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A Few Thoughts on Those Needless Changes to “The Music Man”

If you’re going to have lesser talents needlessly revise the work of a genius—and Meredith Willson was a genius--you’re starting down a slippery slope.

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

“The Music Man” marquee at the Winter Garden Theatre, 2022

[avatar user=”Chip DeFFaa” size=”96″ align=”left”] Chip DeFFaa, Editor-at-Large[/avatar]

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?”

Composer Meredith Willson late in life

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.

Original cover art for Meredith Willson’s “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory,” 1959

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.

* * *

Barbara Cook, the original Marian Paroo, in a scene from“The Music Man,” 1957

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.

* * *

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.

Robert Preston and Barbara Cook in a scene from the original production of “The Music Man,” 1957

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the 2022 production of “The Music Man” (Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes)

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.

Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster and the 2022 company of “The Music Man” (Photo credit: Juliet Cervantes)

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.

* * *

Music Director and Composer Meredith Willson

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!

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

34 Comments on A Few Thoughts on Those Needless Changes to “The Music Man”

  1. Yikes. To this critic, it sounds like the entire new creative team are “woke” morons who shouldn’t ever dare touch such a “genius” work of the past.

    I think having conversations of how we treat revivals and stories that no longer reflect our current belief system is important. However, this language seemed very belittling. We’re all trying to navigate old works and new—and let’s be respectful of fellow artists as we try to find the best route to take.

    • Oh, please! If you want plays that reflect your current belief system, write them! Or help other new writers get their works produced. But if you believe in respecting artists, then produce a revival of Meredith Willson’s work that reflects his belief system rather than trying to alter it to reflect “our current belief system.”

    • Well written and beautifully defended positions. ANY change to classic works should be scrutinized so carefully that such changes can be fully justified via complete, generally universal consensus. And there’s no excuse for changing song keys when you are a professional theater. We never do it in our community theater!

  2. Having seen The Music Man revival, I agree wholeheartedly with Chip’s comments.

  3. Nice article, Chip. I totally agree with your very reasoned position. This stuff is as dumb as the right wing attempt to ban books. I used to have many conversations with the great sax player Chuck Wilson. He played Broadway shows for years and he was acutely aware of the distressing lowering of standards in the new revivals. He said that many of the young music directors who had come from the ranks of of rehearsal pianists insisted on re-arranging the older scores had no understanding of the sophistication and musical understanding of the original scores. Often the younger guys just didn’t get it. Add to all this ignorance all the current “woke” intolerant bullshit and we’re lucky that that any of the magic of the older shows is retained.

  4. Thank you so much for your article! I wish more people shared your opinion and respected the art of writers and composers of classic musicals. And how amazing to have heard “My White Knight” directly from Barbara Cook! I so agree with you on respecting an author or composer’s work, and I’m amazed that so many directors of musical theatre simple do not understand music at all. Your point about Bernstein’s “West Side Story” was so apparent in the recent film, as Something’s Coming” and “Tonight”, in lower keys, fell flat (and were occasionally sung flatly). For “The Music Man”, the new “Shipoopi” lyrics are ridiculous. As a singer myself, I lament the disappearance of the soprano on the Broadway stage and think it’s a huge disservice to change the keys for Marian and use the hodge-podge patter version of “My White Knight” instead. I’ve heard Barbara Cook’s recording of it on her “Live from Carnegie Hall” album. And if you can’t sing like Barbara Cook, it will just sounds like a hot mess. I don’t see the need in revising the book/lyrics/keys to classic musical. A shame that those in charge of Meredith Willson’s estate (or Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Lerner & Loewe’s, etc., etc.) do not care enough to preserve their works with integrity.

  5. “Shipoopi” changes bothered me a lot. It made no sense for the time period and I couldn’t sing along in my head! “My White Knight” didn’t bother me at the time, but you are right, it did not have the impact it should have. I’m ok with that with this cast because I love Sutton Foster. But I’d probably be annoyed if it was someone else. I also thought that, as much as I love Sutton Foster and Hugh Jackman, “Til There Was You” didn’t pack as big a punch either. Again, willing to forgive because I thought the show was so great.

  6. Robert Fisher // March 23, 2022 at 10:02 pm // Reply

    Going beyond the technical music concerns, but the broader social “wokeness, it could be argued by 21st century “wokers” that the classic “South Pacific” should no longer be performed because it is based on a story about American military personnel stationed in the South Pacific fighting a bitter enemy…The Japanese…and of course the Japanese are now among our closest allies and we shouldn’t be “reliving” an ugly time when we fought against them. And the “island native” (I forget her name) who sings “Happy Talk” in a exaggerated stage accent should be revised out of the story entirely…ridiculous I enjoy “South Pacific” and can listen to it while driving my Subaru…grow up Politically Correct Wokers.

  7. Matthew fairchild // April 12, 2022 at 6:23 pm // Reply

    Chip… loved it saw the show and I couldn’t agree with you more. The following is a letter Meredith Wilson wrote to the future directors of his production. States as follows:
    Dear Director: “The Music Man” was intended to be a valentine, and not a caricature. Please do not let the actors – – particularly Zaneeta, Mayor Sun and Mrs. shin, who takes herself quite seriously— mug or reach for comedy effect. The Del Sartre ladies also should be natural and sincere, never raucous, shrewish or comic per se. The humor of this piece depends upon its technical faithfulness to the real small town Iowans of 1912 who certainly did not think they were funny at all.
    Faithfully, Meredith Willson

  8. All of My life, I have loved this Purely American art form! My dream is to see Patti Luppone in a revival of “Mame” but I fear the same fate would happen to it. When you watch or attend a PERIOD PIECE I believe it should be presented as close to the original as possible! This is an insight to our collective history (good, bad, or indifferent) and to Whitewash a production is a lie to the audience. Imagine 50 or 60 years from now when they revive “HAMILTON” how different will that be? What’s next A POOL HALL IN RIVER CITY?!

  9. Well, my husband and I had to leave at the intermission. We just couldn’t face Hugh and Sutton caterwauling through “Till There Was You”. These were very expensive tickets. We felt weirdly manipulated and conned by real conmen. Weren’t Mr. Jackman’s keys also changed? His strained “Marion” sounded like his underpants were too tight. My husband covered his ears in Foster’s ‘Goodnight My Someone” because of her shrill reaching for the high notes. Musical direction of our stars must have been kept at a minimum. Another real insult was to the work of Grant Wood. Nowhere is he mentioned in the program that I could find. The imagery was not “In the style of”, but rather reproduced plagiarized versions of same of his greatest work. SHAME Santo Loquasto!!!

  10. Brandwearer // May 19, 2022 at 4:37 am // Reply

    Great commentary, Chip, I agree with you wholeheartedly. These classic musicals are period pieces that are meant to reflect a different time. If producers think these revered musicals need to be made ‘woke’ or PC – then they shouldn’t revive them. Writers will simply need to get creative and author an original story with lyrics that audiences/the culture at large can embrace in the current social/political climate.

  11. Hadley von Haddleburg // June 20, 2022 at 5:46 pm // Reply

    The revival of “The Music Man” is magnificent and we enjoyed every minute of it. We were with an eight-year-old friend who goes around singing, “Gary, Indiana.” It was a wonderful, magical evening.

    Were I a lesser man, I might find the changes appalling. Why tinker with perfection?

    I confess I was bewildered by the new lyrics to “Shipoopi” and I did not even realize they were trying to appease the 21st century viewer (at least it was not as bad as the sacrilegious “new” ending of “My Fair Lady.”)

    Ms. Foster’s singing is Ms. Foster’s singing — she can dance and act. Should they have cast a 24-year-old who could sing? Perhaps.

    The real danger, as the writer points out, is these new arrangements will become the standard and Willson’s perfection will be lost to posterity. “My Fair Lady” now carries its preposterous new ending wherever it goes.

  12. Teri Beck // July 1, 2022 at 3:29 pm // Reply

    I agree with everything you said. I have been in three different community theater productions of “Music Man” over the years, and was delighted by the revival. I was just as mystified over the reworked “Shipoopi” and “White Knight,” but you didn’t mention the cutting of the cringeworthy Wa Ton Ye girls scene. This is a good example of how a show should avoid needlessly offending modern audiences by making a cut that doesn’t alter the story line nor add anything to it.

  13. Randy J Rowoldt // July 2, 2022 at 1:38 pm // Reply

    Jerome Kern was VERY specific about the keys in which his songs were performed. He believed that every key, because of our tempered tuning (which means the overtones line up differently in different keys), has a specific feel that fit certain specific emotions. Some classical composers even saw different colors for different keys. I always notice when “All the Things You Are” is done in any key other than A flat. The verse is written in G Maj-a brighter key- which moves up a half step to A Flat Maj, a mellower, more reflective key. I heard a transposed performance once that went from a softer key to a brighter key, which flipped the intent of the verse-chorus relationship.

    Re-orchestrating shows should also be part of this discussion. Shows written before the routine use of amplification were very carefully orchestrated to allow the voice to be heard (and through the use of an orchestration technique called ‘etching’, even brought out), as well as being tailored to sound well in the performance space. Once amplification became de rigeur and everything could be amplified, orchestraters could write as they pleased because the sound crew could mix sense out of the noise.

  14. I too love “The Music Man” and I have to agree with you. I saw the show today, “My White Night” was disappointing but to me it was the rewrite of “Shipoopi” that really bothered me. I was so looking forward to this number and I ended up confused and distracted. “Wait, what is he singing, that’s not right, why did they change it…” All these thoughts were running through my mind and it pulled me completely out of the show. This is a fabulous show and it should be left alone!

  15. I am dreading what will happen to “CAMELOT”: some of the most beautiful songs ever performed on Broadway are from that show. Lerner and Loewe are American Treasures and there art should NOT be messed with.

  16. My sister played Marian in the 1960s. Our family was from Hollywood and she and I had marvelous vocal training in L.A. I was just a gangly teenager then, but I remember how beautifully she sang “My White Knight,” “Till There Was You” and “Good Night My Someone.”

    She was my role model. After having performed throughout my adulthood in national tours and regional productions I become a voice teacher. I’m back in L.A. now.

    But while in NYC I developed a two-week summer musical theatre intensive called Singers on Stage that became Circle in the Square’s summer program. This summer I took a group of aspiring singers to NYC and we revived the program.

    Most of my young students in my private studio or at the Conservatory where I teach know nothing pre-“Hamilton.” They all want to sing like the Sutton Fosters and Idina Menzels who dominate the stage now. While rehearsing at Studios 353, I heard a stream of singers working with one voice teacher who clearly specialized in “The Wizard and I.” Singer after singer recreating Menzel’s high brassy tone.

    I’m hoping it’s a fad and that the pendulum will swing or at least allow excellent, beautiful voices back on stage again.

    When I saw “Music Man” just a couple of weeks ago, I found My White Knight to be utterly unrecognizable musically. But I agree with my friend Alex Rybeck, who is on the advisory board for Singers on Stage and who I love and respect as a coach, mentor and pianist: The producers made these choices to attract today’s more pop-contemporary crowd who love the very nasal-quacking sound we now call singing. I teach it. LOL.

    I audio-recorded a piece of “My White Knight” so that I could analyze it better and allow my students to listen. A couple of them grimaced. “Really?” was their response.

    This shrill quackery is how Broadway is treating the female soprano voice today. She and Idina Menzel are the trendsetters and get the applause for their well-deserving execution in show-stopping songs and long ride-outs. There’s no question it causes strain to the voice, as all extreme singing does, including opera, which may be why they have both had vocal trouble.

    The more I listen to it, the more I hope that somewhere down the road, audiences will wake up and come back to their senses and realize what they are listening to really isn’t pretty at all, unless you like the tone quality of the Wicked Witch’s “I’ll get you my pretty!” for a romantic love song. Ironically that phrase is one we teachers use to achieve the voice placement to imitate Foster and Menzel, and for that matter Disney singers.

    I also believe these changes to “Music Man” are counter to what Willson intended. I think he’s rolling over in his grave. Does the Willson family not have any rights to preserving his work today? Or did they succumb to pressure?

    Also as a musician and classically trained singer (and very good belter too, by the way – my voice was compared to Betty Buckley’s tone by just about everyone that heard me when I was working in NYC), I totally understand how important the key is to the composer. It can absolutely makes all the difference in a song.

    The entire show was definitely tailored to Foster (and Jackman) and while she played her humor authentically and both she and Jackman stopped the show a couple of times, it wasn’t the Marian the Librarian as Willson intended at all. And Prof. Hill lacked the ring in the upper notes that made it so spectacular with Robert Preston who’s performance is unforgettable. Willson was writing about real people he knew growing up. What a shame to lose that history!

  17. I grew up with the soundtrack from the movie so I know MY WHITE NIGHT as BEING IN LOVE and would love to know what was the thought process with that change.I am well aware that Broadway Songs are changed for movie adaptations but the changes seem so?modest why bother? Meridith Wilson was a genius why mess with it?

  18. I have not been able to see the Jackman/Foster revival onstage. I am writing this having just listened in horror to “My White Knight” on the cast album of this production. Upon first hearing that Foster was cast as Marian, I said to myself and to friends: what about “My White Knight”? She can’t sing that. What are they going to do?” Sigh. They did the only thing they could do. They changed one of the most stunning songs in the musical theatre canon; a song that Barbara Cook and Rebecca Luker and Kristin Chenowith performed for thrilled audiences into a caricature. Sutton Foster is very funny. I’m sure her delivery sells onstage each night. But as the article so clearly states, it is not what Willson wrote. It is not what Willson intended. Since the closing has been announced, at the time of this writing, I can only hope this production fades into memory.

  19. Just saw the show this weekend and those two songs (“Shipoopi” and “My White Knight”) stuck out like sore thumbs in my mind as well. Sutton Foster was wonderful but can’t carry those soaring melodies like Barbara Cook or Shirley Jones (movie version). And the “Shipoopi” lyrics just seemed … odd.

  20. I adored the show but was horrified at the change to “My White Knight.” It’s certainly the most beautiful song in the show and one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It definitely ruined the song and changed its impact on the show. Too bad.

  21. Really appreciated the insight about Harold Hill’s vocal range versus Marian’s. Never thought of it that way! Thanks.

  22. Great essay. Producers and directors should respect the original material or if not then write your own damn show which will top someone like Meredith Willson if you can do better.

  23. It’s unfortunate that the author does not understand that in order to maintain interest in these classic standards of musical theatre and therefore allow them to be revived by the next and following generations, there are certain changes that can be made without sacrificing the vision of the originator of the work. If the goal is to have a show be remembered, to live forever, carried forward by future generations of producers, dancers, singers and actors, there must be flexibility in the book, music, lyrics, and choreography. Why make a show for the stage if what you are after is a film, fixed forever in the era it was made? Reading Willson’s memoir, I do not understand how one can come away thinking he would not have not only UNDERSTOOD but even DRIVEN that flexibility. The very nature of his creative process took the modern audience into consideration as often as it honored the traditions and memories of his youth. To quote the TITLE of said memoir, it seems he valued above all else the detailed knowledge and respect of his audience, as it seems the greatest sin both in the world of Harold Hill and in the realm of Broadway musical writing, is that your protagonist “…doesn’t know the territory.”

    • In regards to K. C. // November 6, 2022 at 8:17 pm
      Oh, nonsense! You’re arguing against a position I’ve never taken. You’re mis-representing my views. Why would you assume I’m against any changes being made to any show? I’ve criticized specific changes made to this show, which I think are unwise. And I can’t imagine how you can assume Willson would have approved all of these changes–like restoring lines to a song that he wisely chose to cut. He made his choice. Just as he chose to make Marian be a soprano. In his lifetime, he never approved of any revival where she wasn’t a soprano. In “The Music Man,” there is a reason a lyric soprano is a wise choice; an beauty is lost by lowering the key of “My White Night.” Some shows benefit from revisions. And some authors are more flexible than others, at least for certain shows. I’ve written some shows for which it doesn’t matter whether a role is sung in one key or another, and plainly note in the published scripts and scores that keys may be changed for the convenience of the performers; I grant that permission freely for those shows, for those roles. You’re free to imagine that Willson would have approved of these changes–but there’s no evidence of that. And he knew what he was doing. Some shows need to be changed to work for contemporary audiences. But there’s no need to have Marian no longer be a soprano.
      Some scripts date more than others. Some scripts of older shows work just fine “as is” for audiences of different eras. If you catch any production of “The Sound of Music” (including the current revival at Paper Mill Playhouse), you’ll see that that is one show–written, like “The Music Man,” in the 1950s–that is performed effectively with no “updating” or “rewriting” of the original script. And that’s the right choice for that show.

  24. I know I’m late to this party, but I just saw this show yesterday, and came across this article while trying to put my finger on what was wrong with it. This is such a well written article, and it really helped me put it into perspective.

    Ultimately, I decided that this production is just a big happy Broadway musical, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it just does not have the same heart I have always known and loved. There is a real sadness and depth to these characters, and they just simply did not bother with it. I have never seem Marian played for laughs, more Martha Raye than Barbara Cook, and while it works in its own way, it’s just not what I came there expecting to see.

    Still, while I was missing something, I can’t really say that they did. This is what they went for, and in its own way, apart from anything else we may know, they succeeded. My husband had never seen that show, and was thoroughly entertained. And I will never forget the middle-aged woman in the audience, who stood up, alone, hooting and applauding and waving her arms around, completely lost in the joy of ’76 Trombones.” Joy is so hard to come by, and just for that one moment I could forgive anything.

    This show is a ribeye covered in steak sauce. If you like the taste of the sauce, you’ll love it. If you don’t, well, it’s still a steak. You can eat around it.

  25. I think when Willson wrote it, he used the word “library” for a particular effect. The townspeople, for example, pronounced it “liberry,” while the librarian herself would say “library.”

    I did not notice this when I saw it last year but I just heard it on the radio a day or two ago and, in this version, Mrs. Paroo says “library.” That is ok, I guess, but it misses, I believe, what Willson intended. Mrs. Paroo should be singing about “your liberry full of books.” “Liberry” is funny; “library” is not.

  26. Paula Michele // December 27, 2022 at 7:44 pm // Reply

    ? in high school we had to change the storyline about Rizzo (and a few choice lyrics) in Grease because the school district didn’t approve.
    Changes will always be made. It’s still art, it’s still worthwhile, and this whining is a waste of space and my time.

  27. Totally agree. Yes, you can rewrite all the rude and scurrilous and sensitive lines in Shakespeare. Make MacBeth more loving. Have the lovers in Romeo and Juliet be more understanding of the difficulties their families had to face. Have Puck diagnosed to state what the medical reason is for how he acts. Let’s rewrite all history books and classic drama so they don’t offend anyone and chastise all who clearly don’t understand how knowing real history is damaging to us. Hello, folks. It’s a story. And a beautiful representations of thoughts and people of that time. If you don’t want to see it in its original form, then don’t go. Apparently, there were plenty of people who didn’t like The Music Man in its latest revival form, because it’s already closed. The new version will not be the classic in the future, in spite of the huge stars that tried to woke it up.

  28. Doug Dunlap // August 1, 2023 at 4:20 pm // Reply

    I found this great article after listening to the cast album and hearing “My White Knight.” I love Sutton Foster but I thought, “huh?” So I Googled “What did they do to Sutton Foster’s version of ‘My White Knight’?” This is a great article that explains it and I couldn’t agree more. It’s a show-stopping gorgeous song they shouldn’t have messed with. Even if lowering the key for Foster, don’t change the song! I also wondered why it was cut from the film?? Being in Love is a pretty song but why? They used the same bridge but I never understood why Willson wrote a new song. Shirley Jones had the voice to do it. Same with “Guys & Dolls.” In the film “A Woman in Love” replaced the prettiest song in the show, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” Both by Frank Loesser but, again, why? Brando couldn’t sing so maybe it had something to do with that.

  29. My big fear is what will happen to shows like CAMELOT and MY FAIR LADY.will they be changed so much because of political correctness or will these BEAUTIFUL songs and stories be lost to time. That would be tragic.

  30. I knew of the revival but didn’t access the cast album until recently. I like Sutton Foster, but hearing her belt those lovely songs was jolting. I found your article after searching to see if anyone bothered to critique this. Thank you, you are absolutely right.

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