Last Saturday, the Fairfield University Glee Club performed at Norwalk’s City Hall in a concert version of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. The performance was done in collaboration between the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra and the New Paradigm Theatre Co., two of only twelve arts organizations in Connecticut that were awarded government funding to enhance the cultural economy of the state. 

Concert productions of musicals do away with sets and flashy costumes, and instead let the music take center stage; in this case, quite literally, as the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra was placed smack dab in the middle of the performance space. 

Actors performed an abbreviated version of Wilson’s original script and, of course, sang all the songs from this classic Golden Age musical. The Fairfield University Glee Club sang as the townspeople of River City, Iowa. 

Unfortunately, the club was placed so far back on stage that it was often difficult to see them from the audience. They only got the chance to perform a handful of numbers and they were constantly upstaged by the production’s proper cast. This is not to say the glee club did not perform well; they were simply not the audience’s focus throughout the show.

The production starred Matthew Faucher and Mia Gentile, two broadway actors who played the leading roles of Harold Hill and Marian Paroo accordingly. They were both phenomenal. It’s hard to believe they had only met each other a week before the performance and had just six days of rehearsal time. 

Talent in general was abundant on stage; I couldn’t point out anyone as the weakest link of the production. The orchestra played beautifully, the school board barbershop quartet was on point and the pick-a-little ladies were hilarious. 

(Photo courtesy of @newparadigmtheatre Instagram)

I realize that if you have never seen The Music Man before, this may all sound like gibberish to you. Although I had not seen a production of this play for about 10 years, I went into this performance with an understanding of the plot and characters. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting next to a woman in the audience who knew nothing about the play going in and reacted authentically as the story unfolded. 

Revisiting this play as an adult and getting the perspective of a newcomer, got me to reconsider The Music Man both as a theatrical piece and a piece of old fashioned Americana.

Don’t get me wrong, The Music Man is a good play with great music, which holds an important place in the artistic canon of musical theater. I’d argue it is the defining show of its era, but that’s the problem. It’s a time capsule with little room to grow in the modern era.

While the show first premiered in 1957, the story itself is set in 1912. Throughout the story, Marian, an intelligent librarian, is faced with prejudice and rumors about her personal life due to the fact that she is still not married by age 30. This comes with the time period. 

Marian starts as a strong heroine determined to expose Harold for the con-man he is but after she sees him make her brother Winthrop happy for the first time since the death of their father, she decides to cover for Harold instead. This makes sense for the character to do. What doesn’t make sense, however, is that in this same moment, she falls helplessly in love with Harold knowing full well that he is scamming the entire town. She endures sexual harassment by another salesman for him, and when Harold’s goose seems all but cooked at the end of the show, she justifies him stealing the town’s money simply because they were happy—believing his lies. 

Harold never has to face any consequences and even misses his chance to tell Marian the truth about himself during their climatic romantic scene. Harold is nothing like the man Marian dreams about earlier in the play, but she ends up with him anyway because the plot demands it.  

The 2022 revival of The Music Man attempted to update the show for modern audiences. I never got to see it during its run but one major change made can be found in its cast album’s version of the song “Shipoopi.” “Shipoopi” was originally about a man finding a woman, taking her out and judging her behavior in order to determine if she’s “the one.” It includes a number of lines that can be considered problematic by today’s standards such as: “Squeeze her once while she isn’t looking,” and “never get sore if you beg her pardon.”

The new version of the song has been rewritten completely.  The new lyrics serve as a celebration of consent and the men who practice it. The rewrite may be more politically correct but it destroys the spirit of the original, and acts as an incredibly inaccurate image of the past. I don’t think this is the right way to approach the show either, so what is to be done?

The correct approach to performing outdated musicals in the 21st century is regarding them with a hefty helping of irony. Meredith Wilson, an Iowa native, wrote The Music Man in part as a critique of the close-mindedness of his home town Mason City. Why not continue in this spirit and perform his musical as a critique of the past? 

I have seen this approach succeed before in PBS’s airing of 42nd Street where the song “Keep Young and Beautiful” acted as a commentary on the impossible standards women are expected to meet instead of setting them as originally intended. This transformation did not require a lyrical rewrite or sensitivity disclaimers, it simply was achieved through a change in attitude by the actors and director. 

The past deserves to be preserved so we can learn from its mistakes. One can enjoy a piece and acknowledge its shortcomings at the same time. Hopefully next year, the New Paradigm Theatre Co. will live up to its name and approach Oklahoma!, their next collaboration with The Norwalk Symphony Orchestra and Fairfield University Glee Club, with a more critical eye.

Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *