On “The Music Man”

As I write this, it happens to be Robert Preston’s (1918-1987) birthday. Preston’s never been my favorite actor — he always struck me more as an announcer type than a thespian. He’d have been great in commercials or doing an Ed McMahon type job in television. Handsome guy, terrific voice, but he rarely seemed to get anywhere near nature. I seldom believe him in a role. Throughout the years he was normally cast in westerns, often as villains, and for the most part one believes him even less in those parts. But there was one occasion where his glib, breezy nature suited Preston’s character so well that one never thinks of one without the other: Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Other guys (Eddie Albert, Bert Parks, Forrest Tucker, Van Johnson) played the part on stage but Preston created it, owned it for all time. Those other guys were just subbing.

“Satire,” quipped George S. Kaufman, “is what closes on Saturday night”, and yet somehow Meredith Willson’s gently satirical tale of a con man swindling an entire American town lasted on Broadway for nearly four years (1957-1961). In America, there is NEVER a bad time to poke fun at flim-flam men or a gullible populace — it is the story of our people. And Willson put his own personal stamp on it. River City, Iowa is based on Willson’s own home town. And he introduced the intriguingly original (and wonderfully symbolic) element of having marching band equipment (as opposed to more traditional stuff like patent medicine, psychic predictions, soap, or real estate) be the bogus product. Willson knew whereof he spake when it came to marching bands — he’d started out himself with John Phillip Sousa! It is the stuff of Americana, of red, white and blue bunting.

I think of the 1962 screen version of The Music Man as one of the last great, old school Hollywood musicals. Preston returned of course, with a cast that includes Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Pert Kelton, Hermione Gingold, a very young (pre-Opie) Ron Howard, Charles Lane, Mary Wickes, Percy Helton (yes there is BOTH a Pert Kelton AND a Percy Helton, for you cinematic illiterates), Max Showalter, and a barbershop quartet called the Buffalo Bills. And nearly all of the songs became classics. I’d heard “76 Trombones” as a kid, long before I ever knew anything about the musical. Likewise, “Ya Got Trouble” has made it out into the pop culture idiom. Jones (somehow much sexier here as a stand-offish librarian than she was as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry) sings a lush version of “Til There Was You” (later covered by The Beatles, of all people). A lisping (whistling) Ron Howard renders a cute/obnoxious version of “Gary, India”. Hackett gives us nightmares with the lamentable “Shipoopi”. And then there’s that wonderfully misogynist number “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” where all the small town “Biddys” are made to resemble hens. Jump over that hurdle, Hillary!

In the end, the moral of the story seems to be that dishonest charm and whimsy are not just forgivable but necessary, which I pretty much believe, just as long as no one is tricked out of his life savings. That is the difference between life and fantasy. Trouble in River City, indeed.