‘The Music Man’ to open BCP’s 2022-23 season
A thoroughly modern musical style can be traced to a 1957 classic of American theater, “The Music Man.”
“… the opening number in this musical is not musical — it does not have music in it at all,” director Paula Bothe said. “It’s called ‘The Rock Island line,’ and it’s a salesman on a train and it’s in rhythm with the train. I’ve got some guys who are working themselves into a frenzy because it’s not easy. It’s the most difficult thing than the show.”
Beaumont Community Players’ season-opening musical, which opens Sept. 9, is a valentine to America, Bothe said. Set in River City, Iowa in 1912, the story revolves around Harold Hill — a hustler who travels the Midwest selling band instruments to unsuspecting townsfolk and promising to train their children.
However, Hill is no musician and plans to skip town. When the Marion, the strait-laced librarian and piano teacher, begins to suspect him, Hill is forced to change his plans. What follows is a heartwarming blend of wry humor and great to-tapping music, including “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Gary, Indiana” and the uproariously energetic “Shipoopi.”
Wilson has given us some of musical theater’s greatest “patter” songs, with complicated lyrics that require the singers to sing a lot of words very quickly, with the best example being “Ya Got Trouble.” Wilson’s influence can be seen throughout the history of American musicals. One can see it is the songs of Stephen Sondheim and Lin Manuel Miranda.
“Meredith Wilson is the Godfather of all those,” Bothe said.
The show is populated with a variety of colorful characters and good humor, although Bothe is quick to point out that the humor comes from the situations.
“The characters are familiar,” she said. “We all know that bickering school board. We all know that old maid librarian. We all know that hustler.”
Bothe said the Wilson has a message for directors written in the script, one she read to the cast before rehearsals started, that says “The Music Man was intended to be a Valentine and not a caricature…. The humor of the piece depends upon its technical faithfulness to the real small-town islands of 1912 who certainly did not think they were funny at all.’”
This is BCP veteran Bothe’s second crack at the show, having directed the 1999 production for the Beaumont Civic Opera.
“This is like getting the band back together,” she said. “The choreographer is Lou Arrington, and she was the choreographer for the show then. And the lighting designer is her husband Mark. Randolph Babin was the music director and the conductor. He’s retired but came to auditions to help us out a little bit. And he’ll be dropping by periodically to make sure that we’re all in the right key, just because he loves the show, and he loves us.”
Bothe said working with people she has worked with before helps create a shorthand. When she has staged a scene, she can give it over to Arrington and trust they are on the same page conceptually.
“(It’s) knowing in advance the quality of people’s work, their work ethic, their interest in being the best they can,” Bothe said. “And also, one other little, tiny factor, which is called their love, not just of theater but of theater people.”
However, Bothe also creates a space to bring new people in as well.
“I am working with players who are new not only to this production and BCP, but to theater in general,” she said. “We have some newbies, and they’re going to be wonderful, because we’re just going to love them right into it.”
Chad Illa-Petersen plays Harold Hill — the titular music man. He returns to the role he first played as a high school senior at BCP’s KIDmunity summer show in 1991.
“I wanted to play the character again with actual life experience,” he said. “So, when they did it again, I thought, ‘Well, this is probably my last shot before I’m too old.’ I’ve either found out that I’m still incredibly naive, or I knew a lot more than I thought.”
Arrington was also the choreographer on that show, Illa-Petersen said, and the cast included Chad Mason whose son Chase plays Winthrop Paroo in this production.
Illa-Petersen said he still remembers “Ya Got Trouble” from his youth, but the song “The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl” is a challenge.
“There’s just a lot of a lot of adjectives that he uses to describe women, and the different segments of the song and just remembering get them in the right order,” he said. “And then there’s some alliteration. And it’s fast.
“(Arrington) doesn’t play around either. You’re trying to remember that lyric to this fast-paced song, but at the same time, she’s got me climbing on desks, jumping off chairs. I mean, they’re pushing me for a much older guy than I was.”
Harold Hill is a hustler with an entrepreneurial spirit, Illa-Petersen said. He sells people dreams he can’t fulfill, makes promises he can’t keep and doesn’t care who he hurts just so he can make a buck. But during the course of the play, he gradually shifts.
“I really think he does love music,” Illa-Petersen said. “He just can’t do the band thing. He’s just not trained to that. It’s complex. It’s interesting, because it’s really not written in a way that his character arc (has) this big moment where he’s, like, Oh, huge change. It’s like these little gradual moments are so big.”
“The Music Man” is currently on Broadway starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, but Bothe said the cast is not scared of comparisons.
“We’re not Broadway, we know that,” she said. “And when people, in all sincerity, say, ‘Oh, you’re as good as Broadway,’ we say thank you. But we know it’s not true and never will be. But it’s our sincere attempt.”
After almost six decades, it’s the love of theater that brings Bothe back year after year, she said.
“I think this is the most important thing — if you do not go to the theater, there will be no theater,” she said. “If you want quality, you have to support the arts. And if you want people to go on to greater things, this is where they cut their teeth. And this is also where joy reigns.”
Showtimes for “The Music Man” are Sept. 9, 10, 16, 17, 22, 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m., and Sept. 17 at 2 p.m.
BCP is located at 4155 Laurel Ave. in Beaumont. For tickets, visit http://www.beaumontstages.com.
This story first ran in the Aug. 19, 2022, Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.