“Please observe him if you will.
He’s Professor Harold Hill,
And he’s here to organize a River City boys band!”
Professor Harold Hill, the all-American conniver at the heart of Meredith Willson’s signature work The Music Man, is the most celebrated example of a cherished archetype: the charming huckster. Ever since he hit Broadway in the 1950s, his irresistible mixture of guile, charm and ingenuity has made him the model for ramblin’ rogues in generations of novels, plays and movies. As we see in the musical’s key opening scene, which evokes the rhythmic motion of a train through a proto-rap routine, cadres of corporate-backed product salesmen once rode the rails and the roads to hawk anything from vacuum cleaners to encyclopedias. There were thousands of them, precursors of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, getting by on a shoeshine and a smile. For them it was a tough life made all the tougher by shady characters like Hill, who would often skip town after collecting a down payment. If you’re trying to cadge an honest living and a shady character like Hill gets there before you, it’s like the man says: you’ve got trouble, my friend. And yet, with his lightning-fast patter and crafty evasions, it’s hard not to like him.
The Music Man is generally described as an affectionate evocation of a more innocent time in America. But this is, at best, half true; more accurately, Willson cast a sharp, appreciative eye on an America with growing pains. The action takes place early in the 20th century, with the Civil War still a living memory. Transcontinental rail and telegraph services were new. Everything was changing, unsettled, raw—especially in the territories that had recently achieved statehood, as Meredith Willson’s home state of Iowa had in 1846. In a time and place like that, people yearning for domestic stability were prime targets for a man like Harold Hill.
Willson’s fondness for the people of The Music Man was real, and he even modeled the estimable Marian on his wife, whom he both admired and adored. But he also understood his characters’ shortcomings, which are astutely rendered in the book and music. He depicts bedrock Iowans as comically provincial; they’re narrow-minded, grouchy, skeptical of new ideas and suspicious of strangers. Engrossed in their intolerant gossip, the nosy ladies of River City become a bunch of pecking hens. The Midwestern salesmen who complain about the scurrilous Hill are so unimaginative that they unthinkingly chant the same lines over and over. Even the local barbershop quartet betokens lack of imagination. Does any other musical genre so clearly say “don’t go outside the lines”?
As for Hill himself, we may love the guy, but Willson forces us to think twice about him. He’s so practiced a liar that his dissembling seems as natural as breathing, though more energetic. Willson warns us with Professor Hill’s false credentials: “Gary Indiana Conservatory of Music, class of ‘05.” As if! The 1967 movie The Flim-Flam Man tips its cap to Hill with the character Mordecai C. Jones, M.B.S, C.S., D.D.—“master of back-stabbing, cork-screwing and dirty dealing.”
Do these guys ever spare a thought for those they’ve hurt? Sometimes not. Consider the case of Harry Lime, the fictional black marketeer that Orson Welles portrayed in the 1949 cinema noir thriller The Third Man, written by Graham Greene. Harry could be Harold’s evil twin: a suave, witty, good-looking liar and master of the narrow escape. But in ravaged post-World War II Vienna, Harry’s antics aren’t so endearing. They include selling fake penicillin to treat wounded children, and he is content to let his best friends think he’s dead—which he soon is.
But once Harold Hill sets his sights on the appealing yet formidable Marian Paroo, he’s different. Though Harold, like Harry, has put a vulnerable child at risk—Marion’s 10-year-old brother, Winthrop—she falls for him against her better judgment. But if his transformation starts with a single person, it’s someone far less likely: his former partner in crime, worldly-wise Marcellus Washburn. Very much a fish out of water in River City, Marcellus astonishes Harold by saying he likes the folks there. What’s more, likes sharing their way of life. In the course of The Music Man, we do too.
Ultimately, the power of art and the willingness to dream save River City, and River City saves Harold Hill. Each has something the other needs: Harold needs a reason to choose decency, and a way to be decent. River City, a town of steady habits and tight-wound neighbors, needs to get a glimpse of art and of wider possibility. Once they’ve seen Professor Hill’s glorious marching band, nothing can ever be the same. What about actually learning to make music? That can come later.
You’ll have a chance to witness this lovable huckster and the townspeople of River City onstage at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at 8 p.m. on May 31 & June 1, rounding out Pacific Symphony’s 18-19 Pops series. Jeremy Stolle performs the lead “Professor” Harold Hill, while Elena Shaddow portrays the leading woman Marian Paroo in this semi-staged production of Meredith Willson’s charming The Music Man, backed by Pacific Symphony’s orchestra. Tickets here.