A lot of critics will cite fictional characters such as Tony Soprano or Walter White as being some of pop culture’s first fully embraced anti-heroes. But could it be that audiences were embracing anti-heroes before Tony or Walter came onto the scene?
Watching The Music Man this time around, I was stuck by how when we first meet Harold Hill, he’s a bit of an anti-hero himself. The first song establishes that Hill is a con-man, who has possibly had several other assumed identities before becoming the purveyor of boys’ band, and that he’s ruining the territory for the other salesmen. When he hears that Iowa might a challenge or an untapped opportunity, Hill decides to stop in River City and run his boys’ band con on the town.
He does this by creating and problem and then attempting to solve it via the goods only he can provide — in this case musical instruments. Watching as Hill avoids providing his credentials to various officials through the play is amusing and shows how quickly he can think on his feet. But then his attempted courting of Marion Paroo, the local librarian and piano teacher also shows how slick and savvy Hill really is when he puts his mind to it.
And yet, by the time a fellow salesman shows up in the final act to pull the rug out from under Hill, we are rooting for him not to get caught and to possibly make good on his exaggerated promises.
Perhaps I’m overthinking things a bit here, but I’ve got to admit that all of this gave me a new appreciation for The Music Man.
It’s always been a favorite of mine, thanks in large part to the performance of Robert Preston in the lead role. I was introduced to the play by a music teacher in elementary school who gave our class the bare bones of the musical plots and then would play various songs from each musical for us. I recall being intrigued by The Music Man the most because of it’s interesting and varied musical numbers. From having the first number sound like the cadence of a train to the showstoppers like “Trouble in River City,” “Marion, Madame Librarian,” and “Seventy-Six Trombones,” I was hooked and wanted to see the movie.
And while I’ve never seen the musical performed on-stage, it’s been one that I would love to see and think might end up disappointing me. While the movie version feels like it’s filming a more elaborate version of the Broadway production (especially in letterboxed format), I can’t help but think that I’ve so associated the role of Hill with Robert Preston that it would be difficult to see anyone else in the role.
Interestingly, I’ve heard a cover of “Trouble in River City” done by Stan Freberg on a “Bes of Freberg” cassette years ago and it just sounded odd not being performed by Preston.
The movie isn’t necessarily perfect. If there’s one flaw, I think that it’s casting Mrs. Paroo as a bit older, thus opening the door to suspicions that Marion could be Winthrop’s mother and not her brother. And if you want a fun afternoon of journeying down the rabbit hole that is the Internet, just ask a search engine is Winthrop is really Marion’s son. You have to than it to people who come up with crazy theories about things. It sure makes life a lot more interesting.
Another connection I have to this show is it’s writer, Meredith Wilson. I love the old Burns and Allen radio shows and it took me a long time to put together that the Meredith Wilson on the show, who was their orchestra conductor and a shy guy, was, in fact, the guy who wrote this show. If we’re being honest, I’m still a bit stunned by this.