Friday, July 17, 2009

The Music Man - Selling Hope

Director: Jeff Bleckner, 2003.

Con-man movies can be a lot of fun. Think of the classic 1974 Best Picture, The Sting. Or more recently Confidence. Combining comedy and suspense they keep us engaged with divided loyalties, wanting the con to be successful while remembering in the back of our minds that these are criminal activities. Yet, The Music Man adds two new elements to the traditional con movie: romance and music.

I don't normally watch or review made-for-TV movies. For that matter, I don't normally watch musicals. But I planned a vacation trip to Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to see a play and it turned out to be The Music Man. Since other family members had seen this, I needed to at least be familiar with the themes and songs, so chose this version over the 1962 original, which was not available in time.

Most of us have heard the song "76 Trombones" (76 trombones in the grand parade, with a 110 cornets close at hand). This is the film's signature song. (The 1962 version won an Oscar for best music.) It recurs throughout, and underscores the theme of the con itself.

Prof. Harold Hill (Matthew Broderick, the grown up Ferris Buehler) arrives in River City, Iowa by train at the turn of the 20th century. Apparently a travelling salesman, he is actually a con-man planning to play one on these staid and stoic midwesterners. His con is simple. He will make the townsfolk want a boys' marching band to counteract the "immoral" attraction of the new pool hall. Of course, he is ready to create this band, selling instruments and uniforms which he doesn't have and teaching what he doesn't know.

Hill has a problem though. Two actually: the mayor and Marian. Neither are mesmerized by his patter and pitch that leaves the rest of River City following him like the Pied Piper. Mayor Shinn (Victor Garber) smells a rat and seeks to discover more about Hill. Marian Paroo (Kristin Chenoweth) is the local librarian and music teacher, a beautiful but lonely "old maid," still living with her mother and younger brother. She suspects Hill has no education or knowledge in music. He only has his revolutionary new "think" technique.

Marian is a picture of procrastination. She has put off love, waiting for the right man who might come tomorrow. But Hill tells her, "You pile up enough tomorrows, and you'll find you've collected a lot of empty yesterdays." If we live for tomorrow we lose sight of the wonders of today. The psalmist wrote a lyric in one of his songs, "This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Psa. 118:24). God made each day to be enjoyed, even seized. Only as we fill each day with joy, love and gladness will we have a legacy of overflowing yesterdays to look back on. Hill is right about that.

At the start it seems Broderick might have been miscast, as he chants rather than sings his songs. But as the film progresses the chemistry between him and Chenoweth emerges as a strong element, and he holds his own in duets with her and her powerful voice. His boyish charm wins over the town and the audience.

When Hill initially makes his proposal to the town in their assembly, the general populace is divided. The councilmen are at odds with one another, The women are estranged from Marian. And the mayor's family is dysfunctional. But Hill causes immediate transformation with his brand of magic and music. The four councilmen become an instant barbershop quartet that are inseparable and always ready to break into song given an opening line.

Hill is selling a con, but he is selling hope to a town in need of hope. Rather than playing on greed or ambition, he chooses to focus on the empowerment of music. Though his motives are immoral, his message is not.

The Music Man makes us think about what we are selling. We are all salesman, in one way or another. We sell our ideas, our opinions, to others, trying to influence them to our way of thinking. But what is our product? Are we selling hope? Are we helping others to find that precious commodity that will enable them to survive, even thrive, for another day? Hope brings a smile to the face of a boy who dreams of being in a band even when the instrument is not in his hand. Hope brings laughter to a woman who sees the vision of her white knight appear when he is an ordinary clerk. Hope brings comfort to a child whose father has died and whose grieving heart has seen no light for months.

So, as you interact with your family, friends, coworkers and strangers, what are you selling? Is it something worth buying?

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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