In the Movie Musical Renaissance, Does “The Music Man” Deserve a Second Chance?

The 1962 movie musical “The Music Man” tells the story of a con man entering the fictional, caricatured town of River City, Iowa. But does it have anything to say in the modern movie musical landscape? The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official organizational stance. Cover graphic by Ella Sheedlo for Midstory.

Everyone loves a movie musical. In the last few years, it seems, to me, there’s been somewhat of a surge of movie musical adaptations. Critics praised “West Side Story” (2021) just as much as they reviled “Dear Evan Hansen” (2021). Even the Academy Award Winner for Best Picture this year, “CODA,” has at least two singing scenes integral to the movie. Maybe that doesn’t constitute it as a musical, but either way, I’d like to think that the movie musical has made a comeback.

It’s gotten me thinking about the many musicals I grew up enjoying, and which ones might be next in line for a remake. I’ve been reflecting on one in particular, however, for its strange and campy depiction of a rural Midwestern town: “The Music Man.”

The 1962 movie is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical written by Meredith Willson. Born in 1902, Willson was a composer and playwright, most famous for composing the song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and writing the book, lyrics and music for “The Music Man.” 

“The Music Man” Junior Company, Music Circus 2012 at the Wells Fargo Pavilion. Photo by Charr Crail via Flickr.

After its release in 1962, the musical received critical acclaim; it was nominated for six Academy Awards and won a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture. But while a musical movie like “West Side Story,” released in 1961, has seen a renewal in popularity with its successful 2021 movie re-adaptation, “The Music Man” has been given a different treatment.

“The Music Man” is currently enjoying a run on Broadway with Hugh Jackman as the titular character. But The New York Times, though not entirely deprecatory, describes this version as “flat.” The New York Magazine said the same of the 2003 made-for-television movie.

If both musicals were successful in their time, why does one flourish while the other struggles to make a comeback?

“The Music Man” takes place in 1912, 50 years before the movie was released. Even then, it was a time capsule; but now it could be considered a period piece. And while I have a soft spot for the movie, this period does have uglier aspects that are more than apparent here, including an undercurrent of racism and Midwestern-branded ignorance.

From the beginning, the time period plays a significant role in the way that the story is told. The opening scene of the film takes place on a train, emphasizing the usage of railway travel as the primary mode of transportation. 

In the first musical number “Rock Island,” a group of traveling salesmen grumble about the good old days (relative to 1912), complaining that the popularization of the Model T Ford is making their work of traveling from town to town selling their wares increasingly obsolete.

“Who’s gonna patronize a little-bitty two-by-four kinda store anymore?” one says. 

This number also introduces Harold Hill, the titular music man, who is actually a con artist. A salesman explains to the others that Hill claims to sell marching bands; although what he’s really selling is instruments and the promise that he will teach the kids how to play them, only he skips town once the instruments have arrived and he has collected the cash.

This premise is, of course, absurd. The other salesmen say as much. But what cements the silliness of the scene is the eventual reveal that Hill has been sitting amongst them the whole time, listening to their conversation.

It’s a humorous moment, but the scene doesn’t really have much to do with the rest of the story. I find it interesting that Willson chose to open with this number criticizing the industrialization of the time period, as the Midwest benefited economically from industrialization and has keenly felt its decline ever since. It was also a time for furthering racist policies, something that the movie doesn’t speak to directly but makes clear through its story.

The moment the train arrives in the town of River City, however, the tone of the film quickly shifts to indulgent nostalgia.

The viewers quickly discover that River City is a caricature of a rural Midwestern community, a cartoonish parody of what a real small town might be like. The citizens are standoffish, suspicious of outsiders, easily duped.

When Hill arrives, he is greeted by cold shoulders and hard stares. In the town’s introductory musical number, “Iowa Stubborn,” the citizens of River City make it clear that they are only willing to welcome him to the extent that they aren’t actively trying to chase him out of town.

They say that they have “an Iowa kind of special chip-on-the-shoulder attitude” and describe themselves as “so by-God stubborn we can stand touchin’ noses for a week at a time and never see eye-to-eye.”

As someone who grew up in a rural Midwestern town, I find this song amusing. It stands in stark contrast to what I have seen of the modern culture of Midwestern friendliness. In my experience, you’re far more likely to receive a smile or a friendly wave from a passing stranger than to be ignored — much less outright shunned.

Having the townsfolk reject Hill, however, works to highlight the insular nature of the town, something that isn’t so far from the truth of many isolated rural communities.

The Midwestern small town is often used as a universal symbol of home — or averageness — for the audience to project onto, especially in the horror genre, but here we see the opposite. Hill is an outsider who is not welcome, and therefore we, as viewers, see this “home” become rude and unwelcoming. This movie paints a picture of a town that is close-minded, only willing to accept those that are similar to them and suspicious of anything new or different. 

Even for River City natives, it is clear that the only way to stay in the good graces of the townsfolk is to adhere to their high social and moral standards. This is apparent through the character of Marian Paroo, the librarian who encourages the youths to read the classics, and is therefore shunned for advocating “dirty books.”

Hill manages to convince the townsfolk of his usefulness by preying on their fears of change and the moral degradation of their children. In what is probably one of the most famous songs from the musical, “Ya Got Trouble,” Hill convinces the parents that the town’s new pool table is “trouble with a capital T.” He claims that playing pool will lead the children to immoral acts like smoking cigarettes, buckling their knickerbockers below the knee and listening to rag-time music. Robert Preston’s performance as Hill is magnetic, but what really sells this scene for me is the horrified faces of the townspeople as he implies that saying “swell” is a sign that their children are on a path to self destruction, and that the only cure is a marching band.

The fear that the children might start listening to rag-time, a genre invented and popularized by African Americans, highlights the racism present within the community. An even more extreme example of this is a scene in which some of the schoolchildren perform an “Indian Dance” dressed in stereotypical Native American costumes.

But we are not meant to root for the townspeople. Watching them be easily tricked over and over again is part of the fun, and while Hill is not a good person, we want to see how long he can keep the con going.

For example, Hill is able to turn the members of the school board, a group of four men, into a perfect barbershop quartet just by telling them that “singing is just sustained talking.” Afterwards, each time the men try to ask for Hill’s credentials, he distracts them by getting them to sing an entire song.

The ruse doesn’t last forever, though. He stays in town a little too long, and ends up having a romance-induced change of heart. When the townspeople catch and arrest him, they seriously consider the idea of punishing and humiliating him with tar and feathers.

Given its history as a mob tactic akin to lynching, as well as being used on African Americans during the civil rights era, this plot point takes on a very sinister meaning in the entirely white town of River City and brings the film’s racist undertones to a whole new level. For a mostly lighthearted musical, this feels jarringly out of place.

Hill ultimately isn’t punished, of course. When the townsfolk see their children in band uniforms attempting to play their instruments, they concede that while Hill is a con artist, he did bring joy to the town (and a marching band, more or less). Through musical movie magic, all is forgiven and there is a happy ending.

At the end of the day, I can’t help but enjoy this movie. It has plenty of flaws, but enough charm, wit and great music to keep me coming back. And I don’t think it’s unsalvageable, either.

In 2018, a Stratford Festival production cast Daren A. Herbert, a Black man, as Harold Hill. This simple casting choice colors the entire story, examining the issue of race rather than allowing it to linger in the background. The acknowledgment of the way that race influences the story makes the casting choices in this production color-conscious rather than color-blind.

“West Side Story” is a musical that is very much about racism — and its remake shows that the themes of the original are still relevant today. In removing all reference to race and bigotry, however, the current Broadway run of “The Music Man” has killed this conversation before we can have it.

Even though Hugh Jackman’s Broadway performance may have had people paying $700 for a seat, “The Music Man” doesn’t need, or deserve, a movie remake unless it is willing to confront the racism and close-mindedness of River City. 

Otherwise, the goofy nostalgia of the original film is more than enough for me.

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