The Music Man: A Critical Theater Review

Our tickets for the Guthrie’s production of The Music Man just happened to fall on July 3rd, and this seemed like an appropriate piece of Americana to experience this Fourth of July Weekend. It totally was.

Friends, I’m torn on reviewing this. Here’s why. The production itself was incredible; the Guthrie went all out on set design, costumes, choreography and music. The opening music and choreography where the traveling salesmen bob and sway as though they were on a train was pure artistry. Close behind that was the women’s peckish movements as they flocked around singing “Pick-A-Little Talk-A-Little.”

The moment where the band marched in from the back of the Wurtele Thrust Stage playing “76 Trombones” might be my all-time favorite moment at the Guthrie (even topping fairies flying down zip lines in Midsummer or Bill McCallum flinging tulips everywhere in a fit during God of Carnage).  Hearing the brass, the cymbals and drums made me so very glad to be alive and present; I had an indescribable visceral reaction to the music. Heart beat faster; every cell in my body felt alive and alert.  If heaven (or “the new earth” if you’re theologically picky) is like that, sign me up please.

However, in its brilliant production, the Guthrie also caused me to really sit up and question the plot of The Music Man for the first time ever.  And while the Guthrie production is great fun and their music spoiled me for the movie soundtrack, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sit through The Music Man again without my inner feminist going a little stir crazy and angry.

I grew up watching old movies and musicals, and I still love them. I loved the 1962 movie with Shirley Jones and Robert Preston — though looking back, I think I just fast forwarded to my favorite musical numbers. But, somehow, now that I tend to be more and more comfortable in my feminist skin, I have a hard time with ones that I used to enjoy.  New lenses cause me to see familiar favorites in a different (and well, dimmer) light.

The Music Man is, sadly, no exception. Marian starts the play as a strong-willed, educated woman.  The townspeople have no interest in her education, because, to them, she can’t be very smart since she hasn’t landed herself a proper man yet. What could she possibly have to say to them?  Of course, once Prof. Hill notices her, then suddenly the townspeople think she might have some merit after all.  Her worth is generated by a man.

This frustrates me to no little end, particularly in the way this worth is coupled with the conflicting messages about sexual purity.

There’s the song “Shipoopi,” which declares,

“Well, a woman who’ll kiss on the very first date

Is usually a hussy
And a woman who’ll kiss on the second time out
Is anything but fussy

But a woman who’ll wait till the third time around
Head in the clouds, feet on the ground
She’s the girl you’re glad you found
She’s your shipoopi”

She can’t be easy to get, and she shouldn’t be easy to get… But then suddenly she should, but just for one dude.
“Now little ol’ Sal was a no-gal
As anyone could see
Lookit her now – she’s a go-gal
Who only goes for me”
And then there’s the conflicting message from Prof. Hill, who sings “The Sadder-but-Wiser Girl,” noting,
“I smile, I grin, when the gal with a touch of sin walks in.
I hope, and I pray, for a Hester to win just one more “A”
The sadder-but-wiser girl’s the girl for me.”
He’s not interested in a girl’s “purity” as she “merely wants to trade my independence for her security.” A woman’s body and heart are reduced to a means of entertaining men (Let’s be honest here, too.  The heart seems to be a thing of little interest to men in the story — except for about two minutes at the end of the story.).
And really this seems to be the case for both songs — the only question is about who values whether a girl is hard to get. Hill’s words in “The Sadder-but-Wiser Girl” imply one message, but his actions towards Marian suggest the value of Shipoopi’s message of playing hard to get. Women, even the seemingly strong Marian, serve as a backdrop to man’s interests.

I also realized the dubiousness of the ethics in The Music Man.  Prof. Harold Hill is not a hero, however charming he may be. He’s trying to swindle people and dash out of town as quickly as possible.  Another person, who was victimized as a result of Hill’s swindling in other towns, ends up being the villain as he tries to expose Hill’s con.

Marian’s love leads her to set aside her ethics as well when she excuses and tries to convince Hill to get out of town rather than face potential consequences of his actions.

In the production, Hill never really apologizes for his actions or takes responsibility for the damage that he’s left in his wake. Because his swindling generated positive change in the children of River City, the con and motivations are excused. In this ethic, Hill’s means are justified by the outcomes. I find that deeply problematic. This is compounded by the fact that there’s not enough resolution with Hill’s character to know if he’s actually changed or repentant. The band plays an earsplitting rendition of “Minuet in G” which makes the parents burst with pride, and then, magically, “76 Trombones” happens.  The end.  Did Hill just luck out?  Has Hill learned something?  I found the plot resolution grossly unsettling, which is in juxtaposition with how much I enjoyed watching the production itself.

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