Jackman, Benjamin Pajak and Sutton Foster photo credit: Julieta
The Music Man
By Fern Siegel
six trombones led the big parade. With a hundred and ten cornets close at
hand.” The opening lines are from one of the best-known numbers in Meredith
Willson’s The Music Man. And its big, brassy quality, bursting with
pre-war American optimism, remains a crowd-pleaser. The musical’s latest
revival stars song-and-dance vet Hugh Jackman as the charming con man Harold
Hill. And Jackman, well known as Wolverine in the “X-Men” movies, carries the
show with charm and agility.
now at the Winter Garden Theater, debuted on Broadway in 1957, but is set in
the summer of 1912, in River City, Iowa. Willson was responsible for the book,
music and lyrics and considered it a tribute to his hometown: Mason City.
traditional musical, it may seem dated, given its portrayal of a naïve America
easily taken in by a grifter. That element, ironically, gives it a timeless
quality. Hill wins over small-town Americans by boosting their egos. He
believes they can improve the quality of their lives in simple, artistic ways.
Hill doesn’t trash talk; his aim isn’t discord but unity.
Hill is a traveling salesman who hoodwinks the town into buying band uniforms
and instruments, promising to train the members of the new band. Of course,
Hill is only staying around long enough to collect his commission. He has no
intention of teaching the boys music, since he isn’t a musician!
fact, we learn of his seasoned chicanery in the first number “Rock Island.”
Another salesman, Charlie Cowell (Remy Auberjonois) warns his fellow passengers
of Hill’s intentions. He bemoans the fact that Hill “doesn't understand the
territory,” neatly underscoring the value of salesmen and business in the
American psyche, as well as the fear of anything that disturbs the pursuit of
has a point. While the mayor’s wife Eulalie (Jayne Houdyshell) and her friends
readily swoon at Hill’s casual flattery, Mayor Shinn (Jefferson Mays) is less
enamored. Shinn owns the pool hall Hill has railed against — better, he says,
to promote a band than have a boy become a pool shark.
blustered mayor, forever warning others to watch their “phraseology,” isn’t
alone in his suspicions.
librarian and piano teacher Marian Paroo (Sutton Foster) cottons on to Hill’s
smooth-talking nonsense and is resolute in refusing his gentle courting
(“Marian the Librarian”), much to the consternation of her mother (Marie
Mullen). Marian has been the subject of town gossip, which wrongfully claims
she had an affair with an older, wealthier man, thereby securing her post. The
gossips are equally alarmed by Marian’s love of great literature
Hensley, Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster
can ignore their sniping, but she does worry about her brother Winthrop
(Benjamin Pajak), who rarely speaks, given his stutter. And that’s where Hill
begins to work his magic. He may be a noted con artist, but he is sincere in
his attempts to help Winthrop, believing that mastering the coronet will give
the isolated boy confidence.
despite her misgivings, Marian discovers she has feelings for Hill — and when
Cowell returns to River City to denounce him, she resolutely defends the now-smitten
Hill. In a subversive twist, she notes he did deliver on his promise: The boys
are happy. They play badly, but they play together, to the delight of their
parents. What Harold Hill sells, in the end, is hope — a message that never
goes out of style.
it doesn’t hurt that Jackman is handsome and has a grin that stretches across
the stage. He carries the show on personality, aided by some lovely melodies,
including Marian’s famous “Till There Was You,” which Hill reprises.
heart, The Music Man believes in the possibility of redemption. Such is
the banality and aridity of Iowa life that starting a dance club or playing
off-key in a rag-tag band can elicit joy. Santo Loquasto’s set designs make
excellent use of Grant Wood’s paintings as backdrops — there’s even a quick nod
to his classic “American Gothic.” (The scene with the Wells Fargo wagon is a
winner.) Plus, “Music Man” is aided by Warren Carlyle’s athletic
choreography and a cast that, save for Sutton Foster’s rare uneven moments, is
spot on. So are the town elders (Eddie Korbich, Phillip Boykin, Daniel Torres
and Nicholas Ward) who comprise the barbershop quartet.
is why, surprisingly, this traditional, feel-good musical in the cynical age of
Covid, clicks. It’s not deep or particularly dark, and there are no special
effects in director Jerry Zaks’ revival, which elicits Willson’s larger message
with humor and simplicity. Yes, Jackman has a built-in fan base. But judging
from the audience reaction, The Music Man remains in tune.
– Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway