Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Music Man


In just a few moments, a limo comes to fetch my gorgeous new Isaac Mizrahi dress, my Louis Vuitton luggage, and me and to carry us all to LAX. There, I jet off to Wymore, Nebraska, the next stop on my fabulous Sink For Your Supper tour. The infomercial filming is on hiatus while I keep this prior engagement. Joseph informs me that the band I'll be singing with is called Korn , which I presume is a reference to the agricultural products of the region. I'm not sure just what sort of orchestra this is, but I hope it has a lush string section to show off the wonderful timbre of my voice. Joseph has assured me that the motorized iceberg, so integral to the act, is fully repaired and functional and that there's no danger of any of the pyrotechnics getting out of hand.

Norman called his agent this morning and said yes to Waterworld II: The Gills Have Eyes . He'll be playing the part of Flounder, a wise old sea creature who helps the Mariner uncover the lost wisdom of the ancients by interpreting the map found in Angelina Jolie's various tattoos. Kevin Costner has decided not to return as the Mariner. The studio is insisting on a more bankable star and going with David Hasselhoff. I was afraid Norman would have to be gone on location for long periods. Fortunately, to keep the film on budget, most of it is to be filmed in the tanks at Sea World, with the shots digitally altered to keep the tourists off camera.

As I am off to the Corn Belt, I felt that today's film should reflect the solid American values of that region of the country - themes such as chicanery, gossip, narrow mindedness and suspicion of the new. Therefore, I popped the 1962 film version of The Music Man with Robert Preston into the home theater system for a peek while awaiting Manuel, my limo driver. The Music Man was originally a stage musical from 1957, which made it to Broadway with no expectations whatsoever. The music, lyrics and book were all by Meredith Willson, a novice to musicals, and the star was Robert Preston, who, with the occasional exception (Beau Geste) had been relegated by Hollywood into B picture supporting roles. The result, however, proved to be one of those fortuitous meetings of star, material and director and The Music Man became a sensation winning a number of Tonys including Best Musical (beating West Side Story , amongst other notable candidates).

Willson's story of the traveling salesman con artist, 'Professor' Harold Hill, and his wooing of Marian Paroo, the town librarian, takes place in the mythical town of River City, Iowa (closely patterned on Mason City) and was loosely inspired by the courtship of his parents. It is firmly set in the last flowering of Edwardian era culture, the summer of 1912, before World War I and its attendant social changes ripped the fabric of rural America to pieces. The small town setting, the shirtwaist silhouettes, and the musical numbers tend to relegate this piece, in the collective subconscious, to a sort of camp nostalgia fest, but it's a much more subtle, cleverly constructed show than this. The original stage director, Morton da Costa, recognized that there are some very human dilemmas under the cornpone. Fortunately, he was allowed to bring his original concepts and staging of the show to the film version and, most importantly, allowed to import Robert Preston to recreate his stage role.

The plot concerns Harold Hill (Robert Preston), a charming con man in the heyday of the traveling salesman. He takes the train from town to town pitching his idea for a boy's band, takes the good townspeople's money for the instruments and uniforms, and then skips town before actually having to deliver on his promise to turn the boys into a functional musical unit. He turns up in River City, Iowa, determined to play his con once again. He finds the natives suspicious, uses their natural fear of the new and unknown to bring them under his spell, and proceeds to fleece them. Meanwhile Marian (Shirley Jones), the town librarian and music teacher, is more suspicious than most. She believes Harold is a charlatan but can't necessarily prove it. He romances her to throw her off track. When she discovers the proof of his chicanery, she is torn as her little brother Winthrop (a seven year old Ron Howard), mourning the death of their father, has finally found a father figure he can open up to and she is desperate not to hurt him. Will Marian and Harold end up together? Will it all work out happily? This is 1950s musical comedy; it doesn’t take a PhD in nuclear physics to spot the happy ending.

Surrounding the leads is a large supporting cast of townsfolk, including a long suffering mayor (Paul Ford), his deliriously loopy wife (Hermione Gingold), a barbershop quartet of a school board (The Buffalo Bills), Harold's old partner in cons (Buddy Hackett), and Marian's mother (Pert Kelton). They're a riotous bunch with Hermione Gingold, in particular, walking off with every scene she's in. One glance of that beak like face with its beady little eyes and you're in stitches. Paul Ford nearly matches her with his malapropisms and slow burns. Pert Kelton, reprising her Broadway role, delivers her numbers like a champ, making what could be a cliché role into something warm and understanding - but with fire under the surface. Only a teen love subplot between the mayor's daughter (Susan Luckey) and a boy from the wrong side of the tracks (Timmy Everett) fails to impress - but they can dance.

Willson, as author of book, music and lyrics (lightly adapted by screenwriter Marion Hargrove), achieved a unity of style rarely seen in musicals. In most musicals, there is an abrupt transition between dialog and song (often underscored by bad dubbing). In The Music Man , book scenes slide in and out of musical numbers effortlessly and there are various songs that are more rhythmically spoken dialog ( Rock Island, Trouble, The Piano Lesson ) than true songs, per se. It's also one of the few musicals where every single number, even those which seem like throw away moments, is necessary to advance plot, theme or character. For instance, every time the school board begins harmonizing, it's necessary for them to be distracted in order for Harold to slip away. The Wells Fargo Wagon is packed with information about the citizens of River City and what they consider important. Good Night My Someone , Marian's signature song, tells us all about her longing while Seventy Six Trombones, Harold's signature song, lays out both his personality and his con. To emphasize that these two belong together, both songs actually have the same melody, one in 3/4 slow waltz time and one in 6/8 quick march.

In order to open the show out to film dimensions, Morton da Costa used a large back lot set of the town and shrewdly hired Onna White to choreograph. Ms. White is one of the most inventive stagers of large group numbers for film and she fills the screen, using the sets, props and characters to full advantage. The highlight is a soft-shoe in the library that starts out as a quiet little number and snowballs into a whirling smorgasbord of dancers, book carts and wrought iron stairs. The set design and costumes capture the bygone innocence of the early century perfectly.

Robert Preston is perfection in the lead. All other Harolds will automatically be compared to him. He makes no false move as the charming con artist who seduces the audience as he seduces the town. This is not easy to achieve. If you look at what Harold actually is and what he actually does, in terms of lying, cheating, and stealing - he's a reprehensible snake. For the part to work, we have to recognize that fact, be seduced into believing the con and also be with Harold as the town seduces him back into being a more genuine person. A television remake recently aired with Matthew Broderick in the part - Mr. Broderick was not able to pull it off, as he did the parts of J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Bloom in The Producers - other lovable rapscallions – mainly as he could not live up to, much less top, the indelible Preston.

Shirley Jones, pre Mama Partridge, is his leading lady and also does well in a difficult role. Marian is more than just a collection of bravura soprano songs. She's a wounded young woman with a seething conflict of emotions - torn between being true to herself, her romanticism, her obligations to family, and her affection for a town that despises her for not being like them. The one major change between stage and screen was the substitution of Being In Love , an inferior song, for My White Knight . This was done for two reasons - first, to allow for the possibility of a nomination for an Oscar for original song (which it did not get) and second, to make the score completely Willson's. Most of My White Knight was actually composed by Frank Loesser who was Willson's mentor and who came to help him when the stage show was in trouble during its try-out period.

A word of advice: This is a film that needs to be seen in wide screen. Not only does pan & scan not give a full impression of the musical numbers, but there is important plot information happening on the edge of the action in several sequences also. The whole second half of the movie makes little sense if you cannot see Marian removing a page from a reference book.

Lisping redhead. Ice cream sundaes.  American Gothic visual reference. Pianola girl. Feathered hats. Shiny gold cornet. Livery stable duet. Pool table in billiard parlor. Anvil case. Rhythmic book stamping. Grecian urns.

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