Thursday, February 10, 2022

‘The Music Man’ and Hugh Jackman: Seventy-six Trombone Therapy

Joy, joy, joy.

I needed a dose of the j-medicine badly, grousing through a mid-winter week that was gray, long and dispiriting.

COVID, Ukraine and the ordinary run of downers in the news galvanized me to buy a ticket to the Broadway revival of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, in previews now with a Feb. 10 opening.

It worked. Dr. Theater put his stethoscope to my heart and wrote out a prescription for two and a-half hours of musical brilliance that put a smile on my face under my mask for just about the whole time and kept the wintry blues at bay.  

Megastar Jackman as con man “Professor” Harold Hill and Foster as Marian Paroo, the librarian who resists his charms, light up this wonderful revival of the American stage classic that shot Robert Preston and Barbara Cook to stardom in the 1950s.

Jackman’s incandescent sex appeal and singing/dancing chops perfectly fit the character of a man who can convince an entire town to believe in phantom musical skills.

His dynamism and irresistible smile seduce the audience as well as the folks of River City, Iowa in such great numbers as “Ya Got Trouble” (convincing the town they need a band rather than a pool hall), “Seventy-Six Trombones” (overselling the magnificence of the band-to-be) and “Marian the Librarian” (dancing to the rhythm of readers opening and shutting books as he tries to woo Miss Paroo).

Foster’s shining, wholesome charisma stays under wraps early as Marian tries to interest the townspeople in literature, copes with loneliness and vows not to settle for the wrong man, but glows later as she realizes that forgiveness and understanding can inspire the wrong/right man.

From left, Shuler Hensley, Hugh Jackman and
 Sutton Foster in "The Music Man."
Her clear soprano voice explores Marian’s emotional depths in the lovely “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Till There Was You,” and most remarkably in a song that one needs to see on stage, since it never made it into the 1962 movie. In “My White Knight,” she seriously defines what she wants in a man. “I would like him to be more interested in me than he is in himself/And more interested in us than in me.”

This production tunes up “The Music Man” for a modern age but retains all its heartland charm, thanks to a team of veteran Broadway masters at the top of their game: director Jerry Zaks, choreographer Warren Carlyle, costume and scene designer Santo Loquasto, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, sound designer Scott Lehrer, music director Patrick Vaccariello.

A tip of the hat also goes to Jackman and Foster, at ages 53 and 46, in great shape, although Jackman was breathing a bit heavily after a couple of numbers. Eight shows a week! I’m in awe.

This group, with decades of shows and awards in their back pockets (Tunick is 83!), freshens the show’s strong nod to female empowerment and presents a cast that’s about one-third African-American. Hill’s pursuit of Marian, which today could seem like creepy stalking, is given a light touch, especially in the library number.  

Loquasto’s red barn scrim and scenic green farmland backdrop strike the right Iowa country notes and the opening number, “Rock Island,” is one of the greatest, giving “The Music Man” the title of “first rap musical,” according to no less than Stephen Sondheim.

Jackman as a teenager auditioned for the show, playing all eight parts:

A motley crew of traveling salesmen riding the Rock Island line sound off – in the rhythm of the train – about a swindler named Harold Hill selling boys’ band instruments and uniforms to the unsuspecting rubes, except that “he don’t know one note from another” and skips town with the money.

Listen to the lyrics, because these 1912 salesmen are also talking about change that sounds very modern: "It’s different than it was.” “The Uneeda Biscuit in an air-tight sanitary package made the cracker barrel obsolete.” “Gone with the hogshead, cask and demijohn/Gone with the sugar barrel, pickle barrel, milk pan." “Why it's the Model T Ford made the trouble/Made the people wanna go.” “Who's gonna patronize a little bitty two by four kinda store anymore?”

Right from the start, that’s the answer to those who dismiss “The Music Man” as old-fashioned hokum, or “dated,” as two women said in the row in front of me. Yes, Zaks retains the silly, giggly girls in the ensemble, just a little, and the pressure on Marian not to be “an old maid” doesn’t line up with today’s sensibilities.

But the show has a tough spine, witnessed by the very next song: “Iowa Stubborn.” Willson wrote that “The Music Man” was “an attempt to pay tribute” to his home state, but he saw it with a clear eye: “There's an Iowa kind/A kind-a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude/We've never been without that we recall.”

At the end of “Rock Island,” a man who has been quietly listening behind a newspaper stands up – “Gentlemen you intrigue me. I think I’ll have to give Iowa a try.” His suitcase says “Professor Harold Hill,” and Jackman received a huge ovation.

The audience seemed to be saying, “Welcome back to Broadway and please use your awesome star power to help the theater return to health!” (Only 19 shows are running in Broadway’s 41 theaters.)

Hill is welcomed to town by an old friend, Marcellus Washburn, played with earnest good nature by Shuler Hensley, a memorable Jud Fry in the 1998 “Oklahoma!” revival that starred Jackman as Curly.

Jayne Houdyshell as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn
Among the supporting characters, Jefferson Mays and Jayne Houdyshell tear up the stage as River City mayor Shinn, a sputtering bully, and his wife, the majestic Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, who directs the town’s historical pageants featuring herself as the Statue of Liberty and “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.”

Other standouts were the acrobatic dancer Gino Cosculluela as the local bad boy, Tommy, wanting to date Mayor Shinn’s daughter, Zaneeta (Emma Crow). Marie Mullen brings Irish spunk to Mrs. Paroo and Benjamin Pajak is a wonderful Winthrop, Marian’s little brother with a lisp who touches a level of compassion in Hill that he didn’t know he possessed. If that kid isn’t actually playing the cornet at the end with admirable skill, then I’m an Iowa cow.  

That this “Music Man” is finally opening on Broadway pays tribute to the courage and perseverance of all concerned. Rehearsals began in February 2020, with a planned fall opening. Oh, the anticipation. Hugh Jackman! Sutton Foster! A $30 million advance!

Then Jackman, Foster, Carlyle and then-producer Scott Rudin all came down with COVID and Broadway subsequently shut down for 18 months.

During that time Rudin withdrew from the show after accusations of abusive behavior with staff and the investing team brought in British producer Kate Horton.

Rehearsals began again in fall 2021, with previews starting in December – then Foster and Jackman tested positive for the latest go-round of COVID and the show shut down for 11 days in early January.

No matter. Though we may have had to line up outside the Winter Garden Theater with vaccine cards and IDs, and breathe into our facemasks throughout, when the full 25-piece orchestra struck up the first notes of the overture – the jaunty “Seventy-six Trombones” – we were in musical theater heaven.

In the end, “The Music Man” is about the transformative power of melody, rhythm and harmony - making a beautiful noise together. Harold Hill may have come to town looking for a wad of cash, but he really swindles Marian and the citizens out of their stiff-necked, rigid pride, while finally listening to his own heart song.

Strike up the band!


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