The Music Man
Obsolete, Obsolete, Obsolete?: The Continuing Influence of The Music Man
By Ben Verschoor
The cultural impact of a work of art can often be difficult to gauge. The Music Man was an outstanding success when it first appeared, running three-and-a-half years and winning several 1958 Tony awards, including Best Musical. Yet, popularity does not always translate to enduring fame and a work’s significance is fleeting if it does not leave an impact on those that come after. Fortunately, The Music Man has left a long-standing impression on the American cultural epoch, as seen both in the traits it shares with many of the musicals that have followed in its wake as well as the numerous tributes and parodies it has inspired.
The most distinctive quality of The Music Man’s libretto is its incorporation of rhythmic speech-singing in many of its signature numbers. The lyrics of the show opener, “Rock Island,” are entirely spoken, but they are done so in sync to the peculiar rhythms of the train on which the scene takes place. “Ya Got Trouble” has a musical accompaniment, but Harold Hill’s delivery is nonetheless done by a fast-talking speech that reflects equal parts salesman and evangelist. The titular chorus of “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” is sung, but its speed and lyrics, “Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little/Cheep cheep cheep/talk a lot, pick a little more” are meant to convey a particular bit of small town gossip reminiscent of the constant cacophony of hens in a farmhouse.
These techniques of using spoken word as an instrument in itself, and deriving music from scene and circumstance, have influenced numerous musicals since. “The Cell Block Tango,” from 1975’s Chicago, is written with a traditional song structure, but uses environmental sound cues—tapping fingers, water drips—and isolated words from its seven singers to create an arresting introduction.
Notable Composer and Lyricist Stephen Sondheim often uses rhythmic plain speech in the compositions of his musicals. “Your Fault,” from Into the Woods, is largely spoken, but gets its up-tempo drive from the back-and-forth argument going on among the characters. The melody of another one of Sondheim’s pieces, Sweeney Todd’s “The Worst Pies in London,” has a jittery bounce that comes from both the buoyant characterization of Mrs. Lovett, as well as the kitchen setting, where Mrs. Lovett beats away at both bread and cockroaches.
“’The Worst Pies in London’ from the Broadway production of Sweeney Todd
starring Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, 1982
The Music Man’s musical influence can be felt in movie musicals as well. “Belle,” the opening song for Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast written by Broadway veterans Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors), uses the raucous nature of a crowded town square to achieve a punchiness in its rhythm. From its introduction all the way to its climax, an overlapping collage of town folks in conversation are punctuated by twin statements of purpose from protagonist Belle and antagonist Gaston:
"You call this bacon?"
"What lovely grapes!"
"I’ll get the knife."
"Please let me through!"
"Well, maybe so."
"There must be more than this provincial life!"
"Just watch, I’m going to make Belle my wife!"”
“’Belle’” from the Disney animated film Beauty and the Beast, 1991
The musicals of today continue to bear The Music Man’s fingerprints. “Hello!” — the rousing opening number of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon about the training of door-to-door Mormon missionaries (and is itself a nod to “Belle”) — is built entirely around the DING-DONG melody of a doorbell in the same way “Rock Island” built its rhythm around the chugging of a train. Decades later, the music of The Music Man continues to shape its medium.
“’Hello’ from The Book of Mormon, 2011
The Music Man’s broader cultural footprint is similarly large, with an abundance of references, covers, tributes and parodies. One of its songs, “Til There Was You,” was covered by The Beatles early in their career in 1963. In 1986, Sesame Street did an extended parody of the The Music Man, involving a character named Preston Rabbit (named after original Harold Hill actor Robert Preston) who comes to Sesame Street giving gifts no one really needs. It featured riffs on “Ya Got Trouble,” “Till There Was You,” “Iowa Stubborn” and “76 Trombones.”
“The Simpsons,” one of the great mirrors of pop culture, built an entire episode on a Harold Hill-like traveling salesman, Lyle Lanley (voiced by Phil Hartman), who comes to Springfield and convinces the town to build a monorail, which he constructs with shoddy engineering in order to pocket the extra money for himself. His entrance features the “Monorail Song,” a parody of The Music Man’s “Ya Got Trouble.”
“’Monorail Song’ from The Simpsons, 1993
The episode was written by Conan O’Brien, who is a huge Music Man fan and, at the 2006 Emmys, performed a parody of “Ya Got Trouble” that mocked NBC’s slide in ratings.
Another adult cartoon, “Family Guy,” once featured a full performance of “Shipoopi” that imitated the choreography of the 1963 Music Man movie. Another episode parodied “The Piano Lesson.” “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane himself performed a play on “Ya Got Trouble” at the 2010 Writers Guild Awards, in which he made fun of circumstances of the then-going writer’s strike.
“’Shipoopi’ from Family Guy, 2006
Current references are not only aimed at adults. In just the past couple years, an episode of the kids show “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” featured a Music Man tribute with still another parody of “Trouble.”
The Music Man has been used as the basis of an entire film, the 2006 mockumentary Pittsburgh, in which Jeff Goldblum takes on the role of Harold Hill as part of a scheme to get his Canadian girlfriend a green card. Meanwhile Harold Hill himself has become a short-hand for a charming con-man. Former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann used it as an epithet for right-wing media personality Glenn Beck, and just this past March The Washington Post’s theater critic Peter Marks referred to Mike Daisey, who fabricated details of his visit to an Apple manufacturing plant in China, as having most resembled The Music Man’s “flimflamming boys’ band pitchman.”
With influence and cultural reference points proliferating in Broadway and beyond from its premiere up through today, The Music Man has been and will remain a memorable cultural touchstone for years to come.
Ben Vershoor is a graduate from the College of Idaho. Since graduation, he worked with the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. Ben has been a Literary Volunteer for Arena Stage since Fall 2010.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.