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“But He Doesn’t Know The Territory!”

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Living in the American Midwest, it’ practically de rigueur that I know and love The Music Man. Meredith Willson’s classic slice of musical Americana remains both witty and sentimental, knowing and romantic in all the best ways – plus its soundtrack is a litany of early American pop styles wrapped around the best music Willson ever composed. A great musical, in other words, and I was more than ready for the Wonderful World of Disney remake of it.
Like most fans of the original production (forever encapsulated in the ’62 movie), I had my doubts about Matthew Broderick in the role so indelibly stamped by Robert Preston. But I was willing to be open-minded. Broderick’s played charming con-boys before (think: Ferris Beuller) and on the basis of his appearances in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (another con role, come to think of it) or The Producers, it’s obvious he has musical theatre chops. So I was ready to give the lad benefit of the doubt.

Now that the production has aired, it’s safe to say that Preston’s claim on the role has not been threatened: Broderick conjures up a weasely charm, but he lacks the evangelical fervor that Preston’s Professor Harold Hill possessed. And though the musical’s two show-stoppers, “Trouble” and “76 Trombones,” are supposed to dramatize the way Hill whips up frenzy among the River City “citiziens,” I didn’t quite believe either one. Broderick’s Hill insinuates (best shown in his scenes with Kristin Chenoweth’s Marian the Librarian and Debra Monk’s Irish widow); he doesn’t preach.
This difference in style may take some of the satiric weight out of Willson’s musical, but it thankfully doesn’t sink the production. The basic material is so good – and the rest of the cast so strong (I was especially amused by Victor Garber’s turn as the malapropism-prone Mayor Shinn) – that a faithful reconstruction can’t fail, even one scaled down for television. The original movie Man stands as a wonderful document of Hollywood artifice and theatrical style (contrast the way the movie’s salesmen declaim every line in the opening number, with the way it’s more “naturalistically” spoken in this new version); Disney’s Man demonstrates how great musicals can be faithfully remodeled for television.
I still prefer my DVD of the Morton Da Costa movie – much more vibrant, particularly in the big numbers (the teevee version of “Shipoopi” just sits there, though I did like the way they utilized a full school set for the first performance of “76 Trombones”) – but I’m glad to see this new interpretation. And when your only other option on the week’s network music front is the false and degrading American Idol, I’m ready to praise this show even more. More musicals, Disney!

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • Eric Olsen

    The Robert Preston movie version of this is my favorite musical of all time so there is no way I could bring myself to sit through another version, doomed to be less than the perfection of the original. But I’m glad you liked it.

  • Understand your resistance, Eric. The Preston version is one of those pics that I just have to watch once a year – just because it can always be counted on to make me feel good. But I’ve also watched stage versions of this play and had a good time at ‘em (even, choke!, community theatre productions), so perhaps this is comparable. Watching the TV version, though, I was surprised at how much the movie had become a part of me: every new or divergent line stuck out like a sore thumb.

  • I didn’t think it was BAD… it just looked like “The Music Man” done by 12-year-olds. Maybe I’m getting old, so everyone else looks young, but everyone in it seemed to be too young for their part.

    Robert Preston just had that devlish quality that Matthew Broderick couldn’t do. I like him a lot, but he’s much more believable as Leo Bloom than Harold Hill.

  • Jay

    I have to agree with Solonar–I couldn’t endure the entire thing, but what I saw looked like a high school production. Nearly every part was miscast, and cast way too young to be believable. Broderick has a better singing voice than Robert Preston, but despite that he was still wrong for the role. Who would believe he was a music professor? Not even townspeople who also looked like teens. The direction was also claustrophobic, choreography kind of pedestrian, the art direction rather dark and drab for a musical comedy, and all of the humor was lost by having the supporting parts played more or less straight rather than cartoonish as originally written (the mayor and his wife, for example). Those who’ve never seen Music Man should skip this one and watch the original 1962 film.

  • Dan

    And I agree with Jay. They seemed to go out of their way to miss the humor: the mayor was just plain mean and nasty. He should be played as a bumbling buffoon. At the end of the piano lesson, the line “Well if that isn’t the best I’ve ever heard!” is ruined. And don’t knock high school and community theater productions. I’ve seen a lot of Music Mans, and this one was the most charmless and unsatisfying.

  • My community theatre parenthetical was meant as a jo – oh, never mind. . .

    “Davey, that’s my Davey!”

  • Dave Drui

    How can you improve on perfection? Robert Preston IS the Music Man…almost to the point that every other project I’ve ever seen him in I’ll think: “Oh, there’s Harold Hill in How The West Was Won”…or “There’s Harold Hill on stage in Sly Fox on Broadway”. There has to be an innocent vulnerability in Harold’s character…he really does THINK there’s a band and he really does get smitten with Marion Paroo and Robert Preston showed that. Matthew and Craig Bierko in the feeble Broadway remake a couple of years ago didn’t. Watch the Warner Brothers movie again. It’s wonderful!