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The Music Man Meets the Press

Craig Bierko, Rebecca Luker and company prepare to bring River City to New York City. logo
When the press gathered last week for a sneak peek at Susan Stroman's upcoming revival of The Music Man, the center of attention was a very tall (6'5", according to his fan worship website), very handsome movie actor named Craig Bierko--soon to be known as Stroman's Harold Hill. Bierko's casting, over the likes of Matthew Broderick and Scott Bakula, took Broadway by surprise. Who, after all, would expect the star of action thrillers like The Thirteenth Floor and The Long Kiss Goodnight to turn up on the streets of River City, Iowa, warning against the evils of words like "swell" and "so's your old man"? Bierko has flirted with Calista Flockhart on Ally McBeal and co-starred with Dabney Coleman in TV's Madman of the People, but his theater experience is limited to a staged reading or two.

But if the season's most intriguing leading man feels pressure, he didn't show it during run-throughs of the songs "Trouble" and "Seventy-Six Trombones." With crystal clear diction and a look of wide-eyed mischief, Bierko seemed at ease with patter, song, and Stroman's acrobatic choreography. His explanation for remaining cool in the face of cameras, producers, and assorted outsiders: "I'm pretty drunk." He's a kidder, too--a quality that should serve him well in playing one of musical theater's most charming rogues. "It's the closest I'm going to ever get to being a rap star," the 34-year-old actor told CNN after winning the role. His producers will settle for Bierko becoming a Broadway star when The Music Man opens at the Neil Simon Theatre on April 26.

"It makes no sense on paper," Dodger Theatricals' always quotable Michael David says of casting Bierko. "And I must say that, when we began, we never imagined that something like this would happen. But we played the game fairly, and he won the role. He did it five times against all sorts of other wonderful people and, each time, we looked at each other and said, 'The guy is incredible.' Does it increase the risk? In some ways, sure. But you're in this business for the action, and casting him in The Music Man increases the action."

One need only look to Douglas Sills' performance in The Scarlet Pimpernel as an example of what a talented Broadway newcomer can do with a big, juicy role. (Sills did have extensive theatrical credits on the road.) And the ghost of Robert Preston doesn't seem to loom quite so large over Bierko when one considers how easily Tony winner Alan Cumming made another signature role--the Emcee in Cabaret--his own. Still, The Music Man demands a certain level of star power, a fact acknowledged by Stroman herself.

"It all rests of Craig really; he is the force of the show," says the highly respected director/choreographer. "The producers wanted me to find a fellow from the TV or film world, and we saw a lot of people. What Craig had that nobody else had was a complete command of the language. He has power in his speaking voice, and The Music Man is all about the rhythm of the traveling salesman's pitch. If you don't have command of your voice for the stage, you cannot do this show. Craig has perfect diction, he's a wonderful, elegant comedian, and," she adds with a smile, "he's not bad to look at. I feel blessed that he came in to audition, because he really earned the part."

Stroman has always had a good casting eye. Her breakthrough show as a choreographer, the 1991 off-Broadway Kander and Ebb revue And the World Goes Round, featured Karen Ziemba, Robert Cuccioli, Karen Mason, Brenda Pressley, and Jim Walton (now Bierko's understudy). Last fall, she plucked former Rockette Deborah Yates--now known as the Girl in the Yellow Dress in Stroman's hit dance play Contact--from a chorus casting call.

"It's nice to trust your driver when you're in a swiftly moving vehicle," Bierko quips of putting himself in Stroman's hands. He says of The Music Man's lengthy audition process, "If Susan Stroman was interested in seeing me for a role, I was interested in auditioning. Happily, we connected, and she liked what she saw enough to cast me. Now, when I watch these actors rehearse, I just think: 'I'm okay. This is going to be fine.' It's amazing to feel so supported by such talented people."

While guiding The Music Man through rehearsals, Stroman was overseeing the transfer of Contact from the Newhouse to the Beaumont Theatre, a move which makes the show Tony eligible. "The fact that both shows landed in the same season is incredible," she acknowledges. "Contact is unbelievably contemporary, with mature, adult themes. The Music Man, of course, is a family-oriented revival, so they're very different. But they're both very much a part of me. These two shows round out my entire emotional system; to have my dark side and my musical comedy side exposed to the Broadway community at the same time is great." (Sadly for both Stroman and the community, her husband and frequent collaborator, director Mike Ockrent, died of leukemia in December.)
Stroman finds a depth of feeling below The Music Man's old-fashioned surface. "There's something about this show that pushes the emotional buttons of people who love the theater," she says. "There's a line in the second act where Winthrop says, 'Where's the band?' And Harold Hill says to him, 'I always think there's a band, kid.' If you're in the musical theater, it's because you always think there's a band. That's how I've lived my whole life. Harold believes that if you think the Minuet in G, you can play it. Most people in musical theater are where they are today because of the think system."

Asked if she feels compelled to change the show, Stroman replies quickly, "I'm enhancing it. It is The Music Man everyone knows and loves, but I've been able to develop the dance arrangements to match my choreography. There will be much more dance, which is only natural, because Harold Hill brings music and dance to this town. The town starts off very stiff and narrow-minded, and we'll actually see him teach the people to move." (Watch for a Les Miz-like moment in the "Seventy-Six Trombones" number; Stroman fans will recall that she wittily tipped her cap to Les Miz's barricade scene in Crazy for You.)

Notes actress Ruth Williamson, "Susan's mind works differently from anybody I've ever worked with. There's nothing linear in the way she thinks. She's stimulated from every direction, even by mistakes. She's really an inspiring talent." Williamson, a bright spot in last fall's flop comedy Epic Proportions and Broadway revivals of Little Me and Guys and Dolls, plays the mayor's wife, Eulalie McKechnie Shinn in The Music Man, which she praises as "a play about second chances and about the healing power of music. It will eternally be loved because of its themes."

Talk of the ever-popular 1962 film version is forbidden in Stroman's rehearsal room. "Every time one of us brings up the movie or some other version of the show, Susan says, 'Get that out of your head,'" reports Rebecca Luker, who plays Marian the Librarian. By now, Luker is an old hand at recreating classic musical roles (in Show Boat, The Sound of Music, etc.), and she says, "For me, it starts with trying to make the character honest and real. Meredith Willson himself wanted River City to be a Valentine and not a caricature." Luker sees her work in revivals as "a privilege, not a chore. I've done plenty of new shows out-of-town that haven't made it in, but a show like this a wonderful challenge." She adds, "They didn't think of me at first for this. It was a long and arduous audition process."

In the end, Stroman chose a mix of stage vets (Luker, Williamson, Paul Benedict as Mayor Shinn) and fresh talents from film and TV (Bierko, Max Casella of The Lion King and TV's Doogie Howser, M.D. as Harold's sidekick Marcellus). "I never thought of this in terms of taking time off from my film career," notes Bierko. "I just thought, 'What an incredible opportunity.' I've gotten to work with some of my favorite directors that way: Renny Harlin [The Long Kiss Goodnight], Terry Gilliam [Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas], Larry David [Sour Grapes]." Unable to control his funny side, Bierko adds: "Actually, this is all going to end with me coming back and being a waiter."

Though Harold Hill may not be an action hero, his complexity appeals to Bierko. "I like the fact that he's a dark character. But if he's not innately charming and likeable, then his sales pitch doesn't work and the play doesn't have movement. If you don't believe that people would trust him on some level and yet see that there's a certain malevolence and self-interest in him, you're dead from the start."

Bierko's cast mates have faith in his ability to deliver. "He's got a real magic about him," says Luker. Agrees Williamson, "He's funny, he's gorgeous, he's charismatic, and the voice is delicious. I think he's going to take the town by storm."

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