Monday, October 3, 2016

Music and a Man

In 1957, many theater critics became upset that the massive and distinctive West Side Story of Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Robbins was overlooked for the Antoinette Perry Awards for best musical play; instead the “Tony” went to Meredith Willson's first musical, The Music Man. Subsequently, the motion picture version of West Side Story was more successful in Academy Award recognition than The Music Man, but the latter film, like the play, was far more economically successful than the musical-Manhattan version of Romeo and Juliet. The principal, superficial difference between the two plays is the tragic ending of West Side Story compared to the happy-ever-after of The Music Man. But the former play has its (dark) comedic side, and there is no small amount of darkness in the latter, a significant portion of which is after dark.

Willson's play is commonly described as a fond remembrance of his Iowa boyhood combined with a salute to John Philip Sousa, in whose band Willson played flute, early in his career. When viewed through the lens of archetype and fulfillment, The Music Man is something more: a masculine  ego (Professor Harold Hill) encounters unconscious feminine (not Marian, librarian; rather River City) as a result of the profound masculine touch of truth (masquerading as con, masquerading as salvation, recognized by the one other musician, and the hidden musicians of the barbershop/school board and boys). (And that is a simple explanation?)

There are still mysteries in this seemingly slight story: Marian and Winthrop’s dead father, the town’s outcast benefactor, and the true extent of alias Professor Harold Hill’s musical talents. As with My Fair Lady, the protagonist is “Professor,”assertive, leading, and "learned," There is also the paradox of music brought to River City, when it already has its piano teacher, Marian, and in the convention of the Broadway musical, the townspeople already know how to sing. Whether it be an ironic and ambivalent, but prophetic welcome to “Iowa” or a panic-stricken echo in “Trouble,” The Music Man isn’t really about Harold Hill bringing music to a small city in Iowa, as it is about change and awakening of a boy, a woman, a man…an entire town. That change brings the sexes together: Marian and Harold, the teenagers, the mayor and his wife.

One of the most profound of masculine abuses is the exploitation of another’s needs. The salesmen on the train decry credit and the failure to “know the territory”. Harold Hill supposedly doesn’t know the Iowa “territory”. The notion and anvil salesmen supposedly do. They “know” the rhythm of the train after all, but who really does know the territory of human relationships?

What prompts the change in each person? The cynical professor, from his previous experience and success assumes each territory is the same: “green people” means “green money”. Or is it, green as in naïve or green as in envious? Or green as in alive and growing? To the cunning salesman, all three greens are required; to the extent that each is not completely present, it must be cultivated and brought forth. Imagined discontent is quickly created from the installation of a pocket billiards table in the billiards room (is the table surface felt green or green felt?). “Massteria” grows into a ripe crop for the professor to harvest. But, what of the only conscious musician, indeed the only intellectual in town: the maid, Marian? The way to deal with her lack of naïveté is to cultivate her shy, introverted little brother. Harold Hill plays with very dangerous ingredients; there is a strange kind of power involved in attempting to heal a wounded child (as Spielberg explored, to the tune of John Williams' score,  in ET: The Extraterrestrial). The hurt little boy inside the adult salesman who the was-to-be “healer” is also vulnerable. There is an alleged tradition of some non-western cultures: the rescuer of one from death is responsible for the saved person for life. While such explicit traditions are alien in the West (rather, some form of gratitude by the saved is expected), there is, nevertheless, a dynamic connection that is established between healer and healed. Further, the results of a healing transcend the two persons involved. The heart of Marian is touched deeply by the transformation of her little brother and, fully realizing the salesman’s deception and dishonesty, becomes Harold Hill’s advocate. The professor encounters a town that really needs what he has to offer, and he discovers that he equally needs that town and its librarian.

Harold Hill’s fraud proved to be somewhat less than fraudulent; the town indeed got what it paid for, a way to keep the young ones (and older ones, too) moral after school. What is more moral than honest, faithful, and open relationship with another, and of consciousness and visibility of which had been unconscious and hidden? The male can discover that he has the power to affect other people for better not worse, by coming into honest relationship with them. Salesmanship invests a great deal in establishing relationships, but not necessarily for its own sake. Rather, completing the superficial deal is the focus, the relationship a means to an end. Failure of the salesman to deliver what is promised is more costly than the actual transaction would imply, because an unconscious deal has also been betrayed. The surface transaction symbolizes a subsurface encounter imbued with a power that can give life or take it away. The betrayal of the customer by the salesman is also a betrayal of salesman himself. Harold Hill’s day-dream of himself as another Sousa had been repeatedly denied, town after betrayed town, even before entering Iowa.

For Harold Hill, the transformation comes when he begins to recognize that human relationships are far more valuable than the proceeds of a sales campaign. His leit motif, the unidirectional march, “Seventy-six trombones”, is also a waltz, in a different rhythm, cyclic and relational. (There is here a hint of a reference to the apocryphal story of John Phillip Sousa’s Thunderer, which is said to have originated as a ballad... at least according to the cinematic biography of the March King, Stars and Stripes Forever.) The green people in River City are alive, even if somewhat obtuse, and Hill, after so many other towns, finally recognizes their liveliness. As the boys, believing in Harold Hill and his “think system” begin playing the most marginal of marginals “Minuet in G” (“G” for green?), their parents discover their greenness, their own life, right there in River City.

What saves Harold Hill? There are two episodes of salvation, after all. The first comes from within: “For the first time I let my foot be caught in the door.” This statement, to anyone who has ever read Chick Young’s Blondie comic strip, makes no obvious sense; the salesman purposely catches his foot in the door so as to continue his spiel, despite the potential customer’s hostility. In context, his being caught has another meaning: the sales pitch he had been offering must be allowed to go to its logical conclusion. Before, he never stayed long enough to really complete the sale. (And the second scene? Please keep reading...)

“O you’ve got trouble…” The traveling con artist must convince his marks of a need they have of which formerly they were unaware. But, is there really trouble in River City?

As he steps off the train, Professor Hill is greeted with a most peculiar welcome to the State of Iowa, River City version. Contrary, stubborn, undemonstrative, and independent: that's Iowa: every man for himself; cold and distant, and uncharitable, “unless your crop should happen to die.”

Beneath the cold, self-sufficient work ethic of the town, there is a sterile division. The slight subplot involving the mayor’s teenage daughter and the town ne’er-do-well typifies the ultra-clean prudery. “Ya wild kid ya,” lamely yells the mayor at Tommy.

In his efforts to sell the town on a band, Hill begins the process of healing a hidden wound. The town council is composed of those Iowans who never see eye to eye. Miraculously, the school board (why not the city council?) learns they have the ability to sing together, distracting them from their unfulfilled insistence for Hill’s credentials. The reality is that Hill, by bringing the quartet together, demonstrates a different kind of credential. And the ladies, instead of spending their time gossiping about the “scandalous”' Marian become engaged in cultural activities, forming living classical Greek sculptures. A more fundamental division seem to exist, hinted at by the mayor’s discouragement of his daughter’s juvenile romance: Marian’s spurning of Harold Hill’s advances, the all-male barber shop quartet, and the absurd (?) Grecian urn.

John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” describes the inscribed youth forever pursuing a young woman in a hopeless race around the circumferential face of the vase. For eternity they are destined to be separated, the youth never getting closer to the girl, than he is now, she unable to slow down to his embrace, Who can circumvent this fruitless eternal race?

But the deep-seated division is not merely within the town, or Marian, however, but within Professor Hill himself. It is he who has drawn the school board into a barbershop quartet; it is Harold Hill who has formed the ladies' classics society, even as the boys band is yet to be more than a dream, a fantasy. Only his calculating (but uninformed) encouragement of Tommy and the mayor's daughter's relationship, and his initial cynical cultivation of relationship with Marian hint at any desire he might really have for healing the division within himself. Hill acknowledges from the beginning that he is a con artist, seeking green people and green money. Green as in naive, but also green as in alive. His cynical gift is to create a need for his product by preying on the deeper needs of the people (which needs he can really know only from his own, neglected desires). This gift is most explicitly revealed when his tells his old friend of his preference for the “sadder but wiser girl.” He prefers not to deflower the innocent (but calculating) maiden, but harvest from the old established garden plot. Puzzlingly, a young girl is seen to be eavesdropping on Hill's performance and ends up dancing with the two men. While the language is over her head, her presence can only betray Hill’s self-deception. As the unscrupulous salesman, we might presume that Hill has been been violating town after town for a long, long time.

Is it possible that the previous towns have been repeatedly violated before by the slick, fast-talking Professor? Is River City somehow different? Yes, there are the dark shadows of jealousy and self-sufficiency, but are these attitudes as such indicative of immaturity and naivete as they are of cynical experience. For once, Hill may be dealing with the town that will not let his foot be dislodged from the door before they are satisfied with his spiel and he delivers the full-fledged band he promises. River City, more alive than Harold Hill, was still not living its life to the full. Its soul in danger, there was the bitterness towards the miser-benefactor of the town, beneath whose statue Harold Hill first makes River City aware of its “trouble”. Willson gets his digs into Midwestern Puritanism: “Chaucer, Rabelaise, Balzac” and “Sadder by Wiser Girl,” such that there is a hint of liberation implied by the mayor’s eventual acquiescence in his daughter’s romance with the town “wild kid.” The town acknowledges at the beginning that the only factor which would provoke charity is the dying (from yellow to brown to very not-green) crop. As Harold Hill early on doffs his reversed bandsman’s coat to give it to Tommy, he unknowingly has given his shirt and back to save a town.

In return, as the denouement begins, Hill stands humbled and shackled, awaiting the judgment of the town: it is he suddenly he who is near death. No longer the master of his fate, he allows his charlatan self to be exposed. As the truth of his sacrifice is made clear, to the excruciating sound of the minuet, the town is itself converted and comes to rescue Hill from themselves. The long suppressed dreams of a music man are suddenly released and the boys have learned learn to play. The music man and town learn to love.

The simplicity of The Music Man resonates in the individual audience member who (a decade or more earlier) fist experienced the exuberance of Oklahoma! There’s a charlatan (or peddler) and a maiden librarian (or farmer's daughter) in each man and woman; a judgmental and inept mayor, a musician and a piano teacher, too. A masculine march loops into every library nook and cranny, emerging with feminine love song that becomes a triumphant march or a grand, everybody-sings, finale. A musical argument between mother and daughter cycles into a song of longing and hope. A march becomes a ballad becomes a grand march. 

PS The connection between the two musicals is drawn tighter as Shirley Jones was female lead in both subsequent movies, separated by seven years. (There is also she in Carousel, filmed but only a year after Oklahoma!)

[This article was previously posted on maxfrac; a few edits and observations have been added.]

No comments:

Post a Comment