Dancing in River City

Is The Music Man the most beloved musical of the Baby Boom generation? Arguably, so. Yes, My Fair Lady ran longer, Camelot has that mythic association with the Kennedys, and The Sound of Music spawned that phenomenally successful film. Yet ask any theatre fan of a certain age about Meredith Willson’s musical, and you’ll find that it is the most fondly remembered of all.

And for good reason: The original production ran 1,375 performances and won the Tony Award for best musical–beating out a little something called West Side Story. The Music Man launched the Broadway career of Robert Preston (heretofore a B-level Hollywood leading man) and solidified Barbara Cook as one of the theatre’s reigning divas. And there was the film, for decades a television perennial, which is one of the most complete screen adaptations of a Broadway show (and includes several members of the Broadway cast and its choreographer, Onna White).

In fact, The Music Man is a musical like no other. Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey’s book tells the story of con man Harold Hill, who descends on River City, Iowa, with a scheme to sell band instruments and uniforms. Instead, he gets caught up in the town’s problems, falls in love with spinster librarian Marian Paroo, and becomes a father figure to her brother Winthrop. Trapped by his feelings, Hill is exposed by another traveling salesman and is saved from ruin only at the last moment, when the long-promised boy’s band miraculously materializes. It’s a unique show in many respects. Willson’s score takes the rhythms of daily life–the pulse of a moving train, the ascending notes of a piano exercise–and turns them into memorable music. The book’s sharp comedy of small-town life (which is worthy of a Garrison Keillor), combined with a moving and credible love story, and its message about the importance of finding joy in everyday life, have given The Music Man the status of a modern classic.

And yet, unlike the other shows listed above, The Music Man has rarely been seen in New York for over four decades. A touring version, starring Dick Van Dyke, played City Center in 1980, but was poorly received and quickly disappeared. The 1988 New York City Opera revival was widely dismissed and never revived. Instead, the show survived through its many community theatre and summer stock productions (Bert Parks toured with it endlessly), and because of the wide availability of the film.

Still, given audiences’ fond memories of the piece, a Music Man revival was inevitable and it fell to director/choreographer Susan Stroman to bring it back to Broadway, where it is currently running at the Neil Simon Theatre. Stroman began the season with the dance-theatre piece Contact, which was, arguably, the most acclaimed show of the season; if The Music Man fell a bit short of that standard, it was nevertheless heartily welcomed by both the public and the press. The two shows couldn’t be more different. If Contact is a small-scale piece, both satiric and introspective, The Music Man is Broadway musical comedy at its most extroverted, a deluxe package of song, dance, and sentiment.

Set designer Thomas Lynch, who created the spare, quick-change settings for Contact, was also tapped by Stroman for The Music Man. Better known for his work on straight plays, Lynch has had a big season of musicals; in addition to Contact and The Music Man, he also designed the music/dance revue Swing! Lynch’s contribution to The Music Man is particularly elegant, using modern technology to help give the show an energetic tempo while simultaneously respecting its classic structure.

Stroman has said in interviews that she doesn’t stage revivals–she stages vintage plays as if they had never been done before. Lynch takes a similar approach; indeed, he points out, the material does not allow one to patronize it: "The story is incredibly clear and strong," he says. "The relationships, are strong and vivid. This show needs no apology." Furthermore, he says, "We didn’t want to make it a museum piece."

In fact, Lynch’s design for The Music Man is model of restraint. Given the show’s many locations, it requires a lot of scenery, which, in turn, means no single scene can be too elaborate. Lynch has considerable experience designing plays and musicals with lots of locations in them; he says that it’s important is to give each scene "just enough components" to create a location. Thus the careful accumulation of scenic details, and the expansive use of stage space leaves one with the impression of a spectacular show.

Stroman has also said that the key to Music Man is the way that Harold Hill brings music and movement to staid River City, so her staging shows the sedentary townspeople slowly giving in to the pleasures of song and dance. In his own way, Lynch brings movement to The Music Man, too, using automated scenery to allow for constant a vista transitions. Many of these moments feature Harold Hill strutting on a treadmill, encountering various characters as the sets move into place. This decision gives the 1958 show a year 2000 pace, even as it emphasizes Harold’s role as a galvanizing force in River City. "One of the pleasure of modern staging is the use of movement," says Lynch. "It was important to keep things fluid and to focus on the transitions."

A good example is the number "Pickalittle," in which the town matrons repeat the local gossip about Marian Paroo. It was originally written to be staged as an "in-one" scene, in front of a drop, to cover a transition from the town square to the public library, where Harold performs "Marian the Librarian." In the new production, the ladies sing "Pickalittle" in the town square; after the number, Harold hits the treadmill, while the town square flies out and the public library comes in behind him. The audience’s attention is diverted by a little vignette, created by Stroman, between Harold and a young girl carrying library books. There is no pause in the action, and the audience’s attention is kept on Harold. "These transitions keep your eye focused while the scenery is moving," Lynch adds.

Lynch says he did "tons of photo research" for the project, adding, "1912 is not so distant from us. The people in those photographs look modern." He also researched specific buildings such as the public library in his hometown of Asheville, NC, as well the Roswell P. Flower Library in Watertown, NY (designed by the firm of Orchard, Lansing and Joralemon). Armed with this information, Lynch supplied the Music Man sets with many telling architectural details that wittily evoke the rather dull, slightly pompous quality of life in River City. In the public library, the set’s backdrop features, along with windows and plenty of books, a typical allegorical mural of the period, designed to uplift the populace; It depicts people gathering to partake of knowledge, with the names of various intellectual disciplines, including "Mathematics," "Music," and "Science," stenciled above. (Every town in America once had a library like this). There is also a piece of pretentious municipal sculpture, an august grouping of thee women (two of them kneeling before a third) titled "Civitas;" wickedly, it is juxtaposed with the town’s catty matrons singing "Pickalittle," in which they dish the dirt about Marian to Harold.

The creation of that statue was an incidence of pure serendipity for Lynch. The designer did a rough sketch of the statue, then showed it to Jerry Marshall, of Studio Els, only to discover that Marshall’s partner, John Keck, is the son of Charles Keck, one of the foremost neo-Classic sculptors, who has been commissioned to do hundreds of municipal works (one of which can be found on the campus at Columbia University). Lynch, laughing, says the he suddenly felt inadequate, handing over his rough sketch to someone with such expertise. Needless to say, he adds, "They did it in a whipstitch."

Throughout the production, Lynch sets each scene quickly and economically. The show begins with the orchestra on a train, playing the overture. The curtain rises to reveal the musicians; the train itself is a solid scenic piece complete with a roof. When the overture ends, the train exterior slides into place; the back of the unit flies out to allow the musicians to vacate and the actors to take their places (a switch that takes 12 seconds); then the exterior slides out again to reveal the opening scene, featuring the number "Rock Island."

Next stop is the center of River City, where the number "Iowa Stubborn" introduces the locals and their colorless way of life. Next comes "Trouble," in which Harold arouses the citizens with a vision of youth depraved by contact with pool halls. The town square consists of four units depicting various buildings, (a hotel, a livery for Harold’s sidekick Marcellus, a grocery, and that all-important pool hall) with a flagpole in the center. These are placed against a drop depicting an endless prairie vista, creating a detailed impression of a dusty little municipality on the edge of the endless American heartland. Lynch worked with costume designer William Ivey Long to give the show a "modest" color palette (there are lots of muted blues, grays, and greens) giving River City an unpretentious Midwestern style. (Lighting designer Peter Kaczorowksi worked with this palette to create everything from a sunny city square to the romantic shadows of Harold and Marian’s moonlight encounter.) Nevertheless, he adds, the buildings are very detailed: "The town buildings are shallow in their footprints, but they have full bas-relief detail on them, in strange perspectives."

Because the town square set consists of discrete units, it offers a lot of flexibility. At the end of the scene, the two downstage units, which are tailed down on a large truss, fly out. The two upstage pieces are attached to truss and sliders, so they fly up and slide out. Later on, two of the units are combined with the Paroo house to create a reverse-angle view of a street just off the center of town.

The Paroo house is the next major location; it is a white, two—story building resting on a turtle unit. Thus scenes are played on the front porch, but the house can also turn around to reveal the parlor where Marian gives piano lessons. The house is set against a gorgeous green drop, depicting a tree-lined street in full summer bloom. Lynch says that he considered doing a photo drop, but it looked too modern, so he instead opted for an "almost Jackson Pollock—like technique." The scenic painters, he says, put down an initial layer of green, "then threw green paint at the tree branches, then sponged it down a bit," to create a soft, almost Impressionistic quality. A picket fence completes the domestic picture.

A number of the settings must accommodate large-scale dance numbers, so Lynch provides some attractive, wide-open spaces. The River City High School gymnasium, where Harold performs the hit song "76 Trombones," is, the designer points out, nothing more than a series of flown portals, plus the back wall of the theatre (a lot of red, white, and blue bunting creates a Fourth-of-July atmosphere). "When we get to the gym, you are very surprised by the depth of the space, I think," he says. In contrast, the public library takes up less space, about two-thirds of the stage, even though it houses one of the show’s most athletic dance sequences. Nevertheless, the setting is another model of economy, consisting of the backdrop; a movable balcony unit, with a circular staircase, decorated in wrought iron; a desk for Marian; and a handful of tables and chairs. Madison Park, where the citizens gather for an ice cream social, is created by placing a gazebo unit in front of the green drop mentioned above. When Harold and Marian run off to the footbridge (the River City equivalent of Lover’s Lane), members of the chorus roll a small bridge unit into place, providing an intimate setting for Harold’s admission of love for Marian. (Mindful of the many dance numbers, Lynch added a deck made of "true oak, which is very dancer-friendly, very malleable, and easily repaired.")

One piece of scenery that makes a huge impression is the Wells Fargo wagon, which makes its appearance at the end of Act I, when the band instruments arrive. The wagon is a large-scale stagecoach that has been retrofitted for a steam engine. It looks fanciful, but Lynch says, his research revealed "almost anything could serve as Wells Fargo wagon; there was no standard style." Also, he adds, the show’s 1912 period, "was transitional, with horse-drawn, steam, gas, and electric vehicles" all in use. In any case, the wagon’s grand proportions also reveal its true purpose, as a delivery vehicle for dreams, the sole provider of novelty and excitement in the lives of those plain Midwesterners.

With so much scenery, Lynch says that the production is "engineered within an inch of its life," with a complicated storage plan that accommodates such large units as the train and Wells Fargo wagon. In addition, he says that the placement of smaller scenic pieces, such as the flagpole, is extremely precise so that when sets fly in, they make a perfect, three—point landing. As one might expect, many hands were involved in the creation of the Music Man scenic design. Scenery and scenic effects were built, painted, electrified, and automated by Hudson Scenic Studio, Inc, of Yonkers, NY, with additional pieces by Showman Fabricators of Brooklyn and Paper Mill Playhouse of Millburn, NJ. The Wells Fargo wagon was supplied by Cigar Box Studios, and Beyond Imagination, Inc, the pianola in the Paroo house by Prism Production Services, the library tables by Pompanoosuc Mills, the "Civitas" statue by Jerry Marshall and Studio Els for curious industries, inc. Assorted hand props were supplied by Moon Boots Productions, Jennie Marino. Lynch adds that the production adds up to "props galore"; the finale features the entire cast playing trombones, each of which is dedicated to a specific actor and is polished after every performance.

Other key personnel include associate set designer Richard Jaris; assistant set designers Matthew Bliss, James C. Feng, Curtis Wallin, Jane Mancini, and Thomas Sarr; production carpenter Jim Kane; production property supervisor Laura Koch; production propertyman James Cariot, and technical supervisor David Bradford.

As noted, this has been Lynch’s big season of musicals, each of which was unique in style and content. Having designed an evening of short dance-narrative pieces (Contact), a big-band song and dance revue (Swing!); and The Music Man, a big, traditional book musical, he instantly qualifies as a musical theatre expert. As if that weren’t enough, his next project, happening this summer, is a new Ring Cycle for the Seattle Opera (Kaczorowski is the lighting designer, with Martin Pakledinaz creating the costumes). Even River City will look small next to Valhalla.


Dressed to Beat the Band

Naturally, if one is designing costumes for The Music Man, the first words that come to mind are "band uniforms." We’ll get to them in a moment, but this is a show that requires a great deal more from a designer; in the current production, William Ivey Long has produced approximately 350 outfits for the cast. Typically, he worked closely with Susan Stroman and Thomas Lynch to give the production a unified look that goes a long way towards telling the story of Harold Hill and his impact on River City.

"At our first design meeting," recalls Long, "Susan said she had just finished [the Royal National Theatre revival of] Oklahoma! In that production, the costumes had oil stains on the knees, tears in the fabric, straw hats with sweat stains. It was very naturalistic, which helped to underscore some of the violence in the story. For The Music Man, she wanted an American valentine." Given that directive, Long turned to the works of noted American illustrators. From Norman Rockwell, he drew the concept of "perfect Americans against a white background–here are no shadows, no dirt." Another key influence was the work of J. C. Lyendecker, who illustrated Arrow Collar ads in the teens and 20s; Lyendecker’s idealized American males, wearing tailored suits with high collars, gave Long a starting place for the look of Harold Hill. (Early on, Long created a photo collage of leading man Craig Bierko in a summer-weight period suit; the photos are clearly modeled on Lyendecker’s images)

Other important sources of inspiration were contemporary editions of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Marshall Field catalogues, many of which have been reissued by Dover Publications, and a volume titled Men’s Clothing and Fabrics in the 1880s, published by Schiffer Books. (The Music Man is set in 1912, but, says Long, some of the townspeople would favor older styles; in addition, the volume is a good source of information about fabrics, which wouldn’t change much over the years).

Throughout the show, Long’s costumes undergo an evolution of color that parallels Hill’s enlivening effect on the people of River City. When they are first introduced, in "Iowa Stubborn," the townspeople are dressed in earthtones, mostly browns. Later, when Harold interrupts their Fourth of July celebration to sing "76 Trombones," the locals are dressed in what the designer laughingly calls "Ralph Lauren Goes to Ascot"–in other words, a fairly strict black-and-white palette (with creams and grays mixed in). "Susan asked for some color in that scene," he adds, "so the petticoats of the female dancers are red, white, and blue."

Later, when Harold encounters the "Pickalittle" ladies, Ivey opted for an expanded range of earthtones that take in oranges and yellows. In the next scene, where Harold sings "Marian the Librarian" in the local library, the chorus costumes have taken on colors and patterns. "After the library," says the designer, "all manner of color comes in," including an array of sherbet-colored dresses and suits for the ice cream social (scene of the number "Shipoopi"), and vivid red-and-white band costumes for the grand finale.

"Iowa Stubborn" not only introduces the people of River City, it sets up Long’s design approach, which includes a subtle depiction of the town’s social classes. The wealthier townspeople are dressed in simple, classic fabrics, in plain colors, while the middle- and lower-class costumes make use of plaids, stripes, and flower prints (often in less-than-tasteful combinations). A rich boy is dressed in knee britches, while one of his poorer counterparts is outfitted Huck Finn—style. One of the classic gags in "Iowa Stubborn" is the appearance of a couple right out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and Long does not disappoint, providing a vivid rendering of the plainest married couple in American art history.

The "76 Trombones" scene is set in the local gymnasium, where the Fourth of July celebration is being held, due to inclement weather. Because of the holiday, the townspeople are dressed up, sporting the already mentioned black-and-white look. Again, there are differences between social classes; the rich boys wear collars and ties while their poorer neighbors have open shirts. Harold also has a reversible suit jacket in this scene, which turns into a band uniform when he begins to sing.

Even if much of Long’s work in The Music Man is about an idealized American past, he still has many opportunities to exercise his wicked sense of humor. The gym scene also features the town’s leading matrons (whose club has the mock-Indian name of Wa-Tan-Ye) led by the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie McKecknie Shinn (played by the statuesque comic actress Ruth Williamson) in a tableau of Indian life. The ladies appear in homemade "Indian" dresses, made of linen. Authentic they are not–they feature fashionable drop waists of the period, are decorated in rickrack and ball fringe, and are topped with feather arrangements made of cardboard, linen, and felt. Later, the same ladies perform the number "Pickalittle;" the song implicitly compares the women to a bunch of hens, and Long stresses the chicken imagery. Each lady has a giant hat topped with big flowers and plume feathers for that poultry effect; each hat also sports a large brooch that looks like an eye. (In his research, Long hilariously assigned a photo of a chicken to each actress.) In another witty reference: Eulalie’s "Pickalittle" dress is a tribute to Eliza Doolittle’s Ascot Dress from My Fair Lady, as designed by Cecil Beaton (a resemblance which is most notable in the cut of the dress and the shape of the hat.)

Of course, The Music Man is a dance show, so the designer had at to create clothing that would move with the actors’ bodies. Long says that the "76 Trombones" scene features clothing from a slightly earlier period (about 1906), because the prevailing 1912 fashion for peg skirts would be too restricting for the female dancers’ legs. The men’s outfits in the "Marian the Librarian" scene, one of the more strenuous numbers, are all stretch fabrics (Long adds that he drew his palette for this scene from the mural on Thomas Lynch’s set). The men’s costumes are largely made of English wools (Long favors the London firms of Hopkins Mercers and Haberdashers) while many of the ladies’ outfits feature various silks from the New York fabric house Scalamandré (for formal wear) and lots of cotton (for simpler outfits).

By the ice cream social scene, in the middle of the second act, Harold’s transformative effect on the people of River City is complete. The darker colors been replaced by a pale sherbet palette. The boxy, tailored look of the dresses has given way to Greek-influenced gowns, with light, filmy fabrics, exposed arms, and low necklines ("It’s sexy but polite," says the designer). Long notes the Greco-Roman look is totally of the period, and was inspired by fashion designers like Paul Poiret and Jean Vionnet. It’s also, he adds, a perfect style for River City, with its imposing library and statuary: "As a young country, the United States was authentically fixated on the Classic style." Even now, he says, "The design choices of America are based in Greece and Rome. We’re determined to prove our legitimacy by linking ourselves to these cultures." As if to prove Long’s point, this is the scene in which the Wa-Tan-Ye ladies appear in Greek gowns to do their Grecian-urn imitations, providing their own personal tribute to Classical culture. (Williamson seems to really inspire Long; his visual reference for her in this scene was the Columbia pictures lady, with her torch held high). As an example of creative cross-pollination, Long says Lynch based his design for the "Civitas" statue on the Wa-Tan-Ye ladies in their Greco-Roman garb.

Among the principals, Long does the most to chart the arc of Marian Paroo’s character. Marian begins the show as a rather tense and unhappy spinster. Her initial suspicions toward Harold melt as their feelings for each other grow more intense; in each successive scene, Long gives her a softer and more revealing look, until, by the time she gets to the footbridge with Harold, she is a beautiful, vulnerable woman in love. The designer is especially fond of Marian’s outfit for the second—act number "My White Knight." Says Long, "It’s an authentic dress, which we copied and adapted. I learned all this from Ann Roth, who has always taught me to try on real clothes and then adapt them, because she does that for all her film work. `My White Knight’ is all cotton–it’s a simple little voile. We had a pattern re-embroidered on it at Penn and Fletcher [the New York—based specialist in costume embellishments]; they do computer embroidery. It’s just a simple little housedress, but the way she wears it is very sexy."

Of course, sooner or later in any production of The Music Man there are the band uniforms. In the show’s post-curtain-call scene, Long provided costumes to beat the band, with the entire cast in white pants and red jackets with elaborate embroidery. It’s a style that he calls "John Philip Sousa Hussar" and it makes quite an impression, especially when worn by the entire cast. For contrast Marion and Harold are all in white: "It’s a wedding finale," says the designer. (The orchestra members also wear band uniforms for the overture; these outfits have robin’s egg—blue jackets for contrast). All the uniforms were constructed by Fruhauf Uniforms, Inc. based in Wichita, KS.

But then, many hands were involved in the creation of the Music Man costumes, including Lynne Baccus, EuroCo Costumes, Jennifer Love Costumes, Studio Rouge Costumes, and Scafati. Shoes were constructed by T. O. Dey, with millinery by Rodney Gordon. Vintage clothing references were provided by Hellen Uffner and Steppin’ Out. Wigs and hair were designed by Paul Huntley. Martha L. Bromelmeier was associate costume designer, with Thomas M. Beall, Laura Oppenheimer, and Heather Bair serving as assistants to Long. Nancy Schaefer is wardrobe supervisor.

This is a very busy time for Long, who has seven shows currently running on Broadway; the others are Annie Get Your Gun, Cabaret, Chicago, Contact, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Swing! (There are also a number of national tours out on the road or in various stages of preparation.) More recently, the designer has been known for his sexy costumes for Chicago and Contact, or the dark and degraded outfits of Cabaret. Then again, he abhors repeating himself, and he clearly relishes the challenge of The Music Man. Among other things, The Music Man proves that William Ivey Long can be as American as apple pie.