December 19, 2016: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

I couldn’t let today go by without acknowledging that on this date 59 years ago, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre. Though by no means the greatest musical ever written, it is my all-time favorite. Let me count the ways.

I readily admit that its charms are not universal. There are many who think it’s cornball and silly (which it is). But it’s also deep and true, which is why it has endured for so long as such a popular title in schools and regional theatre. Willson based it on the people he knew from his home town of Mason City, Iowa. The young boy in him never really grew up and his ability to reproduce 1912 Iowa on a Broadway stage grew out of his knowing its denizens so well. The fictional River City, whose populace are so “Iowa Stubborn” that they can stand touching noses for a week at a time and never see eye-to-eye, as the lyric of the song goes, were essayed with great affection. Dropped into their daily routine comes a con man with a patented scam where by pretending to be a band leader he pries open wallets and purses taking money for a boy’s band that will never become a reality. The self-named “Professor” Harold Hill can’t read a note of music.

Robert Preston in The Music Man (1957)

Then of course there was the performance of Robert Preston in the title role. It’s hard to imagine the element of surprise that played a part in how highly praised Preston was when the show premiered six decades ago. The actor had only recently returned to the theatre after twenty years of making films in Hollywood. Although trained as a stage actor, Preston had been discovered at the age of nineteen while at the Pasadena Playhouse and was quickly signed to a Paramount contract. In 1951, after he chucked Los Angeles for New York, he appeared on Broadway every season right up to The Music Man. It was his tenth Broadway show in seven years, all of which were light comedies and dramas. Not only was The Music Man his first musical on Broadway, it was his first musical ever! And what a natural he was. Though many have played Harold Hill over the years, the general consensus has been that no one can really touch Preston in the role. Perhaps the greatest expression of that was when theatre critic Charles Isherwood, while reviewing Craig Bierko in the 2000 revival, mentioned how much Bierko’s vocal style and physical manner were facsimiles of Preston’s. He summed the dilemma for all actors attempting The Music Man when he neatly wrote: “If you can’t beat him, be him.”

Of course, I never saw Preston on stage as Harold Hill since I was ten months old when it opened. And once he did it more than two solid years on Broadway and the film a few years later, he never went back to it. No Yul Brynner-Richard Kiley-Carol Channing tours for him. And trust me, he was offered them. So I’ve always been curious about what it was like to see Preston in the show and I have asked anyone who was a theatregoing regular back then what they thought of his performance. The reactions and commentaries would never vary: he was a sensation. Preston’s triumph endeared him to critics and audiences alike for years to come. Those who got to see him live over the ensuing two decades, especially in musicals, were indeed lucky. Fortunately, I got to experience him in later shows like Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’s I Do! I Do! and Larry Gelbart’s comedy Sly Fox. Seeing him on stage was pure joy, as Preston was present (in the best sense of the word) with his fellow actors and audiences alike. Fleet of feet and with a larger-than-life persona, he somehow stayed grounded. As he put it himself: “A great old character actor once said to me, ‘Wherever you’re acting, you reach up and take hold of the proscenium arch, and you pull it down around your shoulders.’”

Modesty forbade Preston from stating that in his case, this was something he could do with ease. His acting was both forceful and effortless: a powerful combination. Not to mention his subtle, light touch with comedy and a rich baritone that countless musical performers have attempted to emulate. He was the consummate professional: steady, reliable, and versatile. Of all the accolades tossed Preston’s way for this performance, it was Iggie Wolfington, who co-starred in the Broadway production as Marcellus Washburn who said it best: “How good was Bob Preston? I’ll tell you. He wasn’t out often and his understudy was good, but whenever Bob was out, I would walk around the stage and I felt like I was following a suitcase.”

Iggie Wolfington and Robert Preston (1957)

Back in the 20th century (unlike the 21st), it was near automatic for most Broadway plays and musicals to become films. And whenever it came time to film their iconic stage parts, a lot of Broadway actors lost out to bigger marquee names from Hollywood. Preston was one of the lucky ones. Legend has it that when Jack Warner bought the movie rights for The Music Man, he wanted Cary Grant to play Harold Hill. When offered, Grant was said to have told Warner, “Not only won’t I play it, if you don’t cast Bob Preston I won’t see it.”

So I am indebted that Preston did the film (we all are, I think). But I also feel indebted to all those who helped to create The Music Man, especially Morton DaCosta. It was DaCosta who directed both its Broadway and film versions and was the one who initially saw in Preston a role with the potential to fit him like a glove — even if Preston himself wasn’t so sure. “We had an understanding,” he once said. “Since they were taking a chance on someone who had never done a musical, our understanding was that, if after one week out, we would part company and no one would be upset.”

Well, it worked out. And I, for one, am grateful.

Happy Anniversary to The Music Man. Long may it reign.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is coming in January from Griffith Moon Publishing: