December 24, 2015
The Music Man – US, 1962
A movie is not a Broadway musical. To be sure, Broadway musicals have been made into movies, sometimes very successfully. However, the expectations of Broadway audiences are often quite different from those of a film. To a Broadway audience, it is the spectacle that is partly responsible for their enjoyment or lack there of. A musical’s lavish dance numbers, replete with complex dance steps and toe-tapping songs, can astonish and amaze, regardless of whether or not they move the central plot along. And audiences don’t mind solo numbers in which a character takes three minutes to say what could easily have been conveyed in a thirty second monologue. The audience for a film often has different expectations. To them, less may be more.
Morton DaCosta‘s 1962 adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man is the equivalent of a superhero movie that faithfully presents the origin of its chief protagonist. In other words, it will please the musical’s most ardent enthusiasts, fans who are often tickled pink at the inclusion of every one of the stage version’s characters and musical numbers. In fact, to die-hard fans of musicals, the exclusion of a favorite song-and-dance number is nothing short of sacrilegious.
The Music Man tells the well-known story of “Professor” Harold Hill, a con man masquerading as a traveling salesman. His latest con is to form youth bands, sell eager wide-eyed parents instruments and uniforms at exorbitant prices, and then skip town before anyone is the wiser. The Music Man tells of his efforts in River City, Iowa, and details how the experience is almost his undoing. The role of Mr. Hill is energetically played by Robert Preston, here reprising the role he played on Broadway. The role of Marian Paroo, the town’s librarian who steals his heart, is played by Oscar-winner Shirley Jones, and it is a delight to watch her go from being closed off and slightly uptight to the overjoyed woman who lets herself go and dances with such delight during “Marian the Librarian,” one of the film’s most impressive numbers.
When these two characters are on the screen together, The Music Man crackles with energy and engages like few musicals before it or since. However, if I’m honest, I will admit to being frustrated at the pacing of the first half of the film. After the film’s informative and fun opening number, “Rock Island,” the film grinds to a halt with “Iowa Stubborn.” It picks up the energy again with “(Ya Got) Trouble,” only to lose it with a song sung during a piano lesson and the syrupy “Goodnight, My Someone.” And this is a pattern throughout the film. For every number that moves the plot forward, there are twice as many that don't. Later in the film, even high energy numbers are guilty of this, for just what is the point of building up tension just to put it on hold in order to have Buddy Hackett sing “Shipoopi’? Admittedly, the number is well choreographed and impressively performed, yet it stunts the film at the most inopportune moment.
Again, none of this is a problem when watched live. However, on the screen, it diminishes the experience, partly due to the limitations of the camera. A live audience sees the complete picture. For example, they see Harold Hill preaching against the sins of billiards and the audience’s stunned reactions simultaneously, making the moment both powerful and revelatory. In the film, the camera cuts between Hill and his audience or uses close ups or centered shots that cut off our view of Hill’s audience. The result is a scene that is less impressive that it is when viewed live, for much of what we see is people standing around and not interacting with each other. At other times, slow numbers that warm a live audience’s heart and impress because of the range they require seem superfluous or unnecessarily long. For example, does the film really need “Lida Rose,” “Will I Ever Tell You?” and “My White Knight”? For that matter, does it really need “Gary, Indiana”? I would say it does not.
The Music Man has a running time of just over two and a half hours, which is about what the stage version of the musical clocks in at. To me, this was too much. It robs the film of its sense of timing, and makes it so not much happens for the first half of the film. Purists will love it for what it is, a faithful rendition of the live experience. For other, it may prove revelatory, but not for the reason they might expect. True, the musical numbers are pleasant to listen to and occasionally thrilling to observe, yet films are not theatrical musicals, and The Music Man is unfortunately proof that what works on one stage may not work so well on another. (on DVD)