Meredith Willson’s marvelous confection of Midwestern corn and Broadway hot diggety doggedness, The Music Man, won six Tonys in 1958 and deserves at least as many Emmys now for ABC’s sparkly new version that seems nothing less than a miracle, given that it’s coming from the network that has recently given us the damnable ”Miracles.”
Executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who’ve overseen similarly terrific television presentations of ”Annie” and ”Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” as well as the current movie version of ”Chicago,” possess a rare faith in faithfulness. That is to say, they trust the material they adapt and don’t trim or dumb it down for contemporary viewers.
”The Music Man” may be Zadan and Meron’s riskiest venture yet, given that the musical’s vision of small-town, turn-of-the-century life was quaint even in the late ’50s, when Robert Preston became a Broadway powerhouse as the con man, Prof. Harold Hill. Hill, played here by Matthew Broderick, is a traveling salesman whom rival colleagues consider a flashy, ”two-bit thimblerigger” who gives honest door-to-door dudes a bad name. He arrives in the spats-and-parasol town of River City, Iowa, and gulls the locals with a vision of organizing a youth band that will instill a love of good music and keep impressionable kids out of the town’s primary den of sin: the pool hall.
You see the challenge here already, I’m sure. Are Sunday-night viewers of ”Alias” or ”Law & Order: Criminal Intent” going to cotton to a predictable tale of the con man who wins over the hearts of the people, or even make it past bygone-era slang like ”thimblerigger”? I certainly hope so. This is old-fashioned entertainment bursting with marvelous melodies and wordplay; it’s no wonder a revival of ”The Music Man” on Broadway a couple of years ago, starring Craig Bierko doing a virtual Preston impersonation, was a smash. Willson, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, crafted showstoppers like ”Trouble” and ”Seventy-Six Trombones” that can leave you woozy with pleasure. He spins the tale of how the cynical Hill softens and deepens his character enough to win the affections of the town librarian, Marian, performed by Kristin Chenoweth in a role for which the cliché ”born to play” must be dusted off. Chenoweth may unfortunately be best known to TV viewers as the star of a shoddily written 2001 sitcom that bore her first name, but she’s also knocked ’em dead in Zadan and Meron’s small-screen ”Annie” and on Broadway in shows like ”You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
Broderick, of course, recently drew raves for his costarring role in the New York City production of ”The Producers,” and he’s a daring choice for Harold Hill. Robert Preston, both on stage and in the 1962 film version, defined the role as that of a burly cannonball of a man whose sheer lung power and confidence bedazzle the River City rubes — all save the coldhearted mayor, played here with impeccable comic fustian by another musical pro, Victor Garber (yes, indeed: Sydney’s dad on ”Alias”). Broderick, slight of frame and thin of voice, can’t fit into Preston’s brogans, but he dances nimbly and can rattle off Hill’s con spiels with impressive speed. I just have a little trouble believing that this sweet-faced fellow could really bamboozle the town into buying his expensive instruments and band uniforms while hiding the fact that he doesn’t know how to read or teach a note of music.
Still, with the grand aid of Chenoweth as his romantic partner, Broderick actually becomes an example of author Willson’s central idea — that sincerity and idealism, coated with true love, can overcome limitations of skill. Just as Harold Hill gains deserved authority by bringing joy and pride to River City as he instills his young charges with boldness and falls in genuine love with Marian, so does Broderick’s performance in ”The Music Man” gather strength and zip as the TV movie proceeds. Showcasing fine, funny turns by Molly Shannon as Garber’s dippy but earnest wife and Debra Monk as Marian’s big-hearted mother, as well as the choreography of Kathleen Marshall (who knows how to scale down big stage effects for the intimacy of the television cameras), this is a ”Music Man” that’ll have you marching around the living room, leading your own parade of gratefulness for such a glowing evening of entertainment.