“You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you’ve collected nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make today worth remembering,” says Harold Hill in the gloriously heartfelt musical “The Music Man.”
I chose to be an American for I came here as an immigrant. Even in our darkest hours, I’m so proud to be a citizen of the United States. This country has always been about reinvention. It allows individuals to come through its borders and rebuild themselves. I was given that opportunity, and I’m so grateful. That is why, I adore – and get emotional every time I see Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” for it captures the essence of what America is all about. It’s about second chances – and regeneration. A small uptight town is given things to do and be proud of. A young stuttering boy is encouraged to speak up without hesitation and fear of being made fun of. Local city administrators learn to harmonize with each other – and a skeptical librarian – Marian – who’s never experienced love opens herself to the opportunity to take a chance – even if it means failure. Ultimately – her faith and trust in Harold Hill – reshapes him and makes him human. “Well, for the first time in my life, I got my foot caught in the door,” he admits to her. This musical articulates magically the American dream.
The film released in 1962 is an adaptation of one of the most successful Broadway shows in history — written by Willson. It retained its theatrical director Morton DaCosta and the original Harold Hill – Robert Preston – whose performance on stage is considered one of the greatest. Hill is a con artist “a rainmaker” who arrives in the fictional small town of River City, Iowa to seduce the locals to start a band by purchasing the uniforms, instruments and technical instructional books from him. Like he’s done many times before – he plans to get out of dodge as soon as he gets the money. Marian the Librarian (Shirley Jones) has Harold’s number from the get go, but she’s slowly won over because her young brother – like the rest of the town – finds a conduit through Hill and music to a better way of living.
There’s a vibrant sense of hope in this musical that we desperately need right now. Willson was recreating a Midwest town in the early 1900s, but its original audience (late 1950s – early 60s) was a disillusioned country that had gone through two world wars, McCarthysm and the beginning of civil unrest. It longed for a sense of innocence and optimism. Nostalgia was needed. Wholesomeness – as fresh as a kiss on the cheek from your mother – is what it provides. “The Music Man” also reminds us that there’s music all around us – if we simply pay close attention. “Then there was music and wonderful roses – they tell me – in sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew,” sings Marian after she has being reawakened by love.
Director DaCosta shoots in long shots allowing you to see and appreciate the choreography in full. He moves the camera in towards the characters or allows them to move towards you creating a sense of participation from the viewers. At the end of musical numbers, he uses lighting to zero in on the performer – heightening the theatricality. In one beautiful moment – he split the screens between Marian singing a ballad and the barber shop quartet – both surrounded in irises.
Shirley Jones’ voice sounds like a bell – and her metamorphosis – from being cautious to fully in love is warm and well calibrated. As an actor, she was typecast as a goody two shoes – yet she won an Oscar in 1960 for best supporting actress – playing a prostitute in “Elmer Gantry.” How lucky for us that Robert Preston’s iconic Harold Hill was preserved on film. He’s vibrant – masculine – and makes those difficult fast-talking songs seem like soliloquies – every word resonates with meaning and gusto. It’s one of the best musical performances on film.
Harold Hill: “A man can’t turn tail and run just because a little personal risk is involved. What did Shakespeare say? Cowards die a thousand deaths, the brave man… only 500’?”
Available to stream on DIRECTV and to rent on YouTube and Google Play.
Screenplay by Marion Hargrove. Written in collaboration with Franklin Lacey.
Based on “The Music Man” by Meredith Willson.
Directed by Morton Da Costa
Starring: Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Hermione Gingold and Paul Ford.
The History of “The Music Man”
“The blaze of glory in which ”The Music Man” arrived on Broadway in December 1957 was, in a sense, even more dazzling than that which had resulted two years earlier from the opening of ”My Fair Lady.” ”My Fair Lady” had some reputations in back of it – a book more or less by George Bernard Shaw, a score by the successful team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. ”The Music Man” had none of this advance anticipation. It came out of left field with a book, music and lyrics by a man who had never been represented on Broadway before in any of these capacities. To the extent that Mr. Willson was known at all at that time, it was as a comedian on the popular early 1950’s radio program, ”The Big Show,” on which he began his responses to the subcontralto declamations of Tallulah Bankhead with, ”Well, sir, Miss Bankhead,” and as the composer of the show’s very successful, hymnlike closing number, ”May The Good Lord Bless and Keep You.” For Mr. Willson, who was born in Mason City, Iowa, in 1902 and grew up there, ”The Music Man” was a labor of love and fond memories, its score a distillation of the various facets of music that had led him to take it up as a career. (The New York Times)
Shirley Jones Reflects on “The Music Man”
In an interview with the Ventura County Theatre Arts Webzine, actor Shirley Jones reflects on “The Music Man.” “Of all the things I’ve done, to me, that musical is a perfect musical. It’s the PERFECT musical. It has everything. Meredith Willson wrote about his life, about everything he knew, and it shows. I went to Mason City at least three or four times with him. He was just wonderful. The fact that he could take one song and turn it into two different songs was so amazing to me…I never heard songs done like that, that way before. He was just phenomenal. At the opening in New York, he came with his then wife and we became very close. I don’t know if you knew this or not, but Warner Bros., who produced Music Man, wanted Frank Sinatra to play Harold Hill. They were about to sign him, but Meredith Willson came in and said, “Listen, unless you use Robert Preston, you don’t do my show.” And that’s how Preston got the part. I was so thrilled because I was eager to work with him. I was already cast. I was the first person cast but I was so thrilled when they told me he was going to do it. I had seen him on Broadway in the show and admired him so. Sometimes, when an actor has been doing a show for a long time – and he had been doing it for three years when we made the movie – they come to do the film and do things like “Listen, why don’t we do it this way” – they’ll start directing it themselves. He did none of that. He was so open to anything that the director said or anything the actors wanted to do. He was just so marvelous” (vconstage.com)
Robert Preston on Being Cast in “The Music Man”
In an interview with The Washington Post, actor Robert Preston discusses the role of “The Music Man” in his life both on and off screen. “In my first couple of Broadway shows, I was referred to as Hollywood’s Robert Preston. Then I went back out to Hollywood to make a movie, and Bosley Crowther, in his movie review, referred to me as Broadway’s Robert Preston.” Any residual notions of pigeonholing Preston were shattered once and for all in 1957, when he made his musical comedy debut in “The Music Man.” “They’d run through all the musical comedy people, before they cast me,” he remembers. “Everybody had demands and the producers were getting sick of the crap. Ray Bolger liked the part, but he wanted 15 minutes in the second act to do his own thing. Finally, someone said, ‘What about Preston? If he can carry a tune in a bucket, the part’s his.’ Well, I’ve never taken a singing lesson in my life. But fortunately they auditioned me with the ‘Trouble’ number, which is an actor’s number all the way. No way an actor can fail with it. They were knocked off their feet. Enter career number three or four or whatever. From then on, I couldn’t get a straight play script. Nothing but musicals.” (The Washington Post)
About Director Morton DaCosta
“Although eventually known as one of the most praised and profitable directors in the country, Da Costa actually wanted to become an actor. He had a small role in the original 1942 New York production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” and understudied Montgomery Clift in the comedy. He had been born Morton Tecosky, the youngest of 10 children in a Philadelphia family, and whetted his appetite for acting with drama classes at Temple University. After graduation he toured with a children’s theater group before landing the part in the Wilder play. Later he played Osric in Maurice Evans’ 1945 production of “Hamlet” and still later, with Evans’ encouragement, turned to directing. At the New York City Center, he directed revivals of such plays as “The Alchemist,” starring Jose Ferrer, “She Stoops to Conquer,” with Brian Aherne and Celeste Holm, and “Dream Girl,” with Judy Holliday.
After directing the national tour of the comedy hit “Sabrina Fair” in the early 1950s, Da Costa had four big successes in a row on Broadway, starting with “Plain and Fancy.” The musical, set in Pennsylvania Amish country, ran more than a year and had a London production, which Da Costa also supervised. In 1955, Da Costa directed “No Time for Sergeants,” Ira Levin’s comedy about Army life that made a star of Andy Griffith. In 1956, he had another hit with “Auntie Mame,” an adaptation of the Patrick Dennis novel about a madcap aunt and her young ward. Rosalind Russell played the title role. The following year, Da Costa had his biggest Broadway success with “The Music Man,” which starred Robert Preston as Meredith Willson’s irrepressible con man. It ran for more than four years and won a Tony award as best musical. Among Da Costa’s other musicals were “Saratoga,” an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s “Saratoga Trunk,” starring Howard Keel and Carol Lawrence in 1959; “To Broadway With Love,” a lavish revue shown at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and “Maggie Flynn,” starring Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy in 1968…Da Costa directed an all-star revival of Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women,” with Alexis Smith, Myrna Loy, Rhonda Fleming, Dorothy Loudon, Kim Hunter and Jan Miner. His last Broadway show was the 1985 comedy “Doubles,” which starred John Cullum, Ron Leibman, Austin Pendleton and Tony Roberts. He also directed the film versions of “Auntie Mame” and “The Music Man” and the 1963 comedy “Island of Love.” (The Los Angeles Times)