MASON CITY, IOWA – Michael Gruber preened and pranced while conducting the teenage musicians, pumping his arms with all the confidence he’ll bring to the role of snake-oil salesman Harold Hill in Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ new production of “The Music Man.”
It was a con job.
The Mason City High School Band doesn’t need some Broadway veteran tapping to the wrong beat to get through “Seventy-Six Trombones,” a number they know as well as basic algebra.
Like most folks in this midsized Iowa city, they’re experts in local hero Meredith Willson’s enduring musical, especially the show’s big, brassy climactic number — just one of the many lessons that Gruber, co-star Ann Michels and director Michael Brindisi would learn during a research trip last month to the real-life River City two hours south of the Twin Cities.
“When people think about Mason City, we want them to think about that song,” said music teacher Russ Kramer. When he isn’t leading the nationally recognized band, he’s trying to raise money for new uniforms, modeled after the ones worn in the show’s blockbuster film adaptation.
“It’s community pride,” he said.
Iowans from across the state got dressed in their Sunday best in 1962 to attend the movie’s star-studded world premiere at Mason City’s Palace Theater, desperate to catch a glimpse of Shirley Jones, who had just won an Oscar for “Elmer Gantry,” and young star Ron Howard, who was then charming TV audiences on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
The gawkers included the grandparents of Michels, a Chanhassen veteran who plays librarian Marian Paroo.
“Everyone has a connection to a small town,” said Michels, who kept an impossibly sunny disposition throughout the day, except for when a downtown barista decided to mix coffee into her chai.
Gruber, meanwhile, turned into a gawking tourist as he visited the sources of Willson’s inspiration.
“I don’t know any other show where you could — well, I guess you could walk around Covent Garden before doing ‘My Fair Lady,’ but it’s nothing like this,” he said.
An unsinkable legacy
Locals weren’t always so enthusiastic about the legendary composer.
As someone who grew up in Mason City during the 1970s and ’80s, I learned his hymn “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” for Sunday services at the First Presbyterian Church, sang “Goodnight, Ladies” in a barbershop quartet and used the Meredith Willson Footbridge as a shortcut while biking to the library.
But young people in those days were more eager to be associated with Buddy Holly, even though the rock pioneer’s only Iowa connection was playing a concert at the nearby Surf Ballroom before boarding his doomed flight out of the Mason City Municipal Airport.
But a wave of Willson nostalgia hit the town in the mid-’90s, first with the restoration of his boyhood home, then with the opening next door of Music Man Square, a museum and event center. It revolves around an indoor streetscape, re-created from the movie, that captures small-town America in 1912, right down to an old-fashioned ice cream shop and billiard parlor.
Tourist Patty Fell happened to be checking out the footbridge at the same time as the Chanhassen crew. She was heartbroken to discover the historical sites weren’t open after she and her husband had detoured to see them during their drive home from Arizona to Manitowoc, Wis. But she was delighted by the sound of church bells ringing out “Till There Was You,” and the museum employee who let them poke their heads into the home.
“There’s something special about the people here in Mason City, she said. “Everything’s lovely.”
Interest in the town is only expected to increase with a Broadway revival in the fall starring Hugh Jackman.
“ ‘The Music Man’ has endured,” said local historian Janice Rod, who provided the Chanhassen visitors with a private tour of the house while sporting a “Trouble Right Here in River City” sweatshirt. “Sometimes the last to recognize that are the local people.”
Gruber practically broke into the “Shipoopi” dance when Rod pointed out the stairwell post where Willson’s father would hang his hat after coming home from work. He would bellow, “I’m home again, Rose” — a line that would sneak its way into the number “Lida Rose.”
“All this information you have is a treasure trove. It’s an actor’s dream,” Gruber told the guide while Michels read Mother’s Day cards penned by Willson’s eccentric sister, Dixie, that were framed on a kitchen wall. “You are on the grounds of inspiration. Even the scale of these rooms is helpful.”
Revisiting River City
Brindisi has long been inspired by Willson, so much so that he actually defends “Here’s Love,” the composer’s poorly received attempt to turn “Miracle on 34th Street” into a musical.
His new production of “The Music Man,” which begins previews Friday, will be the fifth time Brindisi has directed the show, and his third for Chanhassen, where he has served as artistic director since 1988.
To kick off the first cast gathering earlier this month, he passed around a pail of chocolate hearts and showed grainy footage of his then 3-year-old daughter Cat, now a professional actor, improvising dance moves during a rehearsal for “You’ve Got Trouble.”
“I should probably know it by now,” he joked at Mason City High School, where a couple of band members were more eager to hear his thoughts on “Cats” than to learn what’s in store when the band takes a field trip to Chanhassen in April.
But Brindisi is taking a fresh approach, which includes breaking down the fourth wall more often and reimagining the famous footbridge scene in which Marian admits she’s fallen hard for Harold, singing “Till There Was You,” a ballad so irresistible that it was the only Broadway number the Beatles ever recorded.
Mostly, he’s focused on figuring out what a show about a con man filled with false promises has to say to contemporary audiences already exasperated by leaders they don’t trust.
He thinks he has the answer.
“We all want to believe in something. That’s where the confidence game comes from,” Brindisi said, taking off his “Mamma Mia!” cap — a nod to the wildly successful staging that just closed at Chanhassen — and replacing it with a “Music Man” one purchased from the Willson museum.
“The townspeople might think he’s taking them for a ride, but they want to believe him. The last thing he says to the kid is, ‘There’s always something to believe in.’ That’s why it resonates for me today.’ ”
Brindisi suggested that, like Hill, President Donald Trump has the potential to become a better person, an opinion that startled Michels so much she almost spilled her chai as they sat together on a bench in the Mason City Public Library.
He welled up as the conversation got more philosophical, reflecting on the dying art of optimism and whether or not a dinner theater show has the power to revive it, at least for a night.
“This is the good stuff,” he said, leaning heavily on his cane as he stood up. “To have this moment together and think about life.”
The Chanhassen production was mapped out long before this trip, but all three visitors were convinced their visit would serve as inspiration.
Local folks told the trio they can’t wait to see what the folks from Minnesota will do with their beloved show.
“They were everything I wanted them to be,” Michels said of her grandparents’ townfolk. “Maybe this can be a kind of love letter to them.”