Broadway loves to welcome back its classic musicals, especially when accompanied by a major star to juice the box office, and provide at least a whiff of reinvention. But the new revival of The Music Man, starring Hugh Jackman, has gotten a surprisingly sour reception from many of the critics. “A huge let-down,” wrote the New York Post. “The hoped-for enchantment never arrives,” said Time Out New York. Jesse Green in the Times complained about an “overly cautious” revival that “needs more danger in the telling.”
I’m not sure what sort of danger you’re looking for in an old-fashioned, feel-good show about a traveling salesman who redeems a turn-of-the-century Iowa town with band instruments. But I am courting no danger by siding with the audience, not the critics, in giving this terrific revival a big round of applause.
Meredith Willson’s show is one of the glories of the American musical. It was the winner, infamously, of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1958, upsetting the favored West Side Story, but I’m not so sure the Tony folks didn’t get it right. The show has a solid, well-constructed book — nostalgic, satiric, with a real emotional core — and a score that is a joy top to bottom, from the innovative talk-song numbers, like the opening salesmen’s rap that introduces us to Professor Harold Hill (“He doesn’t know the territory!”), to “Till There Was You,” one of the loveliest of all Broadway ballads, not to mention the show’s signature rouser, “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
Jerry Zaks’s production is speedy and respectful, with a few modest fine-tunings for current sensibilities. (The color-blind casting is hardly realistic for the time; yet it seems entirely in keeping with the warmly embracing spirit of this idealistic portrait of small-town America.) Warren Carlyle’s choreography is sprightly and inventive, and the cast first-rate, from Broadway vets like Jefferson Mays and Jayne Houdyshell (as the mayor and his wife), to the kids in the ensemble. As Marian the librarian, the local target of Hill’s wolfish affections, Sutton Foster is a little older, more hard-bitten than the usual sweet-voiced ingenues who have played the role, like Barbara Cook and Shirley Jones, but probably more believable as the town “spinster,” and funnier too.
The one weak spot, oddly enough, is the star who is bringing in the crowds. Hugh Jackman certainly has the musical chops; he’s a smooth, if studied, dancer; and he handles the patter numbers well (though did he have to junk the melody entirely on “Trouble”?). But he’s a more restrained, down-to-earth, somewhat undersold Harold Hill: a garden-variety con man, not a Barnumesque showman. He even looks a little undersized onstage.
You can sense Jackman consciously working against the familiar rhythms and stentorian tones of Robert Preston, who so memorably originated the role. And one can certainly make a case for a more human-scale Harold Hill; for one thing, he’s more credible as a romantic partner. Jackman could have had more fun with the role, but he fully inhabits it, and you can’t blame him for wanting to make it his own. He knows the territory.