It's not easy to find much joy in the deepening gloom of a television midseason consumed with reality TV. But there is the occasional splash of sunlight, like Meredith Willson's The Music Man, airing tonight on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney.
The revival of the musical is surely one of the happier developments throughout popular culture. There are Chicago and Moulin Rouge! in film, as well as The Producers and Hair-spray on Broadway. Television has been doing the musical proud for a number of years with Annie, Gypsy, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella on ABC. PBS' Great Performances brought Fosse to the small screen last year, and will stage Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate on Feb. 26.
The bad news is that there are no truly new musicals in the mix. Supporting the claim that we are indeed living in postmodern times, each of the films, plays or television shows revives material from earlier productions and eras.
That's the case with Disney's Music Man, which will inevitably be judged by some against the 1957 stage original and 1962 feature film versions. Both starred Robert Preston as Professor Harold Hill, the quintessential fast-talking American con man who brings his scam, with a capital S, to River City, Iowa.
But the good news is that Disney's Music Man is the work of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who are almost single-handedly responsible for reviving the musical as executive producers of Annie, Gypsy and Cinderella on television, as well as Chicago on the big screen. Meron and Zadan don't just recycle productions, they brilliantly re-imagine them for the medium in which they are working. And that is also the case with Music Man.
Television is an intimate medium - almost the opposite, in that respect, of the Broadway musical or feature film. It's important to remember that, especially for those viewers familiar with Preston's bigger-than-big, high-energy performance as the traveling salesman who convinces the good folk of River City that they need a youth marching band to keep their children on the path of moral righteousness. And, of course, he's just the man to sell them the instruments and uniforms, even though, in truth, this bogus professor can't read or play a note.
Matthew Broderick, the two-time Tony Award-winner who plays Hill in this production, seems quiet and small by comparison in the way he underplays the role. It's almost as if he is sneaking up on it rather than grabbing it by the throat as Preston did. The result is jarring enough in early musical numbers like Rock Island and Ya Got Trouble that some viewers might even tune out.
But tuning out is a big mistake, because right after Ya Got Trouble, ya got Hill starting his pursuit of Marian Paroo (Kristin Chenoweth), the music teacher and town librarian to whom he ultimately loses his heart. Once those two meet at the gate of the white picket fence in front of her house, everything else melts away. Whenever they are onscreen together, the focus narrows to a universe of two, and Broderick's undersized take on Hill is almost pitch perfect.
Chenoweth is perfection - or maybe it just seems that way once she opens her mouth, and this big, marvelous voice comes out of such a tiny woman. Within five minutes of meeting Hill at her front gate, she's singing Goodnight, My Someone, and it is all over but the dancing. From this point on, everything clicks.
Broderick steps up to the plate in the next scene at the high school gymnasium to take on the biggest of the big numbers, Seventy Six Trombones. But, again, instead of trying to have Broderick imitate Preston's supersized take of the trademark song, Meron and Zadan wisely shrink the canvas.
They have Hill lead the chorus line of students out of the gymnasium and onto the smaller stage of a classroom. And there, they conjure some of the most intricate and stunning choreography ever done on television, with Hill in the front of the room and each of the dancers at an old-fashioned desk with a lift-up top. In concert with each other, the dancers transform each desk into both a stage and an instrument, with the cameras constantly shifting point of view to dazzling effect. It's even better than what Meron and Zadan did with mops, buckets and chorus line of orphans in Annie.
Music Man is not one of the most wise or even coherent products of American musical theater. The narrative is full of inconsistency and even silliness. But, like Oklahoma, it can be mesmerizing in all its energy, optimism and certainty about the inchoate goodness of the American character. And what a pleasure it is, in these troubling postmodern times, to spend an evening in that realm.
Get in step
What: Meredith Willson's The Music Man
When: Tonight at 7
Where: WMAR (Channel 2)
In brief: An American stage classic wonderfully re-imagined for the small screen.