A recently closed summer production of “The Music Man” at the Berkshires’ Sharon Playhouse illustrates many of the ethics landmines overly ambitious directors and non-traditional casting can trigger.
New York director Morgan Green was hired to direct Meredith Willson’s 1957 classic. Until “Hamilton” came along, only two Tony winning musicals had a book, lyrics and music all written by one person: “The Music Man” and “Oliver!” “The Music Man” isn’t my favorite musical, but a strong argument can be made that it is the Great American Musical, celebrating small town Americana with Sousa-style marches, barbershop quartets, and the best ending in musical theater history (stolen, with great success, by “School of Rock.”) There is no need to mess with it, since the show is pretty close to perfect. I was taught that a production should be equally satisfying for an audience member who is seeing a show for the first time and for one who is seeing it for the last time. A version that takes the show out of 1912 and litters the landscape with anachronisms and forced 2017 social and political references isn’t fair to either of these. This was, I presume from based on Jesse Green’s review, a “Music Man” for people sick of “The Music Man” (like Jason Green.) You know what? If a director is sick of a show, she has an ethical obligation to let someone direct who isn’t sick of it.
Naturally, there was the obligatory stunt casting of women in some men’s roles (but never men in women’s roles, of course), and the non-traditional casting of a black actress as Marion (the Librarian) Paroo, the romantic lead originally created by the recently departed Barbara Cook in the original production.
I see no problem in principle with casting Marion as black. It’s certainly ahistorical, and the hint of a trans-racial romance in 1912 Iowa is unimaginable, but “The Music Man” is, or should be, about kids, romance, parades, sentiment and fun, none of which is impeded by non-traditional casting.
There is a problem, though. One of Marion’s big solos, in which she sings about her ideal man (whom her mother believes is too ideal to be real), is called “My White Knight.”
Directors are always falling in love with new concepts or staging twists only to find out as rehearsasl proceed that they don’t fit, or work, or require so many other changes to make them fit that it harms the show as a whole. The best directors have the guts to say, “Oh, well, I guess that’s out; too bad” and abandon their pet idea. These, however, are few and far between.
Green had two legitimate choices. One was to decide that Marion just can’t be black because of the material. A white man can’t play Porgy in “Porgy and Bess”: there is no sin in accepting a show’s limitations. The other is to decide to give the audience some credit. We know what a “white knight” is. The term isn’t racial, and having a black woman sing about her white knight isn’t, or shouldn’t be, more than momentarily jarring, if at all.
I would have let my black Marion sing the song. If she sang it as well as she should, nobody would be concocting racial complaints. Here’s Kristin Chenowith, who is no Barbara Cook or even Shirley Jones (the film Marion), but still pretty great…
Instead, Green just cut the song. (She also cut “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” though for the life of me, I don’t know why. It has one of my favorite lyrics, as Harold Hill explains why the less virginal a woman is, the more he likes her: “I hope, and I pray, For Hester to win just one more “A”…”)
Music Theater International, which licenses “The Music Man” on behalf of its rights holders, contacted the playhouse and threatened to shut down the production if it did not perform the show as the license specifically requires—no unauthorized cuts, and no significant changes in period and setting.
The songs were put back in, and even though some of the anachronisms remained, Music Theater International allowed the production to continue, saying in a statement, “Once we received confirmation that the cut songs and the altered period and setting were restored, we were authorized by the rights holders to let performances resume.”