In general I don’t correct other people, especially in public. So what if someone doesn’t know a Monet from a Manet? Who cares? Not me!
However if someone says “I love this song from the musical Carousel” and then proceeds to name a song from the musical Oklahoma, I become an obnoxious know-it-all who must correct this hideous injustice posthaste and with no sympathy for the miscreant. Embarrassing confession but there it is. I can be a bitch. But there’s a reason why. As a kid I had most of the songs from the musicals written by Rogers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe memorized.
I had no television growing up. Just a record player and a father who loved musicals. As a girl, I was vaguely aware that some of these musicals tackled serious issues however my focus was on the romance. Would Nellie Forbush overcome her prejudices and accept Emile? Would Eliza Doolittle take old Henry Higgins down a notch or two?
Now when I happen to catch one of them on Turner Classic Movies, it’s definitely not the romances that pique my interest. Let’s face it, there’s not much chemistry between Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn!
I’m more interested in how the source material was altered for the musical and why. For example, South Pacific was based on James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of stories set during WWII. One of the underlying themes is cultural intolerance. Can an army nurse and young lieutenant from Little Rock Arkansas overcome their prejudices towards those “they’ve been carefully taught to hate”?
The nurse eventually does but in the original story, Our Heroine, the man she loves has four mixed-race children from four different women none of whom he married. Horrors! An audience in the early sixties would definitely have trouble seeing him as a hero. So in the musical, R&H gave Emile de Becque only two mixed race children and they are both from his deceased wife making his sin (marrying a heathen) in part redeemable.
R&H had a similar dilemma when writing the musical Carousel. It was based on an earlier play called Lilliom by Ferenc Moinar. In Moinar’s play, the main character, Billy Bigelow kills himself after being caught during a robbery but is still given a second chance to enter Heaven. Recognizing this might make Bigelow less sympathetic to some in the audience, R&H revised the storyline. In Carousel Billy Bigelow falls on his knife while fleeing and thus is eligible for heaven.
I could go on but I’m sure you get the point. Which brings me to The Music Man. This musical is not based on a previous publication but on Meredith Willson’s childhood band experiences in small town Iowa. For the life of me, I do not understand WTF he was trying to say. See if you can.
Here’s the plot for those of you who’ve never seen it. A flimflam man who calls himself Dr. Harold Hill is looking for a town full of people gullible enough to scam and decides River City Iowa might be the ticket. His modus operandi is to play upon people’s fears (sound familiar?) but the good folks of the River City seem content and so he decides he’s got to create a problem that only he can solve. The arrival of a new pool table gives him his hook.
He decides to convince that townspeople that the pool table will ruin the town and turn all their children into shiftless bums. The first thing he does is whip up fear. Then hatred. Finally he proclaims he alone can save them by creating a wholesome boy’s marching band.
Of course, Harold Hill knows nothing about music. But by the time he’s finally revealed as a con man, the whole town has been brainwashed into believing they can have a world class marching band. They no longer care that they’ve been lied to and manipulated. They just want to march happily through the town behind their savior. (I’m not sure what he saved them from – their rationality?)
The musical ends on a truly bizarre note. A small group of kids making noise with their instruments morphs into a full-fledged marching band.and around and around the town square they march. I could swear I saw a few MAGA hats in the crowd.
What are we supposed to make of that? What’s the underlying theme? Was Willson predicting a future where we no longer care if we’re lied to as long as we’re given a good show? I just don’t get it.