The Music Man Review: Till There Was Hugh

This slightly zany production sells the show’s intelligent warmth with a persuasiveness to rival Harold Hill himself.

The Music Man: Till There Was Hugh
Photo: Joan Marcus

What’s the moment when The Music Man completely entraps the audience, us credulous marks, in its glorious web? In the current Broadway revival of Meredith Willson’s musical, it may be at the same instant that the antihero, conman Harold Hill (Hugh Jackman), mesmerizes the people of River City, Iowa, with his rousing description of a parade of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” There’s plenty to pick at in this production, lots to disconcert purists, but when a town’s worth of kids line up behind Harold, that unflappable Pied Piper, and starts marching, The Music Man insists on being irresistible.

It won’t be a surprise to audiences familiar with director Jerry Zaks’s other recent Broadway revival, the ebullient Hello, Dolly!, that there’s little interest here in wholesale reinvention. Unlike, say, Daniel Fish’s 2019 production of Oklahoma!, which dove into that classic musical’s unplumbed darkness, Zaks’s take on The Music Man doesn’t make any move to subvert the show’s ultimate warm embrace of community or wholesome optimism.

But it’s also, surprisingly, not so traditional. Zaks convincingly leans into the fairy-tale, even mythic, structure of the story. For Harold Hill, an almost legendary figure trapped in the patterns of his own swindling, River City isn’t anyplace special. It’s just another challenge, a supposedly small-minded small town ripe for a shakedown: Harold’s just going through the motions of executing his fine-tuned scam, persuading the locals that he can rescue River City’s faltering morality by leading a boys’ marching band, if only they’ll pay up.

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We seem to see River City at first as Harold sees it: a storybook town of gullible sheep easily taken for a ride. In “Seventy-Six Trombones,” the staging shows Harold literally manipulating the kids, in a marionette-like fantasy, as he wins them over. There’s a bit of hocus pocus in this depiction of Harold’s con, as if we’re looking at the outline of his process rather than the details: The River Citizens don’t so much warm to him gradually as snap to attention when he commands it—except, that is, for the shrewd, ostracized piano teacher and librarian Marian Paroo (Sutton Foster), who’s skeptical of Harold’s pitch from the start.

That slight remove also extends to the show’s design. Almost every scene features a Grant Wood painting as a backdrop, and the actors—as in in the 1962 film version of The Music Man—briefly re-enact American Gothic. Wood’s landscapes are idyllic depictions of Midwest landscapes with rolling hills and cartoonishly bulbous trees, and Santo Loquasto’s set design pays constant tribute to that vision. It’s a good artistic fit—Wood’s paintings, like Zaks’s staging, don’t aim for realism—but it’s also limiting, framing the show’s vision of Iowa through one artist’s sanitizing gaze. (The wacky-looking one of George Washington, with a grown man’s head on a boy’s body, cutting down the cherry tree, is simply distracting).

River City never outgrows this artificial aesthetic, and as such undercuts the power of the genuine relationships that grow as the town awakens under Harold Hill’s spell and he learns to care for the specific, real people who live there. There are so many ensemble members—the show has a cast of more than 40—that Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle seem to have narrow options for moving them around; grown-ups often stand near the wings watching kids do entertaining leaps center stage. By approaching River City as an archetype in his staging, too, Zaks prevents the town from feeling fully lived-in at the start.

The Music Man: Till There Was Hugh
A scene from The Music Man. © Julieta Cervantes

But the people of River City spring to life as Harold effects a series of artistic transformations among them. He converts the squabbling school board (played by Phillip Boykin, Eddie Korbich, Daniel Torres, and Nicholas Ward) into a stellar barbershop quartet, teaching them to hear the harmony in their raised voices. He convinces the mayor’s stuffy, skeptical wife, Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn (played with hammy zeal by Jayne Houdyshell), to see herself as a delicate dancer. And, most movingly, Harold gives Marian’s cripplingly shy little brother, Winthrop (Benjamin Pajak), the confidence to define himself beyond his lisp. Pajak is a sweetly sophisticated young actor, and Winthrop’s caring, goofy relationship with his older sister is at the heart of this Music Man’s most tender moments.

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This cast boasts six Tony winners, all endearing: In addition to Jackman, Foster, and Houdyshell, there’s Marie Mullen as Marian’s gregarious mother, Shuler Hensley as Harold’s cantankerous crony (who’s saddled, alas, with delivering a clunkily feminist rewrite of the dance number “Shipoopi”), and Jefferson Mays as the dotty mayor. (The absence of actors of color in more principal roles is a conspicuous disappointment.)

This, though, is a production that often wisely gets out of the way of its two leads. Robert Preston, the original Harold Hill on Broadway in 1957 and in the 1962 film, played the con man with a consistently bombastic charisma, fast-pattering his way to bamboozling his victims. Jackman is more of a chameleon, his tone—and his outfit—morphing as he sizes up his prey. In “Trouble,” he introduces himself with a serpentine hush, planting the seeds of hysteria about the dangers of River City’s new pool table but never making himself the center of attention. By “Seventy-Six Trombones,” decked out in an eye-catching blue suit, he’s become a Barnum, a magnetic force that his audience can’t ignore. And when he shows up to bother “Marian the Librarian,” it’s in the guise of some sort of trickster spirit, devilishly urging a group of quietly reading kids to start chucking their books into the air in a chaotic whirl.

And with an initially amorphous community and a shapeshifting ringleader, it’s Marian who grounds this Music Man. Foster’s Marian is, first and foremost, bracingly funny. In one of her early scenes, as she wearily gives a piano lesson, Marian demonstrates a dry sense of humor that goes over her pupil’s head. She’s clearly amused by her own imagination, which hasn’t yet found its equal in River City. And once she starts sparring with Harold, there’s far more fiery flavor of Beatrice and Benedick, with Foster adding in some bursts of physical comedy as if Marian’s redefining the parameters of just how broad she can be as she meets her match.

Though Foster, who doesn’t share the soaring soprano of past Marians like Barbara Cook or Rebecca Luker, sometimes sings, to invert a lyric from “Seventy-Six Trombones,” a full octave lower than the score, she mostly displays a lovely, gentle mix voice, rich with emotion. The only unforced error is “My White Knight,” a lush ballad which appears here in a patter-heavy version cut down before The Music Man opened on Broadway. Foster too stridently belts the final chorus, but her “Till There Was You” is as sensitive and stirring as I’ve ever heard it sung.

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This production of The Music Man, far more than most, also allows Marian to assert herself through dance. Both Foster (a Tony winner for the dance-heavy Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes) and Jackman (ditto for The Boy from Oz) are bona fide Broadway hoofers, and they work hard (mostly successfully) to ground their lively choreography in their characters. Marian sticks her tongue out at Winthrop as she suddenly cuts loose while dancing the “Shipoopi” as if to say, “Surprise!” (A curtain-call tap duet is a wholly unnecessary delight.)

The Music Man has long had the misfortune of being both overexposed and underappreciated, a mainstay of school and amateur productions that doesn’t consistently let audiences in on the sophistication and emotional honesty of Meredith Willson’s score and storytelling. (Hearing that score played by a 24-piece orchestra at the Winter Garden Theatre under the baton of Patrick Vaccariello is especially gratifying here.) But there’s nothing simplistic about The Music Man, and this slightly zany production, deeply felt and deeply funny, sells the show’s intelligent warmth with a persuasiveness to rival Harold Hill himself.

The Music Man is now running at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader based in New York City. He has previously written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare.

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