Musical of the Month: Music Man

Julia Stanski, Editor

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If you’re looking for something light and fun to watch this Christmas, this 1957 show by Meredith Willson is a truly underappreciated musical gem.

Set in 1912,  “The Music Man” follows a charming and flamboyant con man named Harold Hill as he suckers the citizens of small-town Iowa out of their money, promising to start a marching band for their children. But when he meets the town’s piano teacher/librarian, the one person not drawn in by his spellbinding, things aren’t as easy for him as he expects.

This classic musical has a hilarious script full of great characters, and more than its share of fantastic songs. Everyone’s heard ’76 Trombones’, the show’s greatest hit and now a popular march. But when Willson wrote the show, he also pioneered a unique style he called ‘speak-singing’. It’s first used in the opening song, an intricate onomatopoeic  number by a group of travelling salesmen that simulates the sound of a train and walks the line between speech and music. Its layered rhythms and precise delivery make it almost a precursor to rap music.   It comes back in Harold Hill’s first song, ‘Ya Got Trouble’,  which demonstrates how  he masterfully manipulates the townspeople into trusting him.   It’s a refreshing change from the constant ballads of some contemporary musicals; no one, save perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sondheim, writes like that today.

There’s an excellent 1962 movie version, starring the original Robert Preston as Professor Hill, and a not-quite-as-good 2003 version with Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Broderick. But either way, if you’re looking for guaranteed entertainment and a successful mood lifter, you can’t go wrong with ‘The Music Man”.  

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