Before I start, let me make one thing clear. This is not a review of The Music Man. There have been plenty of complete reviews of the new production and there will be plenty more. I hope the current Broadway revival enjoys a long run and entertains a lot of people. Broadway could use a big hit right now. The whole city could use a big hit right now. And I don’t think the issues that I’m discussing below should stop anyone who’s interested in seeing The Music Man from buying tickets (if you can afford them).
But I’d like to comment on a couple of changes that—needlessly and foolishly, in my opinion–have been made for this revival: a revised lyric for “Shipoopi,” and a reworked “My White Knight.” I think there’s food for thought here, for producers considering future revivals of other Broadway classics. There are broader issues worth reflecting on.
First, let me tell you where I’m coming from. The Music Man is one of my all-time favorite shows. In my judgment, it’s about as perfect a musical as any in the canon. The Music Man is—along with just a handful of other musicals—in the very top tier. It is equally strong in book, music and lyrics, which is quite rare. It’s terrifically well put together. Other first-rate, masterfully constructed Broadway musicals include Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, Chicago, Cabaret, and Fiddler on the Roof. I’ve seen different productions of all of these masterworks repeatedly over the years; these musicals never fail to get to me. It is extremely rare—and deserving of celebration—when the creators of musicals get everything right.
The Music Man, I might add, is a wholly original musical, and even more to be cherished for that reason; unlike most musicals, it’s not an adaptation of a previously successful novel, collection of stories, or play. And The Music Man—unique among the all-time-great major musicals—was written by just one person, rather than by two or three collaborators. The remarkable Meredith Willson (1902-1984) wrote the book, music and lyrics. Gypsy, by contrast, had music by one person (Jule Styne), lyrics by another (Stephen Sondheim), and a book by still another (Arthur Laurents). The Music Man—which works about as well as any Broadway musical you could name–is one man’s artistic vision.
Meredith Willson was a genius. The Music Man was the culmination of Willson’s decades of work up until that point. The book that Willson wrote about the creation of the show, But He Doesn’t Know the Territory, has long been my favorite theatrical memoir—the best book I’ve ever read about the making of a show. (Buy a copy, if you can!) And anyone who reads that book comes to understand just how long and hard Willson worked on The Music Man, and how much thought went into each choice he made as he struggled to shape the material into the best possible form.
But shortly after the current production’s first performances began on Broadway, video clips began circulating among theater buffs, showing some changes that had been made for this revival. A friend sent me such video clips, asking: “What do you think of this?”
My own reaction? I’d have much preferred they’d left Willson’s terrific work as written. Show respect for the man who created The Music Man! Let his art speak for itself. If you’re going to have lesser talents needlessly revise the work of a genius, you’re starting down a slippery slope. And you are more likely to end up weakening—at least a bit—rather than strengthening the work.
I want to be clear. The Music Man is such a masterfully written musical that making some changes here and there can’t really ruin it; but changes are not needed in this show and they certainly don’t help. I believe in the old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” I also believe, as Tommy Tune once told me years ago in discussing a different show, many producers and directors feel a need to tinker with shows, making changes for the sake of making changes, even when the wiser choice would be to simply leave things alone. There’s just that desire to “improve” things, whether or not the changes actually improve anything.
The producers of the current revival of The Music Man have somehow felt it necessary to change the lyrics Willson wrote for the exuberant dance number “Shipoopi.” As you may recall, the song originally celebrated the girl who’s “hard to get…but you can win her yet”—which accurately reflected commonly held attitudes of people in Iowa circa 1912. (That’s the setting of The Music Man, which is based on Willson’s recollections of his own Iowa boyhood. The mythical “River City” is a thinly disguised version of Mason City, Iowa, where Willson grew up in the early 20th century. He’s described the show as his Valentine to the Iowa he grew up in,)
Newly revised lyrics in “Shipoopi” now celebrate “the boy who’s seen the light…to treat a woman right.” That’s a noble sentiment to be sure, but it reflects the attitudes of the present time more than those of 1912 Iowa. It’s a preachy and obvious line; it doesn’t seem like a natural thing to be saying in this show; it doesn’t sound like 1912.
Adding these obvious new words to the musical—to apparently try to make it a bit more “woke”–is simply dumb. Why? Willson has shown us dramatically throughout the course of the musical–by the way his key characters, Professor Harold Hill, Miss Marian Paroo and her kid brother, Winthrop, learned and grew and treated one another—that he understood perfectly well what treating another person right was ultimately all about. He made the points he wanted to make artfully—by showing, rather than telling. Inserting a new song lyric praising “the boy who’s seen the light…to treat a woman right” adds nothing to the show. (And people actually got paid to add those unnecessary words!?!)
Perhaps this revival’s director and producers feel that the revised lyric makes the show more up-to-date and more enlightened. But I’d hate to see that kind of thinking become the norm—that we must make sure all older musicals explicitly preach support of the values of the present time. And I do fear that that sort of thinking is becoming more common.
Lear deBessonet, 41, the artistic director of New York City Center “Encores!” (which devotes itself to presenting staged concert revivals of Broadway musicals), recently wrote: “Almost zero shows written before the 21st century have a worldview and politics that sit well with a contemporary viewer….”
To deBessonet, the “solution” to this supposed problem seems to be to hire people who will make revisions to ensure that older musicals will now “have a worldview and politics that sit well with a contemporary viewer….” The presumption seems to be that we are so much more enlightened than people were in the old days–like 25 years ago!–that older shows must be revised to conform to whatever worldview and politics are “in” at the current moment. I have no doubt she is sincere in her beliefs, and is well-intentioned. But I also think she happens to be mistaken. Not every show—or movie or book–needs to preach the same sort of messages. And revisers brought in to “fix” older shows won’t necessarily understand the shows as deeply as the original creators, who spent years working on it. (Should older movies and books be shunned—or revised—because they may reflect worldviews of earlier times?)
For the next Encores revival—of The Life, which I enjoyed when it ran on Broadway 25 years ago—Billy Porter will not only be directing the show, he will be rewriting portions of the libretto so that, in his words (as quoted by John McWhorter in The New York Times), audience members will better “understand the infrastructure that creates pimps, prostitutes and drug addicts.” Again, there seems to be that presumption that today we know much better than the people who conceived and wrote the musical what the musical should have said.
I think we’d all benefit from having the humility to recognize that currently popular worldviews—which we may imagine are the absolute height of enlightenment–may very well seem outdated or curious or wrong-headed 25 or 50 or more years from now, just as views held in past years may seem outdated or curious or wrong-headed to us now. And rather than tweak every vintage show to have a social consciousness consistent with contemporary attitudes, perhaps it’s often better to let the original artists’ work speak for itself. If you wish, as a contemporary producer, you can add a program note to the effect that the views represented in the script do not necessarily reflect the views of the current producers. But trying to continually rewrite older works so that they reflect contemporary attitudes does a disservice to the artists who created the work. And you wind up with lesser talents becoming, in effect, collaborators with the giants who created the musicals we’ve enjoyed so much. I’m sure that artists in the 1600s who painted fig leaves over the genitals that had been shown in some older paintings by past masters (during the infamous “fig leaf campaign”) believed they were “improving” the earlier works by their actions, too.
The Music Man is such a near-perfect show, I wish they’d have just left the song “Shipoopi” alone. If it ain’t “woke”… don’t fix it.
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Next, I’d also like to talk a bit about the changes to “My White Knight”—which bother me more. I loved the brilliantly artful way that song was constructed, arranged, and performed in the original Broadway production of The Music Man (and in all subsequent major revivals of the musical up until now). Meredith Willson wrote that song for a lyric soprano and he knew exactly what he was doing. His wishes in this regard should be respected.
Barbara Cook’s rendition of the song on the original Broadway cast album is glorious. It’s as close to perfection as anything you’ll find in musical theater. And the song—her character’s defining moment–becomes a high point of a wonderfully rich score. The revised version of “My White Knight,” as performed in a lower key in the current Broadway production…well, not so much. A moment that should have been sublime has been transformed into something less than that. And that’s a pity. When a friend sent me a video of “My White Knight,” shortly after the current revival had begun previews, I was stunned to see that that song—which had withstood the tests of time so magnificently in its original form—had been altered, and artistically weakened in the process.
Let’s give the matter a fuller discussion.
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I don’t think most audience members are aware of just how important it can be to have certain theater songs in just the right keys, if you want the songs to have maximum effect. I don’t think most producers are aware of such matters, either. I also suspect that some directors—unless they’ve created some theater songs themselves—may not fully appreciate how important it can sometimes be to have a song in just the right key.
But the late Meredith Willson—who knew the power of music far better than most audience members, producers, or directors–certainly understood these matters thoroughly. He wrote the role of “Marian” for a lyric soprano. That was a carefully considered choice. And as the author of book, music, and lyrics, he had the authority to see that his wishes were followed in the original production. During his lifetime, the role of “Marian” was always played by a lyric soprano, just as Willson wanted.
Willson, of course, is no longer here to advocate for himself. The director and producers of the current revival of “The Music Man” chose to cast Sutton Foster—who can’t sing “My White Knight” as written and performed in previous productions—in the role of Marian. And they’ve given her a new arrangement that’s more comfortable for her—in a lower key since she has a lower voice, and with restored lines from a longer, earlier draft of the song that Willson had wisely cut. The problem is, the song no longer has the same overall impact. It feels wordier, talkier, and lacks the soaring quality it once had. Some of the beauty has been sacrificed.
And the pure, perfectly centered high notes that Barbara Cook sang truly fit the character. The lofty, head-in-the-clouds ideals expressed in the lyrics were perfectly paired with equally lofty notes. Those pure high tones also made us associate the character of “Marian” with purity. There’s a virginal quality to the sound itself, recognized by composers for years. Willson knew what he was doing.
The song itself, if sung in the key it was originally written in, as arranged for the original Broadway production, appropriately has a slightly old-fashioned feel. The leading lady of a musical back in 1912 was likely to be a lyric soprano, singing songs in a similar sort of tempo. Lyric sopranos enjoyed a vogue in popular culture back then that they don’t have any more. Deeper voices—like Sutton Foster’s—are more in vogue today, and are generally easier for younger theatergoers to relate to. Pianist/music director Alex Rybeck has suggested that that may be the reason changes were made for the current production; and he may be right.
But giving “Marian” her big moment in a manner that evoked an earlier time was artistically wise. Her soaring, old-time lyric soprano contrasted brilliantly with the lower-voiced, fast-talking, more-modern-sounding patter of Professor Harold Hill. And that contrast helped us believe the sexual tension between the characters. If you make their voices and their manner of singing even slightly more similar, you lose some of the sexual tension between them, some of the chemistry needed to make us fully believe in their romance. “Miss Marian Paroo” needs to have a glorious, radiant soprano, just as much as she needs to be the prettiest and smartest and most desirable girl in River City, and the toughest girl in town for Professor Hill to seduce, the “girl who’s hard to get” (whom Meredith Willson held as an ideal in “Shipoopi”). That’s the way Willson wrote the show. And all of the elements tie together.
The Music Man is a wonderfully organic work; it is all of a piece. And changing “My White Knight,” as has been done for the current production, does a disservice to Meredith Willson. Part of his brilliance has been lost because the director and producers of the current revival have second-guessed him. And that’s unfortunate.
If this production is a long-running hit—as I hope it will be—and other actors eventually wind up replacing Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, replacement-actors will most likely be selected who can perform the show the way it is currently being done. When Foster leaves, the producers will most likely look for someone with a voice like Sutton Foster’s to take over the role just the way it is currently being done. (That’s the customary way of doing things.) Publishers will likely license the revised script and score, with this altered version of “My White Night”—with the lowered key and the lyrics that Willson had wisely chosen to cut. Theater companies will want the latest version, from the popular revival starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. And this revised version of The Music Man may become the new standard version of the show, replacing the version that was done during Willson’s lifetime with his blessings. If so, that would be a loss.
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Incidentally, I first heard the longer version of “My White Knight” when Barbara Cook sang it for me from memory, a capella, at her home. (I also later got to hear her perform it publicly at New York’s Café Carlyle.) I was fascinated. My initial reaction was something like this: “This is terrific! There’s so much good material here, it’s a pity Meredith Willson cut it. Maybe it should be restored in some future production.” But Barbara Cook believed Willson had made the right call in editing the song the way he did. She liked the longer version of the song herself. But by pruning the less-vital parts of the song, she felt he ultimately created something stronger, clearer, more focused for the show. And the edited version—without a superfluous word or note—defined “Marian” perfectly. Wise pruning helped.
But I sure do understand that temptation to restore cut material.
The first time I heard Jerry Herman’s song “Penny in My Pocket” (which Lee Roy Reams still sings sometimes in his nightclub act), I was charmed, and I wondered if Gower Champion had made the right decision when he’d cut the song from Hello, Dolly! during its original pre-Broadway, out-of-town tryouts. But both Jerry Herman, who wrote the song, and Carol Channing, who starred in the original production of Hello, Dolly!, told me that the show worked better without it. The song told the backstory of Horace Vandergelder, and how he became rich–and the show simply moved along faster without it; audiences were much more interested in Dolly Gallagher Levi than in Horace Vandergelder, and had no burning desire to take time out to learn his backstory. For the last Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! (done by the same people who gave us the current revival of The Music Man), that cut song was restored; it added nothing to the show. The revival of Hello, Dolly!, of course, was still great fun, and I wound up seeing the production several times. But in that show—as in The Music Man—restoring cut material didn’t make the show better.
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These are just my opinions, of course, and I’ll certainly welcome comments from others. (Please feel free to share your opinions in the “comments” section below this piece.) When I wrote on Facebook that I didn’t like the idea of lowering the key for “My White Knight” in the current revival of The Music Man, some friends offered comments along these lines: “I’ve always thought you could put any song into any key and it didn’t matter,” and “We transpose songs all the time at our community theater for the convenience of the actors,” and “What’s the big deal about changing keys? It’s still the same song.” Let me be as clear as possible in giving you my take.
Some composers are very particular about having certain theater songs sung in the original key, in productions of shows. Composers may choose a specific key for a reason. (Perhaps they want the brightness that can only be obtained in a particular sharp key.) In some cases—not in all cases, mind you, but in some cases—if you want a theater song to have maximum impact, it must be sung in the original key. Or something very close to it. In some cases, changing the key can significantly lessen the impact of the song. And this is worth talking about fully, because these issues periodically come up again and again.
I was very close to composer Jack Gottlieb (1930-2011) who for years was Leonard Bernstein’s right hand (and intimate friend). Bernstein entrusted Gottlieb to prepare his scores for publication. Gottlieb—whom I knew from when he babysat me as a child to the day he died—told me that Bernstein was very particular about all details of his music, including putting each musical-theater song in the best possible key.
When Bernstein composed songs like “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “Something’s Coming,” ” and “Tonight” for West Side Story, he knew that singing the songs in the correct keys was just as important as singing the correct words and notes, if you wanted to communicate emotions fully. If you sing those songs in the keys as written, they will soar in a way that fully reflects the youthful high hopes, the idealism, and the belief in life’s seemingly boundless possibilities that the characters are feeling when they sing those songs in the show. If you try singing those songs in much lower keys—if you make “Tony” a bass baritone, for example, and adjust everything else accordingly—the songs will not soar in the same way, and the emotional impact will be much less. For those songs, in that show, the right keys are essential to achieving the desired effect. Bernstein knew exactly what he was doing when he composed the “Tonight Quintet.” Altering it even slightly can ruin it.
Or consider “Glitter and be Gay” which Bernstein composed for Candide. If you try to markedly lower the song, so that it can be sung without having to reach all of the high notes in the original, it quickly becomes much less glittery and much less gay. That aria—introduced on stage by Barbara Cook in 1956–requires a superb soprano who can sing it as written or it’s simply not worth doing.
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Old Man River,” as sung in stage and screen productions of Show Boat by such superb bass-baritones as Paul Robeson and William Warfield, has a certain gravitas that would be lost if you tried to have it transposed upward and sung by a tenor instead. It is essential to sing “Old Man River” (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein) in the original key, if you want it to have maximum impact.
Kander and Ebb told me that when they wrote “When You’re Good To Mama” (for their musical Chicago), they had the late Sophie Tucker in mind; they were writing, they felt, a Sophie Tucker type of song. And the song needs the kind of vocal heft Sophie Tucker had. If you raise the key so that a lyric soprano could sing it, the song doesn’t work.
In Sondheim’s Follies, the songs “One More Kiss” and “I’m Still Here” won’t work if sung in radically different keys; each of those very different songs calls for a particular kind of singer and a particular kind of sound, if you hope to make magic performing them.
Composers know that different keys can evoke different associations. Irving Berlin knew full well that whoever played “Frank Butler” in Annie Get your Gun would have to have a deep voice for the exaggeratedly macho sensibility of “I’m a Bad Bad Man” to have full effect.
When Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway in 1988, Michael Crawford, who’s a superb tenor, won much acclaim for his portrayal of the title role. When the time came for him to leave the show, director Hal Prince picked Timothy Nolen, a baritone who’d gotten good notices for his work in the musical Grind, to replace him, even though Nolen did not have the needed high notes; the plan was to transpose the orchestrations to a lower key that would be comfortable for him. Composer Andrew Lloyd Weber let Prince—one of the most highly respected directors around—make that call. Nolen was hired, rehearsed, and put into the show with newly transposed orchestrations to fit his deeper voice. But he didn’t last long. Composer Andrew Lloyd Weber simply hated the new keys. Nolen was quickly replaced, so that “the Phantom” could sing in the key Weber had originally intended. Many composers “hear” certain theater songs they write in specific keys; they know what works best.
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Sometimes, I must acknowledge changing a key doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter too much; it depends on the particular song and its function in a particular show. I’ll give a made-up example. If a show opens with someone carrying a cake onstage and singing “Happy Birthday to You” to someone else, and the song’s only function is to let us know that it’s one character’s birthday, it does not matter a bit what key “Happy Birthday to You” is in. The song will do its work, whatever key it is in.
I’ve sometimes noted in the published scripts and scores of shows I’ve written that keys to some songs may be freely transposed for the convenience of the actor. Because with some songs, in some shows, it doesn’t really matter. But with other songs, it may matter a lot.
When I posted casting notices for my show Mad About the Boy, I specified what kinds of voices I was seeking for some of the characters, but not for all of the characters. For some characters singing some songs, vocal range wasn’t important, and I was happy to transpose numbers for the convenience of the actors. If, for example, you’re looking for someone to do a stand-alone, presentational comic number, the actor’s ability to sell a comic number may be more important than what key the song is in. But if someone is being cast to sing Bessie Smith-type classic blues numbers, they need to have a deeper voice like Smith’s; a soprano simply could not sing classic blues and convey the same sort of authority, power and authenticity.
When composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wrote shows specifically for Ethel Merman, they wrote songs they knew she could belt out with tremendous aplomb. They were aware that subsequent productions of the shows might not feature singers who sounded exactly like Merman—there was only one Merman, after all!–but the singers had better be mezzos who could belt strongly, not sopranos.
I saw one community-theater production of Gypsy where the woman chosen to play “Momma Rose” had such a high, light voice, the big numbers like “Rose’s Turn” simply didn’t pay off. But I generally cut community-theater productions (and youth-theater productions) lots of slack; they often have a relatively small pool of talented actors to choose from and have to make more compromises than first-class professional theatrical productions.
But if you’re doing a professional production, I like seeing the creators’ intent respected as much as possible.
That’s my opinion anyway, this fine day. I’d welcome hearing yours!