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Casting Ethics And “The Music Man”

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.”

Oh-oh. Continue reading

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