The Music Man

Warner Bros., 1962

There’s a fine line between endearing and annoying, and The Music Man manages to trip back and forth across it with frequent and wild abandon. While there are fabulous elements to be found, they are are almost cancelled out by the shortcomings.

At primary fault is the script. Adapted from Meredith Willson’s play by Marion Hargrove of See Here, Private Hargrove fame, The Music Man manages to almost completely lack the sense of quaintness and irony so necessary to its success. Instead of cautious, withdrawn and suspicious of outsiders – as the script tells us they are – the residents of River City come off as nothing more than gullible blockheads. They’re not charmed into action by the charismatic huckster, Harold Hill, they’re simply duped and sidetracked, like ants by a fallen leaf.

Where most cinematic adaptations tune and edit the stage script, rearranging or even omitting songs to strengthen the presentation, that technique seems to have completely bypassed the filmmakers here. The dialogue is, by and large, clunky and only a small percentage of the cast manage it well. Broadway cast veteran, Paul Ford, as the malapropping Mayor Shinn, truly shines. The chemistry between Robert Preston and Shirley Jones grows from her initial distaste to admiration, respect, and love – and for once, you believe that it’s a natural progression and not a predestined event.

As a musical, it’s unfortunate to realize that the biggest failing of The Music Man comes from the music itself and the manner in which the numbers are staged. The parts that work, are an undeniable triumph, and the parts that don’t are an equal flop.

Set on the train bound for River City, the opening number, “Rock Island” is metered to suggest the pumping pistons of the steam engine (most useful when you consider that it’s difficult to fit an actual train inside a theatre). Unfortunately, director Morton De Costa has his cast bounce constantly whenever they move, and their spastic twitching is enough to drive someone to epileptic fit.

“The Piano Lesson” is such a grating failure that it almost inspires the audience to run screaming from the theatre. How this worked in any form is a mystery – stage versions often omit it entirely – but it most certainly does not work here.

“Pick a Little, Talk a Little,” a song built around the gossiping town matrons is intercut with shots of clucking hens pecking and scraping – driving the subtext of the song home with all the subtlety of the Huns at the gates of Rome.

“The Wells Fargo Wagon” – a tune cribbed directly from Paint Your Wagon’s “There’s a Coach Comin’ In” – only really comes to life with Ronny Howard’s burst of breathless anticipation.

The less said about “Shipoopi,” the better. There is nothing about this song that isn’t utterly annoying. Hackett’s high-pitched slurred squeak is completely inappropriate, the lyrics are insipid, and the bombastic dance scene that accompanies it is interminably dull.

While the Buffalo Bills are a wonderful quartet, their appearances and the resulting musical numbers come off as exceptionally forced and contrived.

The process of adaptation is not a Herculean task – it’s been done numerous times on stages large and small, in- and outdoors, and each have made adjustments to suit their venue. That same care, is unfortunately lacking in the film. There are too many instances which come off as if there were a number of elements from the stage show that were simply checked off a list.

The directing and choreography seem designed with the audience in mind, so much so that even the actors don’t seem to be interacting for the benefit of their fellow performers, so much as for those on the other side of the silver screen. Instead of moving fluidly through the screen space, the camera seems unhappily bound to the theatrical roots of the material. Transition effects such as camera irises are largely unsuccessful, and intrusive.

Conversely, there is little in modern musical theatre to compare to the lyric nimbleness of “Marion the Librarian,” and the convoluted fun of the choreography makes for wonderful entertainment. “The Sadder but Wiser Girl For Me” is a clever song for a mature audience, given brilliant life by Preston, though Hackett’s (deliberately) hapless hoofing does tend to recall Hyacinth, the dancing hippo from Fantasia. The pomp and wallop of “76 Trombones” by now heralds a timeless classic, and the raucous finale which sends band and cast through the entire town is a great conclusion.

Though much of the supporting acting verges on terrible – especially from the children – there are an equal amount of high points. For as funny as he can be, Buddy Hackett’s shameless mugging simply grates here, and of the younger cast, only Ronny Howard truly shines. Harry Hickox, who played Harold Hill in the 1959 national touring company, puts in an enthusiastic appearance as Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman whose mission it is to expose the would-be bandleader. Shirley Jones is as radiant as ever and her Marion is equal to her fine work in Oklahoma! and Carousel. Robert Preston is so charismatic in the reprisal of his lead role from the original Broadway show that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.