Familiar ‘Music Man’ As Fresh As Today at Arena

Burke Moses as Harold Hill, Ian Berlin as Winthrop Paroo and Kate Baldwin as Marian Paroo in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of The Music Man May 11-July 22, 2012. | Scott Suchman

You got trouble, right here in River City, Harold Hill, Marian the Librarian Paroo and 76 trombones.
Sound familiar?

You guessed it. It’s “The Music Man,” an American musical classic, and just the kind of show, set in small-town America, populist and popular, made for endless summer stock and dinner theater seasons — and the kind of show critics looking for songs from the dark side love to sneer at.

In other words, like a fast ball over the plate for Babe Ruth, it’s perfect for artistic director Molly Smith and Arena Stage. They hit Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” out of the park in Arena’s pressure-filled inaugural offering at its expensive new digs in Mead Center for American Theater by making the venerable musical feel as fresh and as good as a dream dreamed last night.

It’s also perfect for Broadway musical stars Kate Baldwin (as Marian the very same librarian), and Burke Moses as Harold Hill, that sly salesman-con man brimming with enthusiasm and rascally charm as he tries to sell the folks of River City on the idea of a full-blown boys band complete with bright uniforms. Hence, the 76 trombones’ song.

Baldwin and Moses in a conference call just before a scheduled mid-day rehearsal revealed themselves to be American musicals enthusiasts and veterans, who see the form as fresh and challenging, a boon for audiences.

“It’s an American classic, and I’ve been dying to play Marian, because there’s so much to the role,” Baldwin said. “She’s a complicated woman, she’s a librarian and a music teacher. So, for this small town, she’s sort of the keeper of the cultural flame.”

“It’s one of those musicals you grow up with–that and “West Side Story,” which came out around the same time,” Moses said.

“The Music Man” by Meredith Wilson made its debut in 1957 and won out over the then-somewhat revolutionary “West Side Story” for the Tony Award for best musical. It starred Robert Preston, brimming with confidence and energy as Harold Hill, and newcomer Barbara Cook as Marian. Coincidentally, Cook will be appearing at the Kennedy Center in June.

Both Baldwin and Moses bridled at the idea that reprises and revivals of shows like “The Music Man” are somehow old fashioned. “They get done because they’re great shows,” said Baldwin, who dazzled on Broadway in “Finian’s Rainbow” and regionally in “My Fair Lady.” Baldwin, who has worked with Molly Smith before at Arena Stage when Smith reprised what was then a rarely done revival of “South Pacific,” said, “I think she [Smith] has a genius for making shows like this fresh and meaningful for contemporary audiences.”

“Let’s look at it this way,” Moses said. “What kind of opera season would you have if you did only new operas? If you stopped doing ‘Butterfly’ or ‘Aida’ because they’re old fashioned? Well, it’s the same for revival of classic musicals like ‘The Music Man.’ “

Smith has found a way to make her vision of “The Music Man” resonate for today’s audiences by setting it not in turn-of-the-century America circa the early 1900s but in Depression-era Iowa. The town is hurting, colorless and here comes this man with this energy and all this color. It shows the possibility that Hill, a con man, will run off with the money he’s raising for school band uniforms, a real disaster for a small town. On the other hand, it asks: what could raise the spirits of a struggling small town more than the prospect of band music and colorful uniforms?

“I know what it’s like to be a salesman,” Moses said. “And what it’s like to be Hill. In college, I sold quasi-encylopedias and children’s books, door to door. I can’t say I was very good at it. I did Harold Hill in summer stock when I was somewhat younger. Back then, you didn’t know quite what I was doing. I really love the part now. You embrace that energy.”

Hill is the con man who cautions the River City folks about the dangers of pool and sells them on the exuberant joyful noise of music in “76 Trombones” and, in his way, courts the shy but also eager Marian.

“What I’ve learned to do in preparing for this is to do what Kate tells me to do,” he said. “It’s easier that way. Naw, I love Kate. She just sort of sweeps you up.”

So, what about Marian, the librarian, and how do you prepare for that? “Well, I read a lot,” Baldwin quipped. “It’s such a cliche. She’s complex, she’s brave, she’s this cultural figure in town. But Hill kind of surprises here: he makes her broaden her horizons and think of new ideas.”

“Hill is an outsider,” Moses said. “Although she’s very much a part of the town, she’s also an outsider. He’s the guy who jazzes things up.”

Musically, “it’s a joy to sing the songs in this show,” said Baldwin, who has a highly-praised soprano voice. “I’m like this frog horn, next to this beautiful voice,” Moses added. That’s probably being a little modest since he originated the role of Gaston in the Disney-Broadway production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

“What I really would like to do, in terms of a bucket-list item, is “Sweeney Todd,” Moses said. “Hill and Sweeney … like light to dark.”

Talking with them, as the actors bantered, seems after a while like you’re in the room, waiting for rehearsal, waiting, even eager, for showtime. “Well, actually, I’m a little sleep deprived,” Baldwin said. “Colin, my one-year-old whom I have with me here, woke me up at 6:30 this morning.”

(“The Music Man” runs at Arena’ s Fichandler Theatre through July 22. Directed by Molly Smith, with choreography by Parker Ease and musical direction by Lawrence Goldberg, the cast also includes Will Burton, Juliane Godfrey, Nehal Joshi, John Lescault, Barbara Tirrell, Lawrence Redmond and others as well as five D.C.-area youths–Ian Berlin, Heidi Kaplan, Jaimie Goodson, Colin James Cech and Mia Goodman–chosen from an all-day casting call.)

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