With book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, The Music Man first hit Broadway on December 19, 1957 and went on to win five Tony awards, including best musical (beating out West Side Story). It solidified the theatrical stardom of leading man Robert Preston, who played Professor Harold Hill, the irresistible con man selling his wares of musical instruments for an all-boys band to the unwary citizens of River City, Iowa.
I caught up with the white-hot, super-talented Stroman--who is riding the wave of success of her earlier hit this season, Contact--and the show's cast at a rehearsal shortly before the opening. In a studio abuzz with enthusiasm, they were eager to talk about the new production.
The Music Man has been one of Stroman's favorite shows ever since she appeared as Zaneeta Shinn in a production in her home state of Delaware. "The show is about rhythm," Stroman says. "The rhythm and the pitch of the traveling salesman, and the rhythm of the people of Iowa and the marching bands. As a choreographer, I am about rhythm. No matter what piece of music I'm using, it has some sort of rhythmic beat to it, even if it's lyrical. So to be handed a show that's all about rhythm is perfect for me--and I embrace it with all of my technique."
"The Music Man is about second chances and redemption," Stroman explains. "It's about Harold Hill coming to this town and renewing it--giving it excitement and fancy. And he does this through music and dance. The town that he enters into is a very narrow-minded group of people, so we have this journey where they are all physically quite stiff in the beginning. But by the end of the second act when they're all doing 'Shipoopi', they're dancing with great abandon."
Stroman has made a star of newcomer Craig Bierko, who won the coveted role of Harold Hill. The producers, Dodger Theatrical, had planned on casting a star in the role; Steve Martin, Matthew Broderick, Scott Bakula, Kevin Kline, and Alec Baldwin were some of the names mentioned. After viewing his third and final audition, however, the producers gave Bierko the nod. "Craig has complete command for the language," Stroman says. "He has perfect diction, and speaks beautifully." The Music Man features one of the most difficult patter songs ever written, called "Trouble". According to Stroman, "When Craig does it, it's almost Shakespearean how he wraps his mouth around the lyrics."
Bierko is thrilled to be making his Broadway debut in The Music Man. "Even though it's a musical comedy, and sort of a happy slice of Americana, it's deceptive, because there are dark elements to it," he says. "The character of Harold Hill is kind of dark. I like the fact that there is a real, true character arc. He's not just a guy in a straw hat who sings a couple of songs and then sashays off into the sunset. He starts out sort of self-interested, and ends up falling in love and being touched by the people of this town. He also saves the town, but he's not aware that he is doing that, because what he's really trying to do is save his own butt. He sort of stumbles into being selfless. It is a wonderful journey to take each night. He's a lot of fun to play."
Rebecca Luker, who has one of the most glorious soprano voices heard on Broadway today, plays the role of Marian the librarian. She follows in the footsteps of the exquisite Barbara Cook, who created the role in 1957 and went on to win a Tony for her performance. "I love that the show is one unit," Luker states. "It all came from Meredith Willson's brain. There isn't one bit of fat in this show. Every note, every scene, every dance number is just wonderful musical comedy. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry. There was never anything written quite like this one: the speech rhythms that Willson was so in love with. I have a real soft spot in my heart for it."
In the comic role of Mayor Shinn is Paul Benedict, best known to TV audiences as Mr. Bentley on The Jeffersons. "I like the Mayor very much," Benedict says. "To me, he's sort of a combination of Lou Costello and Oliver Hardy. He's the buffoon, I'm afraid, but a nice buffoon. He goes from being just a loud-mouth pool hall owner to a man who has a lot of fun with his wife and his children." Ruth Williamson, who plays the mayor's wife, Eulalie, likens the role to that of another strong woman: Hillary Rodham Clinton. "They have a lot in common," Williamson insists. "They both love the spotlight. They cling to their maiden names, and have a certain theatricality about them. It's just so exciting to play her."
In addition to an incredible ensemble of gifted performers, the show's creative team includes set designer Thomas Lynch, costume designer William Ivey Long, and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski. But at the heart of Stroman's seamless production is the late Meredith Willson. In creating the show's score, lyrics, and book, Willson employed his own small-town sentiments to fabricate a musical rife with wonderment, nostalgia, and the miracle of life renewed. In an age ripe with cynicism The Music Man, written 43 years ago, takes us back to a bygone day, like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.