Just before the curtain rises on The Music Man at the Neil Simon Theater, a baton comes flying straight up from the orchestra pit, spinning in the light for only a moment before disappearing back into the dark pit. A surprise and a delight for the audience – who knew my baton twirling skills from high school would end up on Broadway?
Tossing your baton high into stage lights is very brave. It totally disappears from your sight. You have to know the timing of your toss in order to catch it when it falls. That move is an apt metaphor for working in the theater – you toss your ideas into the air, watch them spin, and hope to God you catch it. Or that at least somebody catches it! You need talent and timing to pull off this move, but you also need a little bit of luck.
I felt very lucky to have made my Broadway directorial debut directing and choreographing the revival of The Music Man. I have to thank Michael David and the Dodgers for that opportunity. At the time there were hardly any women directors and he was giving me one of the biggest and beloved revivals to direct and choreograph – a woman! He was a brave man, tossing his producer’s baton into the air and I was lucky to catch it.
Growing up, The Music Man was one of my favorite movies. I was glued to the television whenever it came on. There is a line in the show when con man Harold Hill confesses to young Winthrop, saying to him, “I always think there’s a band, kid.” For those of us in the musical theater, that line resonates – we all always think there’s a band.
Harold Hill tells the children holding their newly bought instruments they need only think about the notes in order to play them – a revolutionary new method he refers to as the “Think System”. There is something about his “Think System” I want to believe in. It is nice to consider – if we simply think it, we all have it in ourselves to make it happen.
Tom Lynch, our clever set designer, created an amazing River City, Iowa, starting with a realistic train car that rides off stage to reveal an idyllic town square. All the locations portrayed a picturesque and charming slice of Middle America. He gave the show a flow and made it move right along with the choreography. There wasn’t a set piece we couldn’t dance on!
As a choreographer, I was able to give dance and movement a complete journey. When we first meet River City’s townspeople they are posed in a tableau, stock still, stiff in their posture. By the end, they are all dancing the “Shipoopi”! Throughout the show, Harold Hill slowly infuses the townspeople with rhythm and spirit, giving them an assurance in themselves that changes the whole character of River City.
My Harold Hill was the dashing Craig Bierko and Marian Paroo was the gorgeous Rebecca Luker. They were perfect for these roles – as if they were born to play them. Craig is a handsome leading man with an expressive face and a whole lot of charm. He has a terrific wit and sense of humor, and he applied his wisecracking personality directly to the role. He was constant fun in the rehearsal room and gave a bravura performance that drove the show.
Rebecca was perfection as Marian Paroo – sweet and vulnerable, but also a great strength of character. Her voice was sublime, a polished soprano that could make you melt. Rebecca made Marian a rich, nuanced character imbued with real, honest feelings. Through Marian’s eyes we see the town of River City change.
The cast looked up to both of them, particularly, Rebecca. The younger people in the show would follow her around and sit wherever she sat during the breaks. Together, they worked hard on their choreography. Neither was a dancer, but they embraced their steps with joy and determination. By the time we opened, they looked like naturals, dancing as one. In “Shipoopi”, Harold sweeps Marion off her feet with a two step that could win on Dancing with the Stars today!
Craig and Rebecca played their parts as true equals. You rooted for them to be together. In the show, Marian sings the love ballad “Goodnight, My Someone”, which is followed immediately by Harold singing “Seventy Six Trombones”. It is no mistake that Meredith Willson wrote Marian’s song with the same melody as Harold’s. He disguises it by putting “Goodnight, My Someone” in ¾ time and at a slower tempo. Harold and Marian are singing the same song, only in a different tempo and a meter that matches their personalities.
In many musicals, the ensemble will play different characters in different locations. In The Music Man, the ensemble plays the same River City characters for the duration of the evening – the opening train sequence being the only exception. That’s part of what makes the show so wonderful. It allows the director to delve into the smallest detail of a townsperson’s story, enriching the performance and making the town come alive with fully realized three-dimensional characters. I asked each actor to write an essay about their character. What did they do in the town? How were they related to one another? Were they actually related or just family friends? How did they feel about their neighbors? So many wonderful stories came out of those essays and we applied them to the staging and the scene work. The cast truly made the show their own.
The town ladies love to gossip and sound like a brood of hens when they do. William Ivey Long’s costumes for these talented women included big dramatic feathered hats. When the women stood clustered tightly together, they looked like a group of chickens. As they sang “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little”, their feathers would bob back and forth, adding to the humor and encouraging Harold Hill’s playful reactions.
These women were terrific. Their leader being Mayor Shinn’s wife, was played by the talented and hysterical Ruth Williamson. Paul Benedict was perfect as her hen-pecked husband and frustrated mayor. He has one of my most favorite lines in the whole show that I find myself still using today – “That fella's been the raspberry seed in my wisdom tooth long enough!”
A magic moment for me is when Mayor Shinn orders the bickering men of the school board to get Harold Hill’s credentials. Harold dupes the squabbling foursome into singing close, four-part chords, and they splendidly transform into a Barbershop Quartet. When these men – Jack Doyle, John Sloman, Michael-Leon Wooley, Blake Hammond – launched into that tight harmony, it was a mellifluous sound.
The tight-knit cast was filled with some incredible young performers and they all credit their time in The Music Man as life changing. Travis Wall and Chase Brock have become famous choreographers in their own right. An eleven-year-old girl grew up to be a renowned principal ballerina at New York City Ballet – Tiler Peck. And Clyde Alves, Robbie Nicholson, and Cameron Adams have gone on to be shining Broadway stalwarts.
One of the moments that is most remembered from this particular production is its ending. Whenever I reach the end of a novel, I find myself wondering what will become of its characters? And I make up my own story about how each one carries on with their lives. This happened to me at the end of The Music Man – how is the town of River City getting on? What is everyone doing? I came to the conclusion that the townspeople would be happily playing trombones or an instrument of some kind.
I asked Michael David if I could have a professional teach the full company how to play the trombone. I thought either it’ll work or it won’t. And if it doesn’t work, we will just end the show with a bow. To my surprise, Michael David gave me the green light and we quickly enlisted a trombone teacher. Every day at 4:00 pm, I would walk past the music room and it sounded terrible! It sounded like there was a moose in the music room – a lot of them! I thought it would never work, but as the weeks went on, I could not believe it – they were making music! I turned into one of the River City mothers from the final scene in the show, watching her children having learned to play an instrument using the “Think System”, seeing them as consummate musicians, forgiving all. I had that exact moment!
So I put together a finale in which the entire company came onstage playing “Seventy Six Trombones” and staged it like a marching band at a halftime show. William Ivey Long dressed them in stunning white, gold, and red band uniforms. The audience stood and cheered. I was so proud of them. What you really felt coming across the footlights was their own personal pride in what they had accomplished. The actors could not believe they were doing it!
Timing plays a great deal in how a musical or play fares when it opens during a particular season. That year I was nominated for four Tony Awards for my direction and choreography in Contact and The Music Man. Contact won, but the work in The Music Man still remains close to me. I loved my time on that show. You learn a great deal about your own work when you have the opportunity to explore one of the great American classics.
There is one more vivid memory I have, one that I cherish. It occurred the first night back after September 11th, 2001. At the very button of the finale, after the cast has played their instruments, a giant American flag unfurls across the back of the stage. When the theaters reopened and the audiences returned, that flag unfurled to the sound of applause and tears – it was emotional for everyone involved. Many of the stagehands would stand in the back of the theater every night and watch.
I stood in the back that night from the time the spinning baton flew high out of the pit, to the perfectly executed finale with tears in my eyes. That finale and that flag were the essence of the American spirit. The show The Music Man, in fact, had the best timing of all—the show gave people onstage, backstage, and in the audience a strength and a mechanism to cope with the grief.
Our musical director Eric Stern cued the orchestra and the stoic cast began to sing “God Bless America”. The audience joined in, as did I, and all the stage hands standing next to me. I watched those incredibly talented performers stand tall, and proud, and sing with tears rolling down their cheeks. Their American spirit was evident.
New York City must go on and in our great theater tradition: “The show must go on!”
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Thomas Lynch
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design by Jonathan Deans
Musical Direction by David Chase