How “The Music Man” Might Salve the Country’s Anxieties

From a Washington Post column by Catherine Rampell headlined “How ‘The Music Man’ might salve some of our country’s anxieties”:

Some people have emotional support puppies. Some turn to chicken soup, a fancy meditation app or homeopathic tinctures.

This year, my therapy has been the Broadway revival of “The Music Man.”

Examined in the right light, this show might salve, if not entirely solve, some of our country’s anxieties, too.

For those unfamiliar, the musical centers on a charismatic con man who fleeces a bunch of rubes. Harold Hill (played by Hugh Jackman, somehow spryer and slicker than you’ve ever seen him) travels from town to town whipping up moral panics and cashing in on them. When he reaches River City, Iowa, Harold snookers the town into fearing the corrupting influence of a newly installed pool table:

YA GOT TROUBLE, FOLKS!
RIGHT HERE IN RIVER CITY
TROUBLE WITH A CAPITAL “T”
AND THAT RHYMES WITH “P”
AND THAT STANDS FOR POOL!

The cure for this menace, the charming scammer declares, is a wholesome boys marching band — which he’s conveniently poised to create, since he’s a “music professor” who sells instruments and band uniforms. None of this makes much sense, but whatever. Harold is irresistible, and the townspeople gladly buy the fantasy he’s peddling. They hand over their savings and await their deliveries from the Wells Fargo wagon.

Harold plans to hop the last train out of town before anyone realizes he’s musically illiterate. The scam is foiled, however, when the flimflammer falls for a local gal. This time he decides to stick around — because a real man, ahem, faces the music.

I’ve seen this latest production five times so far this year — usually by myself, often in moments of stress or uncertainty. I bought a last-minute ticket on Election Day, for example, to tear myself away from my computer screen and the urge to perpetually refresh the fear needle. Truly, there’s nothing like a tapdancing Wolverine to calm one’s political anxieties. That said, Broadway tickets are not exactly the cheapest analgesic (and not covered by my health insurance).

Why, then, am I aching for a sixth viewing, before the production closes next month?

Some charms of “The Music Man” are obvious. Witness writer Meredith Willson’s devious wordplay and the verbal contortions he crams into his high-speed patter songs:

HE’S JUST A BANG BEAT, BELL-RINGIN’,
BIG HAUL, GREAT GO, NECK-OR-NOTHIN’,
RIP-ROARIN’, EVER’-TIME-A-BULL’S-EYE SALESMAN,
THAT’S PROFESSOR HAROLD HILL, HAROLD HILL.

There’s the joyful swagger of “Seventy-Six Trombones.” In this production, the anthem is masterfully choreographed by Warren Carlyle, who alchemizes his dancers’ limbs into layers and layers of imagined brass instruments.

And there’s so much delightful mischief in “Marian the Librarian,” in which Harold enlists the town’s children into his flirtation with the town’s standoffish librarian, Marian Paroo (a winning, if somewhat miscast, Sutton Foster). Marian’s quiet library erupts into chaos, with books flying, legs pinwheeling and lots of futile shushing.

Even “Shipoopi,” perhaps the most fatuous song in Broadway history, earns its place in this production. That’s because it gives Foster — a fabulous dancer trapped in a mostly stationary role — a chance finally to stretch her legs at the start of Act II.

The show also features some quietly subversive sexual politics, perhaps unexpected given its G-rated reputation. Harold, for instance, sings a rat-a-tat rebuke of men’s typical fetishization of feminine “purity”: Our salesman prefers a “sadder but wiser girl,” as cynical Marian is presumed to be. (“I CHEER, I RAVE FOR THE VIRTUE I’M TOO LATE TO SAVE … I HOPE, I PRAY FOR HESTER TO WIN JUST ONE MORE A.”)

But I think the real reason I’ve so often sought comfort in “The Music Man” is that this show, like Harold Hill himself, is selling a fantasy. Specifically, a fantasy about how Americans can actually get along.

“The Music Man” is about the healing nature of the arts. Harold teaches discordant neighbors to live in harmony — quite literally — by transforming the town’s bickering school board into a barbershop quartet. Even bad art, our River City residents learn, can be restorative. The interpretive dances led by the mayor’s wife are wondrously awful. At the show’s end, when the boys’ band bleats an out-of-sync “Minuet in G,” parents nonetheless gush over their children’s sour oom-pah-pahs.

And all’s forgiven.

It’s this forgiveness, lubricated by love and music, that makes “The Music Man” so seductive. A community has been hoodwinked by an admitted fraud. Townspeople could have emerged humiliated, suspicious, divided. Instead, somehow, they emerge from their collective trauma stronger and more tightly knit than before. Harold’s manipulations have opened them up, rather than closed them off.

They were lied to, yes; but ultimately they realize they wanted to be lied to. Even better, the con man isn’t so much a psychopathic shyster as a misguided cheerleader with an overactive imagination. No wonder everyone can just move on!

If only we could all live in River City.

Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, immigration and politics, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times.

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