The last time we had typecasting as typed and cast was Bette Midler’s Dolly Levi in 2017. Bette couldn’t nail the role to save her life and while five star reviews abounded I bet Donna Murphy was better. The time before that was also a disastrous piece of uber-casting, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in “The Odd Couple. Speaking of Matthew in 2003, his performance of Professor Harold Hill was many things but wasn’t type casting, he was awful in the Disney TV Special. Now here we are 64 years after Meredith Wilson’s great contended for one of the North American master class musical comedies “The Music Man”. And the type casting? Hugh Jackman as the con man himself.
But as good as Hugh was last night at the still in previews revival at Winter Garden Theatre, he misses a lethal charm that Robert Preston brough to the role. Preston was not much of a good guy as the Professor, he plays the role as a ticking time bomb who is patiently awaiting the exit strategy he is using on the big con and spends his time seducing Marion The Librarian as performed by a stoic and cold Sutton Foster, who slowly warms up. If it was Preston you might worry about Marion maintaining her virginity as Preston storms her, Hugh is too much of a good guy in the role, the entire musical moves like clockwork and we never achieve a sense of catharsis. Everything is preordained…
Getting here has been quite the headache. I bought a ticket to the show in March 2019 for October 2019, then not only did Covid hit but the original producer, Scott Rudin, got in big trouble because he was a terrible piece of work who tortured his staff and got caught. Rudin was removed in June 2021. And then we were back with Covid Protocols. Previews began December 20th, and Sutton Foster caught Omicron, still the show went on with a member of the swing performing the role. But if they could get away with not having Sutton, Jackman was a fresh set of downs; when Hugh contracted the super pandemic disease they closed for a week, returned last Thursday, January 6th. Which means that the musical I saw on Sunday was not yet deep in previews. And at the epicenter of Omicron, Winter Garden was sold out.
Which makes “The Music Man” the only must see on Broadway (well, maybe “Company” as well). It is an event. Directed by Jerry Zaks , who was also director of the clear antecedent “Hello, Dolly”, was responsible for this show. He is workmanlike in a production where everything remains true to Meredith’s original musical. This is no high falutin’ re-imagination. Hugh could have brought the version to Broadway, in 1957 or 1977, the effect would be precisely the same: no winking and twinkling at difference in culture. It is played safe from beginning to end, as it should be.
“The Music Man” is a tall tale Americana from the great State of “I-O-Way…” where people are suspicious and River City defines skepticism and xenophobia. Imagine if Damon Runyon was from the midwest and moved Northeast; Meredith was Mason City, Iowa’s favorite son, he played in the Mason City Symphonic Band as a high school student before being accepted in an early incarnation of the Juilliard School. He was especially adept at wind instruments and played with John Sosa’s band. All these strands came together in one of the great creations, Professor Hill, the unscrupulous con man selling musical instruments no one can play and disappearing the moment he gets his money. The result is that travelling salesmen who follow him to a town get tarred and feathered. But this time Hill falls in love and doesn’t leave. And that’s your story, a fine redemption arc with a sparkling book (co-written with Franklin Lacey) and words and music by Meredith himself.
Part of the American canon and with at least one song that is part of the great American songbook, “Till There Was You”. It is a rousing, triumph of the American character and forgiveness. In 2022 it plays in contradistinction to the MidWest vibes we live with (Iowa went big for Trump, a man who never saw a lie he didn’t love) by remembering an Iowa where the national character was Christian and filled with forgiveness.
Hugh Jackson is 53 but looks 35, he is an ox strong action star and Broadway shining light and he has the strength and personal decency to make Hill a figure of joy and sorrow. A splendid dancer, he is as energetic as possible as he dances, tap dances, raps (what else would you call “Ya Got Trouble”?). Hugh can do all of this but what he can’t do is the deviousness, we don’t see him thinking the way we did with Preston -he seems once removed. Energetic and yet a little distant from the action, neither his romance with Marion nor his friendship with her young, introverted brother Winthrop Panoo feels real: Sutton Foster is perfect and also a little staid in the transition to Hill’s lover, and child actor Benjamin Pajak is perfection. But Sutton isn’t Tony Award winner Barbara Cook (though Sutton is the equal of Shirley Jones); for all his skills, Pajak is not Ron Howard.That is a problem dotted throughout the production. If you can salute Hugh and Foster, you can’t salute the B team. The movie had Buddy Hackett performing “Shipoopi” and while Shuler Hensley is fine, he is also invisible. The ensemble is fine but they needed people as memorable as Buddy Hackett (who played Hill’s wingman Marcellus Washburn) to give us, Schuler is a total pro (he was in “The Greatest Showman” with Hugh) but indistinct. Remy Auberjonois is a fine actor (his father is the late great René Auberjonois of “Deep Space Nine”) but while his dad was so unique his presence stamped his every role, Remy as the anvil salesman (“he doesn’t know the territory”) can’t compare to one of our greatest character actors, Jim Backus, in the movie.
The reason why none of this sinks the show has much to do with the ensemble, who are impeccable, and the show itself. For one thing, it is a pretty straight reading all the way through (even that “American Gothic” joke remains) and the show can’t be second guessed. Towards the end of the first act Sutton performs the basic snoozer “My White Knight” and you wonder if it is gonna end the first act with a thud, and it doesn’t happen. There is still the lovely “The Wells Fargo Wagon” to come, an ensemble singalong to something that really means nothing today, Wells Fargo was Amazon for a different age. It blasts out the first half.
The second act is terrific, bright, cheerful, redemptive, plus a Barber Shop Quartet, and the shows climax with a reprise of the glorious. good use of his years with Sousa, “Seventy Six Trombones”. Sutton sings “Till There Was You” beautifully (yes, The Beatles did cover it on With The Beatles -which is why the Beatles weren’t the Stones). It is a clear, ring like a bell singing and a quiet and lovely orchestration.
The entire event is a dream of the USA. We all know that if you were the wrong shade or the wrong sexual orientation (or a woman) both 1912 and 1957 were not the place to be, still in the fairytale of redemption, and certainly ninety years after it was meant to happen, the picket fence, river runs through it Iowa stubborn is dreamy and a different world, and the Red States come across just fine. Winter Garden’s production isn’t high tech, it isn’t fancy, it is true to its time. Remember Gig Young in the Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance” where as a stressed out ad exec his car stalls near where he grew up and he walks there and back thirty years to a simpler time -at its best that’s how “The Music Man” made me feel. It is close to a masterpiece, a perfect presentation. It is the opposite of the civil war of 2022, in 1912 the grass was greener and the red was paler.
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