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The Music (Man) That (Doesn't) Make Me Dance

Filichia renders his verdict on the new Music Man, starring Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth. logo

Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Broderick in
the new TV movie of The Music Man
So, did we all enjoy the TV version of The Music Man last night? No? I agree. I was often genuinely appalled, though I'll admit that this may be because The Music Man has been an important musical to me. It was the first show that I'd already seen on stage (in its final national tour, which came to the Shubert in Boston in 1962) to become a movie (just five months later, which I saw on opening day at the Astor Theatre).

I come not to bury Matthew Broderick -- but I don't come to praise him, either. He gave a perfectly decent high-school performance. (Whoops! Did I just bury him?) He did seem more interested in singing "76 Trombones" than selling it. But the other performers didn't bother me. Much has been made of the lowered keys for Kristin Chenoweth, but that probably happened because young viewers hate soprano singing and think it the worst offense of musical theater. For that matter, I didn't have a big issue with blacks and whites holding hands together, even though of course we all know that didn't happen in 1912 Iowa. It was obviously director Jeff Bleckner's intention to bring to the nation the concept of non-traditional casting that movies and television have heretofore denied them. Okay.

But some decisions made by adapter Sally Robinson horrified me. Did you too have an uneasy feeling during "Rock Island" when we got recognizable close-ups of parts of Broderick's face? Part of the fun of the number is not knowing -- indeed, not noticing -- that silent guy with his back to us. That way, when he suddenly stands, turns, and shows us that he's Harold Hill, we along with the salesmen are among his first victims. The fun of being fooled was denied us here; instead, we could figure out in advance that there was Harold Hill right before us.

Did you sense that we were in serious trouble the second time Harold tried to talk to Marian? In the '62 film, Shirley Jones angrily whirled around and said, "Mister Hill," to which Robert Preston replied, "Oh, please, please" -- leading us to believe he was going to chummily say, "Call me Harold." But no: Preston did just the opposite, insisting on the more formal "Professor Hill." The master had fooled us again. In this TV movie, after Chenoweth snorted "Mister Hill," Broderick just stated "Professor Hill" without misleading us for a moment. That wasn't nearly as interesting.

Did you smite your forehead along with me during the fantasy sequence in "Marian the Librarian?" Could you buy the creators' choice mid-number, when Marian's dress magically transformed itself into a sweet little Alice-blue gown while Harold's duds became one of those European military uniforms with a big sash bisecting his chest, making him look like the Prince Regent of Carpathia? As they waltzed around the dance floor, I'm guessing that you were as horrified as I -- not because the pair looked like Disney's Beauty and the Beast but because you, like me, don't want Marian to fall in love with Harold at that moment. That can't happen until the Wells Fargo Wagon arrives, when Harold makes Winthrop come alive by handing him the cornet. When Marian sees how excited the kid is, that -- and only that -- makes her fall in love with Professor Harold Hill. For two years, Marian and her mother have been trying to get through to Winthrop and nothing has worked, but suddenly the kid's talking a mile a minute and not caring if he lisps. Here, the suggestion that Marian already finds Harold attractive was a gross misstep.

In the original film, Harold Hill (Robert Preston) didn’t
reveal himself until the end of "Rock Island"
Speaking of that Wells Fargo Wagon: Did you wonder why, if everybody was supposedly so excited about its arrival, one kid was in the back yard swinging under a tree when she should have been rushing out to meet the truck? Ditto the kids in the ice cream parlor, content to wait for their sundaes instead of checking out the merchandise. Strangest of all were the little leaguers in the locker room who are singing about the wagon while choosing who's going to be the first up in a baseball game via that hand-over-hand-on-a-bat ritual. I'll grant you that the quick cutting made the number more cinematic, but logic should be the first consideration -- as it was in the '62 film, where the whole town was on Main Street waiting for the wagon to arrive. (While I'm trashing "Wells Fargo Wagon," let me add that Broderick was awfully slow in presenting Winthrop with the instrument.)

Did you throw up your hands (or just throw up) when Marian confronted Harold after salesman Charlie Cowell had warned her that Hill probably has a girl in every town? Originally, after Marian said, "One hears rumors of traveling salesmen," Harold adeptly countered with "One even hears rumors about librarians." Checkmate! He had her dead to rights, because she knew it was true, what with all those townswomen picking a little and talking a lot about her. Originally, Marian felt compelled to defend herself and, as she did so, she proved Harold's point that rumors about anyone can't be automatically believed. Were you as dismayed as I when, in the TV movie, Chenoweth said "One hears rumors of traveling salesmen" and Broderick gave out with a nervous, "What have you heard?"

I'm not saying that the 1962 film was perfect. It made a mistake in moving "Shipoopi" from the spot as the second song in the second act to the musical's penultimate space. Too bad, for the story was building to a finish, as Marian said she'd meet Harold at the forbidden footbridge. That's what we wanted to see, not another number. If Robinson felt a profound urge to rewrite, she should have fixed this. I would also have liked it if she had eliminated one of the three times that Harold avoided the barbershop quartet's requests for his credentials; the fact that he gets them to sing and harmonize instead happens once too often for my taste.

And what of Harold Hill's biggest moment? In the '62 movie, after Winthrop challenged Hill with "What band?" Preston handled the line, "I always think there's a band, kid" with a wealth of emotion in his voice. Last night, weren't you chagrined by Broderick's delivery, as he seemed to be mouthing the eight syllables he'd once read on a page?

When the parents finally heard the playing of their incompetent child musicians and were overjoyed, I didn't shed a tear; Alma screamed "That's my Barney!" much too quickly. During the telecast, I myself did a lot of screaming at my TV set. Thank God I'm anti-gun, for had I been armed, I might have shot the messenger.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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