Patti Mariano remembers the fun of making her Broadway debut in The Music Man like it was yesterday. At the age of 12 she was doing the "Shipoopi" at Broadway's Majestic Theatre, attending a baby shower for Barbara Cook, and winning a Halloween costume contest thrown by the original Harold Hill, Robert Preston. Nine Broadway shows and 57 years later, the actress/choreographer is revisiting the Tony Award-winning musical at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport as Mrs. Paroo, before heading to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival to play Yente in Fiddler on the Roof. Mariano spoke with TheaterMania about how The Music Man helped to shape her lengthy, star-studded career.
You made your Broadway debut with your brother, Bob Mariano, when you were both very young. How did you make your way to The Music Man?
Growing up in Philadelphia I wanted to dance so much, so I was always dancing in front of the TV set. I asked for dance lessons for my birthday and my brother said, "I want them too," so we became a dance team. We won the contest for new faces on The Children's Hour. Later, we got a TV spectacular, Mr. Broadway, with Mickey Rooney. Then they were looking for children for The Music Man!
How is the current production of The Music Man at John W. Engeman Theater unique to others?
This is a wonderful production. The director, Igor Goldin, is so astute. He has such insight, and really instilled in everybody how to tell this particular story and what it meant. This is the first time I've done it in such an intimate theater. It is a small stage compared to the big Broadway stages, and what he was able to do with very little set and scenery is golden.
Why do you think The Music Man has remained a hit after all these years?
It's Americana. It's heartwarming and it's transforming. It's interesting, we won the Tony Award in 1958 over West Side Story. That's pretty amazing, isn't it? That is such an iconic show. I worked with Lee (Becker) Theodore (Anybodys in West Side Story) when we did The American Dance Machine, and I think she always held a slight grudge that we won the Tony that year (laughs). But I think that's what people wanted then. 42nd Street was sort of seedy, it wasn't Disneyland at that point, and The Music Man was like a breath of fresh air.
You've experienced the show in a few different incarnations, as you also choreographed a production in California, and starred as Mrs. Paroo in 2011 at Staten Island's Harbor Lights Theater. What have you taken away from your experiences with The Music Man?
I have so many incredible memories that flood back every time I do this. It has always been very dear to my heart because it was my first Broadway show and it was with my brother. Between Robert Preston, who always had champagne for everybody's birthday out on the bandstand, and Iggie Wolfington, who had balloons for all festivities at the Majestic Theatre alleyway, and Barbara Cook's baby shower (where everything was yellow because we didn't know if it was a boy or girl), it was always just so much fun. Bob [Preston] took all of us kids to the circus at Madison Square Garden when it was on 8th Avenue and 50th Street. I learned about having a theater family. I don't know that I've experienced anything quite like that since.
In looking back, what stands out as being the biggest change in the business?
Those were the times where you actually auditioned in the theater — now you go to studios. My brother and I were hired as the townkids. We were also the understudies for the three child roles, so there were only five children. At John W. Engeman Theater we have two different casts of children — nine each! Also, in 1957, something happened on the first day of rehearsal that has never happened since. Morton Da Costa, the director, sat the entire company down, and [Music Man author] Meredith Willson and his wife, Rini, sang and talked through the entire show. They did every part! We sat there mesmerized for over two hours. I don't think that would happen today. That was something really special that I will never forget.