The applause is deafening at the Winter Garden. You can probably hear it outside as you’re passing by and it might even be audible across the street. It starts immediately, even before anything has happened, and it doesn’t flag in the two and a half hours that follow. There’s no variance to the reaction; it’s always full force, and it happens whenever possible. I’m not trying to police anyone’s enjoyment, but it made me wonder what exactly is bringing such paroxysms of joy. If an equal response can be caused by the dimming of house lights as much as an admittedly thrilling partner dance between two stars, does what’s actually happening on the stage even matter?
A similar thing happened at the Shubert in 2017. The audience (me included) went nuts as the lights went down and the Hello, Dolly! overture kicked in. The room was humid with anticipation. We were ready, we were hungry. But that’s where the paths diverge. Bette Midler and the phenomenal company, director Jerry Zaks, choreographer Warren Carlyle, and set and costume designer Santo Loquasto kept feeding us. They met us in our euphoria and pushed it higher and higher, spinning it all into a frothy cloud that then drifted out into the night. It felt exactly like what musical comedy should be.
Of course they’d want to replicate it, and they sure are trying. From the re-assembled team of Zaks/Carlyle/Loquasto to the marketing to the luxe casting, the revival of The Music Man currently on Broadway looks like a Xerox copy of Hello, Dolly!, but they should have changed the toner cartridge. Where Dolly was constantly reaching for (and grasping and embracing) something better, The Music Man is content to rest on what it gives you up front: a clever design concept, athletic choreography from an enormous cast, and Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster: bold-typed stars in the leading roles. The result is a weirdly flat production that rarely transcends its base givens. Perhaps comparing the two is unfair, but everything about this production, from the moment of its conception, begs us to compare them. It practically screams, “If you liked Hello, Dolly! come check out The Music Man!” But in asking us to compare them, it sets up an impossible task for The Music Man.
Jackman, on paper, is ideal casting for the flimflam traveling salesman, duping small townsfolk out of their cash with nothing but his natural charisma and a way with words. Harold Hill talks circles around the River Citizens so they can’t stop to think about what he’s actually saying. It’s a role built around the limited singing abilities of its original star, Robert Preston. Hill’s forte is the patter song and short musical phrases without a lot of smooth singing. Jackman pushes against these aspects of the character at every turn. Jackman’s Hill wants to sing and, even more so, his Hill wants to dance. Jackman’s Harold is more Gene Kelly than Robert Preston. Carlyle has given him plenty of opportunity to dazzle the townspeople with his long limbs and movie star smile. Hugh Jackman is a megawatt talent, but he’s not Harold Hill. Midler, a bigger personality than Jackman, was able to use her star power to highlight Dolly Levi’s magnetism. With Jackman, there’s never a fusion of the actor’s persona and the character, he’s always just Hugh Jackman singing songs from The Music Man.
Foster manages to fall into her role as Marian Paroo more comfortably. She’s giving an acidic take on the character, but it works. She’s especially fun when she’s first encountering Harold Hill or when she’s trying to stop Charlie Cowell from revealing Hill’s scheme to the town. Foster does not have the natural soprano the role requires, so the production has lowered keys and substituted an alternate patter version of “My White Knight.” Meredith Willson structured the central couple as musical opposites: her soaring soprano and his quick, sprechstimme baritone suggest two people who could not be further from each other in every way. But because of the alterations to Marian’s music, Foster’s short, clipped notes and thin belting sound like Harold’s music. Without a more lush, legato sound to butt against his staccato rhythms, the central couple cannot exchange music (i.e. perspectives) in this production. There’s no will-they-or-won’t they, because they’re always speaking the same language.
If Jackman is trying to make Harold Hill a song and dance man and Foster’s voice is strained under Marian’s ballads, it begs the question why either of them are doing The Music Man at all. There is a difference between “making a role your own” and reshaping an entire musical to fit your own strengths. These two actors could do anything together and it would sell out, especially with the production machine they have behind them. There’s no urgency to either of their performances. It doesn’t feel like either of them has a burning need to take on the part and an aura of ambivalence pervades.
Zaks’ staging is likewise unsure. “Seventy-Six Trombones”, the most famous song from The Music Man, doesn’t begin with the iconic bum-ba-dum-ba-dum-ba-dum-ba-dum-BA-dum, but with Hill singing into silence. Willson’s intro is a burst of energy in a stuffy gymnasium, but Zaks has it start like a quiet reverie. Without actually kicking it off, it never gets going despite Carlyle’s best choreographic efforts. When Marian, the town librarian, softens a bit to Harold’s charms, Zaks shows her indiscriminately throwing entries from the card catalog into the air. Why would Marian disrespect her job, something we know she cares about so deeply, because of a man? The footbridge scene where Marian and Harold finally connect takes place not on the footbridge, but standing downstage in front of it. Why is the footbridge there if not for them to kiss on it?
There are a few moments deserving of the kind of wild applause the audience is all too keen to throw at the stage. When Foster and Jackman share a dance break during “Shipoopi”, they’re both in their element and you see why these two actors are who they are. Jayne Houdyshell brings real human traits to Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn without losing any of the comedy. Jackman and Shuler Hensley as Marcellus Washburn have an easy, natural chemistry and their long professional relationship (going back to the 1998 production of Oklahoma! that made both their careers) lends a nice history between the characters. There’s also a fun bit of scenic business in “The Wells Fargo Wagon” that made me beam.
But there has to be something more. There’s no reason why the production has to feel this flat and lifeless. The audience is giving so much energy and it’s not being returned. Although, on second thought, maybe the audience is getting exactly what they came for. Maybe they’re not there for an evening of exhilarating musical comedy. Maybe they’re just there to see Hugh Jackman cut a rug and a fine figure in a henley. Maybe they’re just there to see Sutton Foster stand downstage and exude star quality. Both of those things happen. Or maybe they’re eager to justify the price of their tickets. I get that, and it explains the volume. I wanted to be transported, but it just left me in my seat, wondering what all those other people were so ecstatic about.