With an opening zinger worthy of George S. Kaufman, one of Jesse Green’s theatre critic predecessors at the New York Times, his recent review of The Music Man, a Broadway revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, began: “There comes a moment in the latest Broadway production of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man when high spirits, terrific dancing and big stars align in an extended marvel of showbiz salesmanship. Unfortunately, that moment is the curtain call.”
Green’s lede began, “Even with Hugh Jackman – The Music Man Goes Flat.” And although the box office doesn’t seem to be hurting at all, with preferred seats selling at $500 dollars and above (I won’t be seeing the show anytime soon), there is just something that doesn’t seem to sit right with the good folks of River City, Iowa.
Writing in Slate magazine, Sam Adams notes that the problem comes early in the first act with the musical number “Ya Got Trouble” that basically frames the story line for everything that is to come after. Traveling mountebank, Professor Harold Hill, is in the business of selling the local townsfolk all of the equipment and accoutrements necessary to form a wholesome, patriotic marching band for the youth in their community. But in order to sell this idea he needs to create a raison d’être. He spies a pool parlor that is soon to open its doors and he quickly formulates a gateway-to-perdition scenario of pool hustlers, that will seduce the youth of River City by teaching them to gamble, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and dance with “libertine men and scarlet women” to the “shameless” jungle beat of ragtime music, that will lead inevitably to SEX (subtext, possibly even miscegenetic sex); dear Lord Almighty, what is to be done to save our youth from such turpitude?!
Adams explains that the producers had trouble with the lyrics in this centrepiece number (that employs the entire chorus) and so they began to make some cuts to the point that they “fundamentally change what The Music Man is about.” He describes the deletions and insertions made in order not to offend a contemporary Broadway audience.
“Instead of warning against “shameless” ragtime, Hugh Jackman’s Harold Hill cautions his crowd about “modern music;” “jungle animal instinct” has been swapped for “the depths of a syncopated frenzy.”
The producers seem to be of the opinion that the not so subtle racialisms embedded in the libretto might be offensive or misunderstood, leading Adams to ask rhetorically: “Are the people of River City, a diverse bunch in this colorblind production, really that worked up about the encroachment of modernity? If Harold Hill isn’t selling lightly coded racial anxiety, what exactly is he selling?”
In this new, deracinated version of “Ya Got Trouble” he seems to be selling a vague notion rather than an imminent threat. The pool table alone is somewhat benign and the “modern music” is, well, modern I guess.
This is unfortunate, because it is just this kind of chicanery and flapdoodle that is occurring all over the place right now, from the pedaling of conspiracy theories, anti-science reactions to mask wearing and vaccination efficacy, rigged elections, hysteria regarding history textbooks that talk about slavery, race relations, gender, feminism and the list just goes on.
Jesse Green concludes his review in the Times by recognizing that some cuts are necessary in these old warhorse musicals that reflect their own time and place but not necessarily a present day sensibility. There are many musicals that we could name that contain unacceptable caricatures, racialisms and sexisms. Green calls out one scene in particular in The Music Man: “This production rightly omits, for instance, the “Wa Tan We” girls of the “local wigwam of Heeawatha” and their “Indian war dance.” Even though such ludicrous appropriations are authentic to the setting, a musical comedy need not be a documentary. But omit too much and what’s left lacks texture.”
Nodding to the Stratford Festival, Green concludes that when the ebony and the ivory combine, the piano can play sweetly in tune with the present. “The Music Man can work today. I’ve seen it be thrilling as recently as 2018, in a Stratford Festival production (directed and choreographed by Donna Feore/ rb) that didn’t shy away from the chance it offers to explore class differences and, with a Black Harold Hill (Daren A. Herbert/ rb), even racial ones.”
With a gesture to the performative style of Randy Rainbow (I’m a big fan), although my opinion is unsolicited, I would suggest that the best way to approach a revival of The Music Man, within today’s divided polity, would not be to dumb it down but to wake it up with a thoroughly contemporized version of the show with all of the rhetorical bells and dog whistles that one can muster. It is with this in mind, that I offer here (along with my deepest and most sincere apologies to Meredith Wilson) an updated version of “Ya Got Trouble.”
(ENTER Professor Harold Hill (aka “the Music Man”). Having moved on from the state of Iowa, we find the flimflam man now working the territory of Ciudad Río, Texas. No longer in the brass band business, Hill has now updated his pitch in an effort to sell textbooks to local high schools – Professor Harold Hill’s Guide to Morally Uplifting Heroic Historical History (with a special addendum of songs and marches of a particularly patriotic character). He has turned in his signature boater straw hat for a brand new white felt 10-gallon Stetson. Although his scam has been altered a bit, it’s still the same old bunkum ready to instill alarm and consternation by the bucketful to anyone gullible enough to listen).
Harold Hill (addressing a group of locals who have gathered in the town square beneath a statue of Davy Crockett):
A theorist, (he pronounces it “tharist” – rhyming with terrorist) don’t you understand?
My friends either you’re closing your eyes
To a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the calibre of disaster indicated
By the presence of a critical race theorist in your community.
Well, ya got trouble my friend, right here,
I say trouble right here in this city.
Why sure I’m a theory sayer
Certainly mighty proud I say
I’m always mighty proud to say it.
I consider the hours I spend spreading theories around are golden.
Helps you cultivate horse sense
And a cool head and a keen eye.
Ever take and try to think up
An iron clad theory for yourself
From a hare brained conspiracy plot?
But just as I say,
It takes judgement, brains and maturity to score
In a bait and switch con
I say that any boob can take
And pull a half-baked theory out of a pocket
And they call that sloth
The first big step on the road to deg-re-Day–
I say first – medicinal “theory” from a teaspoon
Then a Black Lives Matter meeting that night!
An’ the next thing ya know
Your young ‘uns are hangin’ on every toot
And listening to some big out-a-town jasper
Hear to talk about racial gambolin’
Not wholesome racial stuff
Like Booker T. Washington, no!
But race where they set ya’ down right in a course!
Like to see some stuck-up cocky boy sittin’ on a desk
Spoutin’ off on that? Make your blood boil?
Well, I should say.
Friends let me tell you what I mean.
You gotta a one, six, one, nine project right there on the table
Numbers that mark the difference
Between a patriot and a crook
With a capital P and that rhymes with T and that stands for Theory!
And all week long the youth in your city
Will be frittering away,
I say Ciudad Río youth will be frittering!
Frittering away their noontime, suppertime, chore time too!
Do the theory and the project
Never mind about mowin’ the lawn or takin’ out the garbage
Never mind helping with the groceries till your parents are caught
With the freezer empty on a Saturday night, and that’s trouble
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble.
I’m thinkin’ of the girls in bodycons and the boys in sweats,
Sittin’ in the classroom at their school, ya got trouble, folks!
Right here in your city.
With a capital C plus an R and a T
That stands Theory!
Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
I’m gonna be perfectly frank.
Would you like to know what kinda conversation goes
On while they’re loafin’ around those halls?
They’ll be tryin’ out non-binary, tryin’ out polyamorous
Tryin’ out things that make them feel good
And braggin’ all about
How they they’re gonna cover up their tell-tale sex with Sen-Sen!
One fine night, they leave the classroom headed for the dance at the Arm’ry
Gay men and lesbian women,
And ragtime, shameless music
That’ll grab your son and your daughter
Into the arms of a jungle animal instinct
Friends, a theory’d brain is the devil’s playground!
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in our city!
With a capital T
That stands for the T in theory.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in this city,
Gotta figure out a way
To keep the young ones’ moral in that school!
Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…
Mothers of Ciudad Río!
Heed that warning before it’s too late!
Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption!
When your kids leave the house to meet up with friends,
Is it half past eleven at night?
Is there a vaporizer in the car glove compartment?
A copy of bell hooks “all about love” hidden in your daughter’s knapsack?
Are certain words creeping into their conversation?
Words like “socialized,” and “systemic” and “inter-section-ality?
Are they startin’ to use acronyms like LGBTQ+ and BIPOC?
Well if so my friends,
Ya got trouble,
Right here in this city!
With a capital “C”
Plus an “R” and a “T” that stands for Theory.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City!
Remember the Alamo, our statues, and white supremacist rule!
Oh, we’ve got trouble.
We’re in terrible, terrible trouble.
That Sixteen-nineteen course is the devil’s tool!
Oh yes we got trouble, trouble, trouble!
With a capital “C” plus an “R” and a “T”
That stands for THEORYEEE!