The Music Man

The Music ManI sat down this evening and watched The Music Man. (Guess why.) In general, I don’t think musicals translate very well to the screen, but this film was even further harmed by the choice of Morton DaCosta to direct it. He directed the original Broadway version, and I’m sure he did a great job. He was, after all, a theater director. But the film is all over the place. At times it is just a filmed version of a theater piece, including fading spotlights to end scenes. But other times, it goes for realism. It’s disturbing because as a viewer, you never know how your supposed to approach the film.

One thing that I was more impressed with this time was Onna White’s choreography. It’s really fun and clever and completely in keeping with the time period of the film (1912). At times, its magical, as in the dance number for “Marian The Librarian.” But most dances numbers are at least denigrated by the direction. Overall, there is too much action. Each shot is filled with so many people, it is often hard to know what to focus on. DaCosta is in love with the long shot, like he had never seen any films past Griffith’s earliest.

Another problem is Shirley Jones. Her singing voice is so much stronger than all the other lead vocalist that it doesn’t seem to belong. (This is distinct from the ensemble singing that is without exception fantastic.) There is also an acting discontinuity between Jones and Robert Preston. As long as Preston is playing the cavalier con artist, he’s just great. But at the end, when the two of them fall in love, his performance is stilted and unconvincing. In fact, it is so much so that all these years I thought he was gay.

The film is sexist as it could be, not least of which portraying the affluent women as hens. And there is not a single non-white character in the film. It also portrays the people of Iowa in a very bad light and generally has a low opinion of small town America. It is, in short, an extremely cynical movie with a sentimental ending tacked on. But in its defense, the ending could have been a whole lot more sentimental.

Having said all this, you probably think I hate the film. That’s not true at all. It works. And it works on a number of levels. First, there are the songs. Meredith Willson was a genius. There isn’t a single song in the film that isn’t a winner. And Willson does something especially well that most songwriters do really poorly or not at all: he writes great bridges to his songs. The only person who rivaled him was Richard Rodgers in his early years.

The script is also very funny and clever. The respectable women in town are against Marian because she reads things like, “Chaucer… Rabelais… Balzac!” It’s funny at the same time that they’re right: those writers are dangerous to their small minded views of the world. And the film does a much better job of providing a back story for Harold Hill, where we see that in a fundamental way, he is conning himself more than anyone. This is paid off really well when Winthrop asks Hill, “What band?” And Hill replies ruefully, “I always think there’s a band, kid.”

The Music Man is a nice film and I definitely think it is something that you should share with your kids. I just wish the adaptation to the screen that been better done as it was in 1776. And interestingly, that was the same situation: the Broadway director also directed the film: Peter Hunt. And for obvious reasons, Hunt went on to be a highly successful film director. But in terms of the songs and the story, The Music Man is better. Not that the kids shouldn’t be forced to watch both!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “The Music Man

  1. Poor DaCosta was probably in a tough spot. The stage version was everything musicals should be — basically, funny and tuneful — but movie musicals at the time were expected to be Spectacles. Movies were losing viewers fast to television, and to the end of studio-run theaters in 1948. (Smaller films, like "Touch Of Evil," that might have been successful in studio-owned theaters now got turded on by the studios; things had become Get Big Or Get Out.)

    Since the dreadful "South Pacific", "King And I", and "West Side Story" had made tons of money as Spectacles, "Music Man" had to follow the pattern. Which meant widescreen cinematography, lots of extras, and "filmic" touches (like those redundant cuts to train wheels during the opening salesman number.) I don’t imagine it was a fun experience for DaCosta. Although the film made money.

    By the time "1776" was filmed, musicals were considered box-office poison, and there was probably little-to-no-pressure on Hunt to add stupid Spectacle flourishes. Almost all the action took place on one set, as you’ll recall.

    I respect the songcraft that went on in "serious" musicals, but I hate those damn things. ("1776" and "Fiddler" are probably the only ones I can stand.) Rogers & Hammerstein had an irritating knack for creating catchy commercial jingles. Me Gods, their musicals were preachy pain, though. Go through their catalog, and the only tunes I can think of which I enjoy are Thelonius Monk doing an instrumental "My Favorite Things," and the song "It Might As Well Be Spring." Which can be covered by anyone quite nicely.

    Interesting that musicals have made a comeback by becoming the Broadway equivalent of those ’50s-’60s Film Spectacles. Most of them (Disney & Lloyd Webber, I mean you) hold no interest for me at all. The ones I’ve liked best in modern times are the low-budget winners: "Little Shop Of Horrors," "Hedwig," and the South Park movie.

    Incidentally, the early Beatles did a version of "Til There Was You." It’s kind of Paul at his cheesiest. But they did it.

  2. @JMF – First, I disagree with you about [i]West Side Story[/i]. I thought that was a successful transition. But that’s got such a great set of songs that I will always defend it.

    I thought about mentioning the train trucks. There is a lot of that in the film: static shots to reinforce what the number is about–as though Wilson’s writing doesn’t make it plain. We saw the same thing with the chickens.

    You are probably right about wanting to create a spectacle. But the wide screen was not used to good effect. Seven years later Bob Fosse showed how to use the wide screen with [i]Sweet Charity[/i]. The music numbers in that film are amazing.

    I think musicals are at their best when they are little. [i]Godspell[/i] is a good example. I have a long history of hating Webber. And I think Rodgers did far better work with Hart.

    I think you are thinking of John Coltrane’s version of "My Favorite Things," which is also one of my favorites. On piano is McCoy Tyner (although Monk did play with Coltrane at times). I actually think Tyner was a better fit with Coltrane. But Monk will blow your mind when he lets go.

    I remember that Beatles version of the song. It was very typical of the kind of crap they did the early years.

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