America will soon rekindle its complex affair with the state of Iowa. As the presidential race heats up, political pundits will in one breath expound on the importance of Iowa’s caucuses and in the next dismiss the small Midwestern state as not representative of the nation (as if any state is).
Iowa always has occupied a curious spot at the intersection of reality and myth in American iconography. Its open spaces and fields of grain beckon a fascination with the nation’s rural past and its small towns represent safety and simple life.
Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” satirized the pinched visages of Iowa farmers while commemorating their flinty determination and hard work. Standing alongside Wood’s totem of Americana is another piece of art that fuses Iowa pride and the trappings of American mythology.
“The Music Man,” opening Friday night in its first-ever staging at the Guthrie Theater, employs marching bands, small-town simplicity (naiveté?), nostalgia from the Age of Innocence and parades from July 4th to tell its story of reinvention. Harold Hill comes in a city slicker and walks away a changed man.
“This guy transforms them — the whole town is transformed — and he at the same time is transformed,” said Andrew Cooke, music director of Meredith Willson’s masterwork.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatre director Michael Brindisi believes “Music Man” is one of the best musicals ever written, but cautions: “Everyone starts with Grant Wood and that feeling of Americana, and that’s a trap. That painted feeling gives it a dimensionless approach, and you need more texture if you want audiences, young people, in 2015, to get it on their terms.”
Just what there is to get begins with a man who loved his native state and wanted people to share his affection for Iowa.
Late bloomer on stage
Willson was in his mid 50s and long removed from his boyhood home in Mason City when he wrote the book, lyrics and score for “The Music Man.”
That triple accomplishment alone makes the piece stand out — particularly because Willson was not known as a Broadway guy. He would go on after “Music Man” to contribute to three other musicals but none had the impact of his homage to his home state.
He composed, both classically and for films including Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and was an accomplished flutist who achieved first chair with the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini. He was a conductor, he played sidekick to Tallulah Bankhead on radio and hosted his own show briefly. He spent eight years kicking around stories and writing songs for a show that would have fun with Iowans and represent their bedrock decency.
For a first effort on Broadway, “The Music Man” was rare and sensational in 1957. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson raved about the work and made his own contribution to the musical’s identification as an American play, invoking apple pie and the brass band in this “warm and genial cartoon of American life.”
Whose version of America?
Interestingly, there was another depiction of American life running during the same Broadway season.
Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim even titled a song “America” in their landmark musical, “West Side Story.” This was a contemporary, urban vision that danced and sang across racial chasms, disillusioned youth and hatred.
“West Side” allowed itself to be tragic, to send a message to Eisenhower’s America that the times were changing and everyone — whether in the city or a small town — had better change, too. The project had an undeniable pedigree with Bernstein’s score, Jerome Robbins’ choreography and Sondheim’s lyrics. It had the New York establishment in its corner, it was a fresh take on immigration and prejudice and frankly it was a virtuosic piece of art.
“Music Man” had a corny story about a huckster who gets caught by his own heart and ends up in love with the people he would have swindled. It was happy and escapist, simple and relied on human triumph and transformation.
Yet, in an upset that recalls “Rocky” beating “Network” for the best-picture Oscar years later, “The Music Man” beat “West Side Story” for the 1958 Tony Award.
It helped that “Music Man” emerged from the vision of a single individual. This was Willson’s story, not the work of a committee. It came from his experience, not from headlines.
There is an intangible integrity that permeates a singular work such as this. Beyond that, Willson should not be discounted as a composer who ranged from the rhythmic (almost rap) tick of “Rock Island” to the marching band of “76 Trombones” to several sweet ballads. Even the Beatles thought “Till There Was You” was worth covering in 1963.
“What’s great about ‘Music Man’ is that Willson was one voice all the way through,” said Cooke. “He had a broad spectrum of skills and he was the one voice all the way through. So even though there are so many disparate musical elements, stylewise, it speaks from one point of view.”
Race, Iowa and myth
Philadelphia critic Warren Hoffman, in a book on race and Broadway, termed “The Music Man” the “whitest musical” ever written. His arguments — and they are shared by others — focus on its rural nature, the backward force of nostalgia, the fear of the outsider (even though he’s white), coded language and images from the show that translate white, such as the barbershop quartet.
Hoffman makes interesting psychological points, but one of the best Twin Cities productions of “The Music Man” in recent years was by Ten Thousand Things, the small company that performs in prisons and homeless shelters. It was a low-tech affair, sung modestly with a diverse cast.
Without its usual pageantry, and with the central relationship between a white Harold Hill and African-American Marian Paroo, the production allowed the values and message of Willson’s story to shine through: Humans of all stripes can have a good impact on one another.
And this perhaps gets closest to explaining why America wants to identify with “The Music Man.”
Willson was able to position a universal story of transformation and decency in a small town that dressed itself up in Americana — recognizing that Americana is more an art form than a bald expression of patriotism. The imagery of America benefited from a timeless theme. That’s how mythology works.
There will be more than a dozen Harold Hills descending on Iowa over the next political year. They will put on the costumes that consultants have determined look like Iowa. They will find bales of hay, cornfields, feedlots and small towns where they can wreathe their message in an iconography that makes their stated devotion to America unimpeachable.
These Harold Hills will visit River City, and they will tell the folks that there’s trouble in our great nation, there’s real trouble. And that they — the candidates — can work the magic of transformation if the good people of Iowa will just give them a chance. Indeed, they say, we’ve got the answers! Just believe in us and everything is going to be all right.
Isn’t that America?