernity. She also explores the theme of the outsider, positing the musical’s two main characters as the ultimate outsiders, who find they have more in common than outward appearances and histories might imply.

Similarly, the director’s assertion that The Music Man is “the first white rap musical” is given a nice demonstration, particularly in the first number, where cast members deliver their lines to the sounds and beat of a train, complete with human-voiced brakes, whistles, and stops. It’s particularly effective in sonically introducing the concept of momentum that’s making an inevitable march into the small town of River City, a town where such rhythmic inventions are still new, unusual, and not to be trusted. Shifty “Professor” Hill’s first number, “Trouble”, has all the markings of a rap number (however inadvertent), and leading man Jonathan Goad shows incredibly vocal dexterity with the spoken/sung words, balancing his precise delivery with subtle choreography and urgent, propaganda-like delivery. His past as a serious Shakespearean actor, of getting his mouth around iambic pentameter and of employing proper breath control, all seem to have paid off in spades as he dashes about the stage, climbing up stairs to chase Marian in the library, selling his grandiose plans to the town troublemaker (Eric S. Robertson) and smiling about the old days with swindling cohort-turned professional man Marcellus Washburn (Eddie Glen). If there was any doubt about Goad’s ability to lead a large-scale musical, it’s been solidly put to rest with his charismatic performance in The Music Man.

It’s this trust Schulman has placed in her talented ensemble that elevates the musical from merely frivolous to deeply satisfying. As well as reveling in the outright joy of the showier set-pieces, the director and her cast have a firm grasp of the script, which allows for nicely fleshed out characterizations. As Mayor Shinn, Lee MacDougall is all broken words and arrogance, his bossy demeanor hiding an innate, embarrassed awareness of his own ignorance. As his wife Eulalie, Fiona Reid is ferociously funny and divinely divaesque in her swanning about the stage revealing the character’s love for not only theatrics, but of theatre itself. Reid and her town cohorts show their own wordy dexterity, clucking “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”, the tut-tutting (and nicely choreographed) tale of Marian’s past to Hill – a past, we discover, that is far different than the gossip around it. Michelle Fisk, as Mrs. Paroo, delivers a nicely subtle turn as a parent who keeps a balance between knowing what’s best for her child and accepting her as she is. As the staid librarian herself, who extols the virtues of authors and playwrights most townsfolk can’t pronounce, Leah Oster shows a range of emotions and vocal styles, particularly as her character moves from outright annoyance at Hill’s pseudo-harassment to gentle acceptance, to a full-fledged, adult love that is leagues past the wide-eyed schoolgirl adoration that could easily blight the characterization of Marian as a strong, smart, independent woman ahead of her time. Oster’s Marian is aware of the wider world past River City, and has the smarts, and the scars, to prove it. In this respect she’s a perfect match for Goad’s conman, who brings charm, and a not altogether unsuitable sexual charisma to the role. Their scene on the bridge is particularly interesting; the expression on Goad’s face says this is a character with a decidedly unwholesome past who wasn’t expecting a woman of Marian’s standing to ever genuinely like, much less accept him. It’s the sort of humanity that makes the musical so captivating.

Willson’s music is given a wonderfully energetic reading too, thanks to musical director Berthold Carriere. It’s the link in the chain that has to be right, after all; music is a deeply powerful connecting force that allows for forgiveness, acceptance, honesty, and binds even the most virulent enemies. A good example is the joining of the school board members, a constantly bickering quartet who turn out to make the most lovely harmonies of the piece. Jonathan Monro, Laird Macintosh, Marcus Nance and Shawn Wright are all spot-on in their subtle characters and musical abilities; their take on the quietly lovely “Lida Rose” is every bit as memorable (and catchy) as the buoyant “Seventy-Six Trombones”. You’ll be hard-pressed to choose a favourite to hum later on. And yes, the latter is given the sort of huge production number you’d expect, with the previously drab costumes of River City being replaced by bright red uniforms. The transformation of Marian’s brother, Winthrop (played with a lovely, childlike awkwardness by Christopher Van Hagen), is a powerful symbol of change too, and he’s front and centre, marching in a uniform, coronet in hand, with the converted conman by the musical’s end.

However, I admit to remaining a musical skeptic, because it takes so much skill, passion, dedication, and frankly, time, to balance every element within the massive musical form, and make it more than the sum of its parts. Thankfully, the artists at the Stratford festival have done their math –and they’ve come up with a beautiful equation. Yes, The Music Man is very entertaining. It’s also intelligent and moving. Who says musicals can’t be all three at the same time? Not me.

The Music Man; Book, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson; Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey; Director Susan H. Schulman; Avon Theatre, Stratford until November 1. For more information march here.

By Catherine Kustanczy