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Toon Talk: The Music Man
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Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt
The Music Man
Marching Still Right Today
For Disney fans, one thinks of such classic films as Pollyanna and Summer Magic starring a petticoated Haley Mills and, of course, Main Street U.S.A. at the theme parks.
For theater buffs, it's Meredith Wilson's The Music Man, the very essence of the term.
Earlier this year, these two purveyors of vintage America (Disney and Wilson), after years of peripheral connections (see Toon Talk trivia below), finally came together officially with The Wonderful World of Disney production of Meredith Wilson's The Music Man (now available on video and DVD), and the result is a musical treat for both Disney and Broadway aficionados alike, a loving valentine to a bygone era.
When the original Broadway production of The Music Man premiered in 1957, it went on to famously beat out West Side Story for the Best Musical Tony Award and forever associated leading man Robert Preston with his one-of-a-kind creation, Professor Harold Hill. This association was further cemented when he recreated his role for the 1962 film (over the studio's original choice, Frank Sinatra). In fact, the original film version of this production has been widely hailed as one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations of a Broadway musical ever made.
So why remake it? (Especially when there has been so many other less successful filmed transfers ... Lucille Ball's Mame, anyone?) Well, just like its always nice to see a classic musical re-imagined on stage in a revival, there's nothing wrong with seeing the same material filmed anew with the right talent involved.
And executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (fresh off their Oscar-winning Chicago) have once again assembled a fine roster of Broadway's best (well, mostly fine ... I'll get to that later), leading off with an unlikely choice for their Marion the librarian, Kristin Chenoweth. Anyone who has seen her squeaky-voiced work in the 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (in her Tony-winning role as Charlie Brown's sassy sister Sally) or Disney's 1999 version of Annie (as peroxied moll Lily St. Regis) are in for a surprise when they hear the classically-trained Chenoweth open her mouth to take on such American stage standards as "Goodnight, My Someoneâ€? and "My White Knightâ€? (reinstated from the stage production over the first film's "Being in Loveâ€?). Chenoweth has a crystal-clear soprano (spanning four octaves) that will have you falling in love with her even more then Harold Hill does. Even better, she knows when to bring out Marion's playful side, and her performance anchors the often book-heavy third act of the material. With her lithesome hourglass figure and natural yet honest sweetness, Chenoweth (currently packing them in on Broadway as Glinda the Good in Stephen Schwartz's The Wizard of Oz prequel Wicked) makes it easy to forget Shirley Jones' stiff, more shrew-like Marion from the first film. (An alternate Chenoweth performance of "Till There Was Youâ€? is offered in the DVD's meager bonus features. She also should be strongly considered for the princess in the upcoming animation Rapunzel: Unbraided, don't you think? Paging Glen Keane ...)
But what about her leading man? Aha, that's where the problem lies: instead of casting, say, a more traditional musical lead such as Hugh Jackman (who's theatrical prowess can now be seen on Broadway as a flemencoing Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz and on DVD in the recently released London production of Oklahoma!) or Eric McCormack (the Will and Grace Emmy-winner stepped in as Hill late in the run of the 2000 revival of Music Man) or even casting against type with, say, Nathan Lane (sure, a bit of a stretch for the romantic parts, but after his Tonyed turns in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Producers, you know he could pull of the shyster bits so integral to the role), they cast ... Matthew Broderick.
Nothing against Broderick, per se (Lion King notwithstanding, his Broadway turns in the How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying revival and The Producers proved his musical comedy ability, netting him a Tony for the former and a nomination for the latter), but his baby-face and thin voice are the exact opposite of what is needed for Harold Hill, and, judging by his constant looks of what can only be described as wide-eyed panic throughout the film, he knows it. While a little lighter on his feet then Preston, Broderick does little to dispel the ghost of performance past, bringing none of the confidence needed to the role. This is surprising considering that his own Ferris Bueller could be considered a teen-aged Professor and, as reported in the all-to-brief Making of a Musical doc included on the DVD, it is mentioned that Broderick had a "passionâ€? to play Hill. Well Matt, how about showing some of that passion on film?
The oddest thing happens when the two leads share a scene: Chenoweth, with next to no film experience compared to movie star Broderick, blows him off the screen; in "Marion the Librarianâ€?, Broderick's Hill comes off as a stalker and, in "Till There Was Youâ€?, constipated, leaving Chenoweth to steal the movie right out from under him.
Rounding out the cast is Meron/Zadan favorite Victor Garber as the blustery Mayor "You watch your phraseology!â€? Shinn (now he would have made a great Harold Hill), the always interesting Molly Shannon as his gossipy wife (watch as she delights in wrapping her tongue around the line "Balzac!â€?), and David Aaron Baker as Marcellus (now a hotel clerk instead of a stable hand, he performs the show-stopping "Shipoopiâ€? as if his life depended on it). The "Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Littleâ€? ladies are, as always, a hoot and a half, and the Barbershop Quartet is, quite simply, sublime. And last, but not least, there's the freckle-faced Cameron Monaghan as the adorably lisping Winthrop Paroo. (It's also interesting to note how young this film is cast compared to previous productions; for example, Debra Monk's feisty yet lovable Mrs. Paroo does not look old enough to have Chenoweth for a daughter. On the other hand, Clyde Alves' high school hooligan Tommy Djilas actually looks older then Broderick.)