Trombones! Cornets! The Music Man!
The Music Man raises his baton at the Norris Theatre
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Broadway musicals come and go, but 60 years after its debut “The Music Man” still lights up the marquees of theaters across the country. Right now it’s also lighting up the marquee of the Norris Theatre in Rolling Hills Estates where it opens tomorrow for three weekends.
Meredith Willson wrote the lyrics and the music, as well as the book (with Franklin Lacey). The work appears seamless, although in reality it took six years and 40 drafts. The effort clearly paid off, however: “The Music Man” swept the Tony Awards in 1958, even besting strong competition like “West Side Story.” It wasn’t Willson’s only hit (he also wrote “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”), but it’s the one show for which he’ll be remembered.
“The Music Man” takes place in 1912 and is set in River City, Iowa, the town and its people largely reminiscent of Mason City, Iowa, where Willson (1902-84) spent his boyhood years.
The story zeroes in on a traveling salesman named Harold Hill who steps off the train and makes his pitch, which is to form and instruct a boys marching band. Every town needs one, right? Of course he’ll have to be entrusted with the funds in order to buy the musical instruments. Once the dough’s handed over, and because Harold Hill, charmer though he may be, is really a con man, he’s off to the next town. The cycle then repeats itself.
Or rather it has, until now. That’s because he becomes, shall we say, emotionally entangled with River City’s librarian, Marian Paroo. But why should I tell their story when I have Harold Hill and Marian Paroo sitting across from me?
Love slowly comes around
Brent Schindele is a versatile actor who was last seen at the Norris in “White Christmas,” but has also recently graced the Ahmanson stage as Herr Zeller in “The Sound of Music.” In civilian clothes, so to speak, he’s got that vibrant Frankie Avalon/Bobby Rydell look, which makes me think of “Grease.” Katharine McDonough, on the other hand, resembles a Jane Austen heroine. She performed as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” at Musical Theatre West, and her Norris Theatre debut was three years ago in “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
In many instances, lead actors in a play or musical, especially if they’re romantic leads, have had the opportunity to scope each other out before rehearsals get underway. At the very least they’re often acquaintances or familiar with one another’s work. But not this time.
“We were a blind match,” Katharine says.
“We had these high expectations,” Brent says, “but now we just have to tolerate each other at every single rehearsal.”
“It’s true,” Katharine replies. “I can’t stand this guy.”
They laugh, I laugh, and that’s when we get down to business. We talk about “The Music Man” and why it’s an enduring success, but what surprises me is the depth of their interpretation and even psychoanalyzation of their characters.
“It’s one of the great American musicals,” Brent says. “There’s a reason that theaters do it so often, because it’s one of the tried-and-true shows that work, that audiences always respond to.”
Katharine agrees: “It holds a special place in people’s hearts, throughout different generations.” When she mentioned to a neighbor that she was doing the show her neighbor broke out into “Seventy-Six Trombones.” “I love that; I feel a lot of people have that reaction.”
“The Music Man” has several other memorable songs, such as “Gary, Indiana” and “Till There Was You,” the latter covered by The Beatles on an early recording.
Harold Hill is such a likeable character that it’s easy to forget that he simply intends to take the money and run.
“That kind of gets lost,” Brent says, “because he does such good things in this town. But his motivations are not so pure because he’s a con man, he’s about to swindle all these people out of their hard-earned money, and he’s kind of gleeful about that. He’s not apologetic about it at all. This is his stock-in-trade, this is what he does.”
Marian is among the few townsfolk who suspects Harold of ulterior motives, but she also sees the benefit of what he’s brought to River City.
“He’s actually transformed this town,” Brent continues, “and made it a more lively, connected place to be. And, also, Marian puts him in touch with something, and I think you can infer at the end that he’s going to mend his ways. He’s a swindler (but) with a heart of gold.”
“Everyone in the show and in the audience is so thoroughly charmed by him,” Katharine says. She mentions “The Sting,” Brent mentions “Ocean’s Eleven,” and I’m thinking “The Founder,” all of these being key films where suave and savvy manipulators have the last word. Katharine: “We love them and we want them to succeed.” Or at least until we check the contents of our billfold.
Katharine also notes that she’s been thinking a lot about her character, who comes off as a strong, independent woman, but who has perhaps had somewhat of a bumpy past. In other words, underneath the fortitude is an ever-present vulnerability.
Katharine’s Marian has “these epic soprano ballads” which require that the singer “really dig into the text and make them relatable to every single or lonely person.” The performance is only truly memorable if it resonates with the viewer.
What happens is that Harold charms her, breaks the ice, and lowers her defenses, but in contrast to this rogue’s subterfuges Marian confesses her feelings, thanks him for what he’s brought to River City, but shows that she’s not expecting anything more. What Marian says, in Brent’s wording, is “Here’s where I am and you know my heart. You know what I’d love to have happen, but I’m not going to force you into anything. And,” he continues, “that always brings us up short in life, whenever we encounter that.” He’s been a player, but he can’t play Marian. He ferret outs the Romantic in her, but somewhat surprisingly (for Harold) she finds the Romantic in him as well.
Life as one long parade
Naturally, any showpiece called “The Music Man,” whose most memorable tune is entitled “Seventy-Six Trombones,” can’t skimp on the guy in the pit, even though Brent says he once saw a production buoyed by only a couple of synthesizers.
“In some shows you can get away with that,” he says, “but this show’s about 76 trombones and (Harold) creating basically a marching band in the town. And to not have those actual instruments playing the music is really kind of a letdown.”
Norris Theatre patrons shouldn’t worry: The show comes with a live 18-piece orchestra.
As a young man, Meredith Willson played flute in a town band, and while still in his teens he joined John Philip Sousa’s group (Sousa, of course, being best known for “The Stars and Stripes Forever”). That’s a roundabout way of saying that his writing and his instrumentation for “The Music Man” comes out of first-hand experience. “It’s a great score,” Brent adds; “it’s one of the best scores ever.”
Furthermore, the music seems true to the era it depicts, with maybe one or two numbers, such as “Till There Was You,” a tad closer to 1957 than to 1912. But nowhere in the work is there anything blaringly incongruent.
“It never jerks you out of the period,” Brent says. “And 1912 was exactly when these marching bands were so popular in America. It was wholesome, it was physical activity, it was artistic. It was all these things at once. It was kind of a little window in time.”
Asked why “The Music Man” resonates with audiences year after year, Brent says it’s because everything in it works. He’s speaking from prior knowledge, too, having played the lead role once before.
“There are a lot of musicals that are well written in one way or another. To me, very few are so internally consistent. There are so many that have great elements but then there’s always some little kind of thing hanging off that nobody knows what to do with. Or there’s a song or two that doesn’t quite belong, or there’s something that’s sort of politically incorrect if it’s an older show. Most shows have some flaws; very few are these little gems where every facet belongs. There’s not an extraneous song in this show.”
And as for the characters that inhabit Willson’s masterwork…
“They’re mostly lovable people,” Brent says. “They’re people you’d like to spend time with. I think part of the enduring appeal of the show is that River City, Iowa, in 1912, is a place that people like to visit, and we kind of wish there was a place like that still.”
A kind of Norman Rockwell world? And so “The Music Man” is set in an era to convey, as much as possible, that idyllic, American-as-apple-pie sensibility.
“We’re doing it exactly as written,” Brent says. “Any play or musical that’s written well, I think that’s the key, you don’t have to try to reinvent it or come up with a new concept. You just try to do it as true to what is on the pages as can be, and it’s shocking how alive it feels, and how immediate and real and fresh.”
The Music Man opens tomorrow, April 21, at 8 p.m. in the Norris Theatre, 27570 Norris Center Drive, Rolling Hills Estates. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through May 7. Tickets, $30 to $65. Call (310) 544-0403 or go to palosverdesperformingarts.com. ER