Broderick has had a notably erratic career, his stage and film performances having ranged from wonderful (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Producers) to abysmal (Taller Than a Dwarf, Night Must Fall, and now The Music Man). It wouldn't be fair to say that Broderick has no range: Towards the beginning of his career, he was impressive in a TV version of Master Harold...and the boys, complete with a skillful South African accent. Nor did his role in the film Election have much in common with his role in How to Succeed. But because of his unique vocal type, physical appearance, and body language, Broderick is far more limited than other actors in terms of the parts he can convincingly play, and Harold Hill is simply not within his fach. His singing voice is inappropriate, his dancing stiff and robotic, his looks and demeanor all wrong for the role. And to describe his romantic chemistry with leading lady Kristin Chenoweth as negligible would be to put it mildly.
In a recent interview, Broderick made the amazing statement that he himself feels he can't really act, sing, or dance. While that's an exaggeration, it's all too true that he can't properly act, sing, or dance his role in The Music Man. In fact, he hasn't been this sorely miscast since he played a supposedly stunning sex object in the film version of Torch Song Trilogy.
As just about everyone knows, the great Robert Preston starred as Hill in the original 1957 Broadway production of The Music Man (opposite Barbara Cook) and his performance was considered so definitive that he got to recreate it in the 1962 Warner Bros. film version of the musical (opposite Shirley Jones). To offer a detailed comparison of Preston's characterization with Broderick's would be cruel, so one example will have to suffice. In the "76 Trombones" number, Hill recalls for the riveted townsfolk the (fictitious) moment from his youth when a group of legendary bandleaders including "the great Creatore, W.C. Handy, and John Philip Sousa all came to town on the very same historic day!" Preston delivers this spoken line with such excitement in his voice that it perfectly motivates the thrilling brass fanfare that leads into the chorus of the song. In contrast, Broderick's delivery is so flat and boring that it's a wonder he doesn't send the River Citizens off to slumber land.
Though the egregious miscasting of the title role is by far the greatest blight on this Music Man, the movie's problems don't end there. Kristin Chenoweth would seem to have been ideally suited to the role of Marian the Librarian, yet she's off her best form. First of all, she suffers from someone's foolish decision to drastically lower the keys of two of her big numbers, "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You." Presumably, this was done to achieve a more "natural," less operatic sound, but the actual effect is to make Chenoweth's voice sound less than gorgeous -- and that takes some doing, my friends. (Strangely but happily, Chenoweth's first big number, "Goodnight, My Someone," is sung in the original soprano key.) Perhaps due to a lack of guidance from director Jeff Bleckner, Chenoweth makes some odd acting choices, none more odd than her sexual aggressiveness toward Broderick in the pivotal footbridge scene near the end the film. And this beautiful actress is ill served by an unflattering hairstyle, funny hats, and several badly lit close-ups.
Many of the other actors in the film are almost as miscast as Broderick. The fact that Victor Garber and Molly Shannon are too young looking for the roles of Mayor Shinn and his wife wouldn't matter much if they weren't also desperately unfunny here. As Harold Hill's sidekick Marcellus, David Aaron Baker is less of a character type than we usually see in this part; in fact, he arguably possesses more conventional leading man sex appeal than Broderick! As that "wild kid" Tommy Djilas, Clyde Alves has been recruited from the recent Broadway revival of The Music Man and has unfortunately brought along with him the strange facial tics he exhibits while dancing. On the plus side, Debra Monk is warm and winning as Mrs. Paroo, and nine-year-old Cameron Monaghan is a cute, Howdy-Doodyish Winthrop.
As to the ensemble, there's trouble in River City right from the start: Some of the men who have solo lines in the first two numbers, "Rock Island" and "Iowa Stubborn," seem more like gay New York City chorus boys than authentic small-town residents, and this effectively destroys the fantasy world of the film before it has even been established. One of the major points of The Music Man is that River City, Iowa is a parochial, judgmental town, but that picture is not painted here; instead, we're introduced to a rainbow community in which nobody looks twice when mixed-race couples hold hands in public. (How good of Disney to teach children that Iowa was a bastion of equality between blacks and whites in the early years of the 20th century. See what you can learn from television?)
Kathleen Marshall's choreography is fine, although she can't do a thing with Broderick. I enjoyed the fact that the "Shipoopi" number involves many of the central characters -- including the Shinns and Winthrop -- and therefore seems less superfluous than usual. On the other hand, a fantasy sequence during "Marian the Librarian" is forced and unnecessary. Aside from some of the keys chosen for Chenoweth, the musical arrangements and orchestrations are generally excellent (Michael Kosarin conducts and Danny Troob is credited as supervising orchestrator). The cast members' lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks is good throughout.
The biggest mystery surrounding ABC/Disney's The Music Man -- even more mystifying than the presence of Matthew Broderick as Harold Hill -- is why executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron chose this property for TV movie treatment in the first place. My best guess is that the powers that be pored over demographic data to determine which shows are most likely to appeal to a general audience, based in part on the frequency of their production by community theaters, schools, and other non-professional troupes across the U.S. That's why, for all the wrong reasons, musicals like The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof end up high on the list of possibilities for remakes even though their existing movie versions are among the best in the genre. Well, listen up: There will never be a finer film of The Music Man than the one that Warner Bros. released in 1962, directed by Morton DaCosta and starring Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Pert Kelton, Ronnie Howard, Paul Ford, and Hermione Gingold. Accept no substitutes.