Oh, we got trouble my friend / Trouble at the Neil Simon Theater / Oh, I bet you’re wonderin’ what could be the matter with a saccharine-sweet, apple pie, all-American, brass-band, flag-waving show like The Music Man? How ’bout the lead?
Yes, my friends, Susan Stroman’s truly glorious revival of Meredith Willson’s musical chestnut has but one monumental flaw. That flaw reminds us why the Broadway musical is an endangered species and why revivals of the classic Broadway canon inevitably disappoint.
The Music Man concerns itself with the silver-tongued con man, Harold Hill. By sheer hutzpah, this Elmer Gantry-like, flimflam artist hornswoggles unsuspecting town folk into buying band instruments they don’t need. First, he convinces an entire town that it is in social decline and then presents a novel remedy to the situation: the establishment of a boy’s band (sort of an early 20th-century version of midnight basketball). In the end, Hill falls under his own spell and, believing the con, undergoes a personal conversion. The part made Robert Preston a star and created a Broadway classic.
Like The Music Man, all the great musicals of the 1950s—Gypsy, My Fair Lady, The King and I—were built around, indeed tailored to, Broadway personalities. These actors were not the best singers or dancers. Some couldn’t carry a tune in a knapsack. But they could act. People like Rex Harrison, Yul Brenner, Carol Channing, and Preston brought something to the table that has been lost: a quirky irregularity and real character.
This revival has little of either, leaving us with an ant Hill where a mountain should be. The energetic and good-looking Craig Bierko (best-known for his cameo as Ally McBeal’s giddy suitor) sings fine and moves with ease, but he contributes nothing to the role.
His Hill is a study in mimicry. For more than two hours, he (at times brilliantly) reproduces the mannerisms of Preston, forgetting only the heart and the conviction. Otherwise, it is all there: the shuffle step, the yanking at the cuffs, the pretentious broken wings with the limp wrists, the peculiar unfurling of the fingers to prove he’s got nothing in the palm. It is vintage Preston, but it is the Preston of Victor/Victoria, not the Preston of The Music Man, who emerges in this performance. And though the exterior is beguiling, like the rest of the show, the final result is strangely unaffecting.
To play Hill, one must have smarts. He is a quick-witted creature, a chameleon who can change on a dime. Preston’s genius was his ability to keep the audience off-balance, never allowing them to discern whether Hill was being honest or just continuing his con. But Bierko has no time for such complexity. Someone told him he is the star of a Broadway musical, and by gum, he is playing this role like a star— the shallow sort. As a result, he mugs shamelessly from start to finish, pouncing on each number like Debbie Reynolds in the second set of her nightclub act. He even pops up his head and flashes a huge, open-mouthed smile at the conclusion of his numbers as if to ask, “Wasn’t I something?”
In his introductory song, We Got Trouble, he should be earnestly trying to whip the starched, collared Iowans into a frenzy by culling up an apocalyptic vision of the town’s future. Instead, he blithely skits about the stage, mouthing the familiar lyrics but generating no heat. If you close your eyes, you would swear he was a uncommitted Preston. Sound is made, but nothing is happening. It is a living recording of a dead performer’s show. Since the entire production rests on Bierko’s shoulders, the show is in peril from the start.
For her part, Stroman has directed and choreographed a stylish and lush revival that boasts some of Broadway’s most innovative staging. She has faithfully captured the essence of Willson’s Americana: a Norman Rockwell world where innocence and possibility abound.
Stroman has a keen eye for the musical number. She uses height and space to achieve a sense of balance that eludes lesser choreographers. Each section of the music has been given its own visual texture and depth. The wild climax of the boy’s band playing its imaginary instruments in Seventy- Six Trombones and the flailing group antics of Shapoopee are real jewels. But the topper is the finale. I cannot remember leaving the theater on such a visceral high. When the entire cast storms the stage armed with trombones amid a huge, unfurled Old Glory, who cannot be moved? It is brilliant staging and wonderful theater. The opening is just as strong, with the rambunctious orchestra playing the overture in a cramped railway car. The infectious enthusiasm spills into the adjoining car of salesmen who sputter and rattle like the train itself. Unfortunately, once Hill appears, the whole thing grinds to a halt. As a choreographer, Stroman has no peer (she won the Outer Critics Award for Best Choreography), but her skills in the prose department are a bit wanting.
Despite her Best Direction Tony Award nominations (for The Music Man and Contact), Stroman appears to have little feeling for her actors. The lead performances in The Music Man are one-dimensional, totally lacking the sort of urgency that could make this production soar. In addition to Bierko’s Rich Little routine, Rebecca Luker sleepwalks through the role of Marian Paroo. As the object of Hill’s desire, Luker lacks the vocal expressiveness that her predecessor, Barbara Cook, lavished on the role. Luker sings because she can, not because she must. When not singing, she lifelessly runs through her lines as if killing time until the next number.
Overcoming the failings, Willson’s score is still a humdinger after 50 years. One could say it is the first nonlinear musical. Hill’s musical double-talk monologues assume the nature of real speech, stopping and starting, switching gears so quickly the listener can be seduced into believing that there is actual sense here. (Your son / your daughter / in the arms of a jungle animal instinct / mass ‘steria / the idle brain is the devils playground / trouble….) There is a driving pulse, a logic, to Willson’s songs, which have the power to enchant any audience. Sadly, these masterpieces are flattened by Bierko’s careless inflection. Willson’s other songs brilliantly use rhythm and tempo to emulate the sounds of small- town America: from the “peck-a-little, talk-a-little” gossip of the henlike town’s women to the swooning strains of the barbershop quartet, the score is a marvel.
So is the supporting cast. The always-hilarious Ruth Williamson plays the town matriarch, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, with just the right dry humor. In the role of her husband, Mayor Shinn, Paul Benedict looks like an escapee from one of those Rankin- Bass animated specials, bounding about like a cartoon character. Ralph Byers brings a truth and size to his playing of Charlie Cowell, the oily salesman who comes to expose Hill as a fraud, and Max Casella has the perfect blend of pluck and impishness for the role of Marcellus Washburn, Hill’s sidekick. The choral singing is also top-notch.
Still, for all its sweetness, this apple pie has a hollow core. Without a fully human Hill, The Music Man is just a collection of beautifully reproduced numbers without meaning. But this is the pattern of the Broadway musical today: star-proof vehicles—slickly produced monsters that will sell tickets and keep you occupied regardless of the name on the marquee. As if to prove the bankruptcy of the Broadway establishment, Bierko received a Best Actor Tony Award nomination for his efforts. Luker has been given the same nod as Best Actress. I guess there is no accounting for taste. (Neither won.)
Long-ago Broadway composer Alan Jay Lerner foretold the death of musical theater: “Musicals are an unrealistic form of expression,” he said. “It is the performers, not the writers, who create the atmosphere required to make that form of expression acceptable…to make the unrealistic form of the musical realistic.” Unfortunately, in spite of the cadre of singers and dancers on Broadway, there are few stars with enough personality and truth to fill these great roles and let them live. Until those players appear again, the age of the Broadway musical, and even the Broadway revival, is numbered.