Why The Music Man is the Best Musical Ever:

Posted: July 8, 2009 in Braak
Tags: , ,

TheMusicManPosterWho am I to argue with a Threat Quality Theme week?  This week we’re talking about musicals I guess, and so:  The Music Man.  Everyone’s always surprised when I say that I love this musical, and I think it’s just because they don’t understand how awesome it is–especially for an American Tradition musical.

Some background:  The Music Man is written and composed by Meredith Wilson (who also wrote The Unsinkable Molly Brown).  It hit Broadway in 1957, was made into a movie in 1962 with Robert Preston.  They made a movie of it again in 2003, but I didn’t see that so I don’t know if it’s good.  It didn’t have Robet Preston in it, so my guess is no.

Here’s what happens in the play:  Robert Preston plays Harold Hill, an inveterate con-man (not wholly dissimilar from his part in The Last Starfighter) who comes to the town of River City, Iowa.  In order to make a fast buck, he pretends to be a marching band leader, offers to start a town marching band for the kids, and takes everyone’s money for uniforms and music books and instruments.  But!  He falls in love with Marian, the town librarian, so naturally at the last minute he repents, but it’s too late–the marching band is supposed to play the next day and they haven’t practiced and look pretty terrible.

Then a miracle occurs.

The shabby, poorly-performing children, in the light of their parents’ eyes, suddenly TRANSFORM IN TO THE WORLD’S GREATEST MARCHING BAND EVER!  The town falls in love with them, Marian falls in love with Harold Hill, everyone loves everyone else.

Now, when I say, “a miracle occurs,” it is quite natural to think that I am being snarky, trying to gloss over an unsatisfactory ending to the play with exaggerrated terminology.  This is not the case.  It is equally quite natural to think, when I say that a miracle occurs, that the play suffers from a structurally-troubling Deus Ex Machina of an ending.  This is also not the case.

When I say that a miracle occurs, I mean it in the truest possible sense:  in an act of musical communion, the phenomenal world of bad band-playing has fallen away to reveal the natural spirit of the thing–a truth obscured by the mundane, visible only to the soul, and only in this act of communal opening.  The townspeople, each with their own perspectives and histories, share a single vision; not one forced on them from the outside, but one that comes from within and is yet identical.  They and the band players are joined together by the nature of this vision.

Add to that the fact that the parents who are watching the band are actually onstage and (I think this is the way you should do it, anyway) the real, good band comes in through the audience.  By reversing the natural roles of audience and actor, the play has made the audience a part of this basic musical communion.

Looked at in this respect, Harold Hill isn’t an inveterate con-man at all.  He is an itinerant shaman, out of work in turn-of-the-century America, where industrialization and development has outpaced the country’s need to find its spiritual center.  The nation, drunk with industry, has forgotten who it is, and, unlike the nations of Europe, has no thousands of years of history to define itself with.

It is a nation fundamentally susceptible to confidence men and grifters, whose divine patron has always been one and the same with the patrons of the shamans.  And River City is a community that needs someone to define it.

Harold Hill, of course, is the best shaman there is:  we see this from the very beginning, when he neatly evades the entrapping musical number of the other conmen, who try to pin him down to the train.  Harold Hill then deftly wields music as a weapon, riling up the townspeople against their pool hall (chosen purely because it was new, and it’s always a fear of the new that gives Harold Hill his powers–but isn’t it also a little fitting?  The pool hall, of course, is a place that actually divides the town’s population, gamesmen only, no women, no children, a poor center for River City).  He uses it as a shield to protect himself from the town alderman (who he hilariously tricks into singing a barbershop quartet every time they come near him), he uses it as a tool for seduction and, finally, in the grandest magic gesture possible, calls down a miracle with it.

Virtually all of the music in the play is actually predicated by Harold Hill himself–this is not a world in which people express themselves through music, per se, so much as it is a world in which people, properly enchanted, can express themselves through music.  The only exception to this is River City’s club of old ladies, who are themselves trying to establish an identity for the town (drawing on foreign culture and history from halfway around the world), who have their own song (and are so invulnerable to Harold Hill’s power), and–though they are not evil, simply dangeroulsy misguided–from whom he must wrest the future of the town.

His final obstacle is Marian the Librarian herself, an ironically-appropriate emnity and romance–Marian, after all, is the keeper of the town’s phenomenal history.  She is literal, focused on the real, able to see through Harold Hill’s lies, and unwilling to permit her town to be swept up in the enthusiasm that Hill seems to be offering.  She is mistrustful of him, softening only when she sees that Harold Hill does act in community interest when there is no personal gain for him.

This is the true story of The Music Man.  It is a story about a shaman who, using his magic powers, permits the town of River City to discard the real in favor of the sidereal in an epic brass band explosion that permits them to recover their town’s identity.  Equally, the play is a comment on our own desire to go to musicals; music, after all, does not require consideration, does not need any agenda other than to exist.  We come to see these American Tradition musicals to participate in this mass act of being, of permitting ourselves to be connected by a bridge of music, regardless of its quality, to the joyful souls of our brother’s and sisters.

The Music Man is the best musical of all time, because it is a musical about how there can even be a best musical of all time.  It not only gives its story, but that story is recursive, providing its own implicit ontology.

So.  There.  Don’t be surprised anymore when I say I like this play.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    It’s just, you don’t seem like a guy who’d like parades. Or things that involve parades.

    Also, expect many recitations of the monorail song from “The Simpsons.”

  2. Hsiang says:

    I liked the “Gary, Indiana” song.

  3. I’d rather watch this than fuckin’ “Wicked.” Or God forbid, “RENT.”

  4. braak says:

    @Holland: I like parades in theory. I just don’t like standing around watching them.

  5. Lindsay says:

    I’m sorry, Braak, but The Music Man, while having many good qualities, also has the Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little Song. That song haunts my fucking nightmares.

  6. braak says:

    That is a great song. It is supposed to haunt your nightmares. It is the impervious musical shield that the old ladies use to protect themselves from Harold Hill’s musical power. It is inherently nonsense, and it promulgates nonsense, which is precisely why the future of River City can’t be entrusted to the old ladies.

    Also, it makes them sound like noisy birds.

  7. Drew L. says:

    i love the music man too!
    i think what i love most about it, is how rythmic the songs and music are! particularly the one at the beginning on the train.
    and you can’t go wrong with 76-trombones!
    or Trouble, with a capital ‘T’!

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Wow, “Threat Quality” totally picks my mind, man. I have a very peculiar reason for liking this musical and it dates back to childhood; it subconsciously resolved my anxiety over “The Pied Piper”. I remember telling my mom something along the lines of: “Don’t you guys know how evil he is?” She would then explain the intended meaning behind the story—being responsible for your promises, standing behind your word, trading something of great value for the sake of frivolity, realizing the serious consequences some choices can have—but I never bought it. Holing-up kids in a cave and walking them into the center of the Earth, just because the parents wouldn’t pay, never felt like a fair exchange. In “The Music Man”, kids have a big chunk of social power—they’re not just bargaining chips between adults or status symbols. Their actions matter and people are inspired to connect with eachother because of them. So, watching it brings the kind of satisfaction that watching Romeo and Juliet ride off into the moonlight, would bring (although, on grumpier days, “leave well-enough alone”).

  9. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “Trouble, with a capital ‘T'”? I thought that was Holland and Braak’s dynamic-duo, code-name? But hey—we can trust them, they’d never be so wicked as to lead us astray…just follow the pretty words and rhythms…and flashy pictures…

    Oh, yeah—and the Marian character is awesome because she’s not a sucker. Also, by 12, I was crushin’ on the Music Man…and Gene Wilder as “Willy Wonka”. In retrospect, it was probably a very good thing that I had omnipresent parents (“Gawwd Mom, just gO awAY…”)…

  10. Jeff Holland says:

    “Trouble, with a capital T
    And that’s how you end
    Threat Qualit-TEEE!”

    Hm. That might need some work.

  11. Jesse LaJeunesse says:

    This is a beautiful article. Part of the reason it resonates is I am only MOSTLY sure you’re being serious. If not, then you have successfully conned me, and it is a con that has a beauty that borders on the spiritual itself. This article is the kind of work that can be only produced when a person is a cynical romantic who is overeducated and overexposed to too many sources of entertainment. I mean this in a completely and entirely positive way. Well, okay, a MOSTLY positive way. You’re a good example of what our peculiar times can produce, my friend.

  12. Jeff Holland says:

    “A good example of what our peculiar times can produce”

    And there’s our next tagline.

  13. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “…cynical romantic who is overeducated and overexposed to too many sources of entertainment…”

    Oh, now that’s totally off the mark. I think, deep down, Braak just wants to…sing…

  14. braak says:

    @VIP: False! Everyone knows that my desire to sing is buried only under a shallow covering of feigned disinterest.

  15. braak says:

    Ahhhahahaha–the automatically-generated, “possibly-related posts” have turned up my own article about Spider-Man: The Musical.

    That’s kind of funny.

  16. V.I.P. Referee says:

    You’re, like, three “LOLCats!” hits from being Master of the Universe.

  17. Amanda says:

    This article makes me happy.

  18. Jesse LaJeunesse says:

    Almost, but not quite, everyone I know who I find really interesting is over-educated. I include myself in this, of course.

  19. Hsiang says:

    “I think, deep down, Braak just wants to…sing…”
    Well, he’s already been seen in public dressed as a Frenchman. It’s really only a matter of time before he starts belting out showtunes…

  20. Michael Weiner says:

    What a helluva great post review!!! But them, The Music Man has always been my favorite, and I was lucky enough to be in the pit orchestra (on trumpet) for a production of it. Again, EXCELLENT review! I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be sharing it. 🙂

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