In the annals of musical theater, a handful of roles have become so closely identified with the actors who originated them, it's almost impossible to imagine any other performer in the part. Yul Brynner as the stubborn Siamese ruler in 'The King and I' is one; Rex Harrison as insufferable elocution expert Henry Higgins in 'My Fair Lady' is another. There's also Mary Martin as the cherubic 'Peter Pan,' and of course Robert Preston as that unflappable con artist "Professor" Harold Hill in Meredith Willson's sprightly salute to small town America, 'The Music Man.' Mention the song "76 Trombones" and no one except the energetic Preston – marching and strutting down the street, waving a baton and leading a legion of loyal followers – springs to mind. Though contemporary viewers may only remember him as Julie Andrews' drag queen mentor in 'Victor Victoria' or as the alien who whisks Lance Guest to an intergalactic battleground in 'The Last Starfighter,' it was 'The Music Man' that cemented Preston's reputation and gave him the role of a lifetime.
Riding on the coattails of a series of Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptations, 'The Music Man' helped usher in the era of the colossal Hollywood musical; films so big and brassy, they provided audiences with the kind of large-scale entertainment television variety shows couldn't. 'West Side Story,' 'Gypsy,' 'My Fair Lady,' and 'The Sound of Music' would also wow wide-eyed viewers during this period, but 'The Music Man' possesses the kind of homespun charm that appeals to a vast range of ages and backgrounds. Willson's musical is family entertainment with a capital F, and with an array of infectious and rhythmically inventive melodies – almost all of which are classics – Morton DaCosta's 151-minute extravaganza survives some sluggish dramatic stretches to emerge as one of Hollywood's most faithful and beloved stage-to-screen adaptations.
A homage to Willson's formative years in Iowa, 'The Music Man' depicts how traditional American values, love, and devotion can tame even the most cynical and hardened human specimens. Harold Hill is a first-rate swindler, traveling the country in the hope of defrauding unsuspecting, upstanding townspeople out of their hard-earned money by promising to organize and train an all-boys band that will put River City's recalcitrant youth on a straight-and-narrow path and unify a splintering community. To achieve such middle-American nirvana, the residents simply need to pay for instruments and uniforms, and Harold will do the rest…which in this case means absconding with the proceeds before anyone's the wiser. Yet succumbing to the fresh-faced allure of the suspicious Marion Paroo (Shirley Jones), the local librarian who falls for Harold against her better judgment, isn't part of the scheme.
Call me unpatriotic, but despite its warmth and vigor (not to mention its excellent score), 'The Music Man' has always failed to capture my imagination. While I can appreciate its merits and applaud its message of unity and redemption, I've never been able to invest myself in the show's down-home characters or nostalgic story. For me, the songs save the day, and luckily there are enough of them – and almost all are gems – to both maintain my interest and fuel my sincere admiration for the talent and verve on display. A course in Musical Theater 101 must surely include Preston spitting out the tongue-twisting, rapid-fire "Trouble," which defines composer Willson's innovative lyrical patter – a style that continues in such other recognizable tunes as "Pick a Little, Talk a Little" and "Gary, Indiana" (reprised by an adorable, lisping, seven-year-old Ron – billed here as Ronny – Howard, who very nearly steals the show), as well as the opening number, "Rock Island," which could be classified as "early rap." Though Willson is a master at rousing choral numbers like "The Wells Fargo Wagon," he's no slouch in the romantic ballad department either, with "Goodnight, My Someone" and "Till There Was You" beautifully showcasing Jones' lilting soprano.
DaCosta, who also directed the Broadway version, takes full command of the camera, filling the Technirama lens (a CinemaScope knock-off) with plenty of pageantry and atmosphere. While the film often flaunts a distinct backlot, soundstage feel, the artificiality complements the theatrical nature of the piece, as do some of DaCosta's shot compositions and lighting effects. In all, 'The Music Man' received six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture (losing to 'Lawrence of Arabia'), and earned its sole Oscar for Best Adapted Scoring.
Though Preston was ignored by the Academy, the film without question belongs to him. His indefatigable portrayal infuses this classic musical with such spirit and dynamism, it's easy to see why the residents of River City were so enamored of Harold Hill. And you will be, too. 'The Music Man' may be far from my favorite musical, but because of Preston I won't hesitate to visit it again. He is truly the leader of the band.
'The Music Man' sports a vibrant, well-balanced transfer that adds plenty of visual vim and verve to this energetic musical. A natural grain structure lends the image a film-like texture, but never diminishes the crystal clarity that distinguishes the majority of this first-class effort. Though the opening train sequence looks a bit rough and noisy, due to heavy rear projection processing on the original print, the rest of the movie settles into a fine groove, with only a few errant white specks dotting the beautifully restored source material.
Blues and especially reds pop with lush saturation, and the overall palette exudes a faint warmth that subtly highlights the period atmosphere. Fleshtones are pleasing, and blacks are always inky, making DaCosta's signature iris-in-iris-out effect (a modified blackout used for emphasis at the end of some scenes) especially striking. Close-ups flaunt plenty of marvelous detail, and background elements are easy to discern. No banding or edge enhancement could be detected either.
The folks at Warner take great care in bringing their classics to Blu-ray, and 'The Music Man' is another fine example of their meticulous attention to detail and commitment to honoring the films of Hollywood's past.
Ever since Warner (belatedly) embraced lossless audio on its high-def releases, the studio has supported the Dolby TrueHD platform. Well, 'The Music Man' is one of the first Warner Blu-rays to break that trend, and its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track punches up the vintage sound of this musical classic quite nicely. Any age-related defects have been erased, and the resulting clear, crisp sound brings Meredith Willson's popular score to brilliant life. Jones' vocals possess a marvelous purity of tone, and even when she scales and sustains those high notes, there's no hint of distortion. Of course, the bigger the number, the wider the scope of the sound, and "76 Trombones" fills the room so completely, you can almost count every instrument. The song also pumps out some palpable bass, adding welcome weight to the music.
As one would guess for a 1962 film, most of the sonic action is anchored up front, but good stereo separation lends an expansive feel to the audio, and some faint bleeds into the surrounds during exterior sequences provide a bit of ambience. Dialogue is often spoken quickly, but it's always easy to understand, even during the tongue-twisting "Trouble" number. The mix is well balanced, too, so there's no need to fumble with volume levels when the principals burst into song. Though the audio can't quite eclipse the video, it's a solid effort and complements this classic well.
A couple of supplements provide some background on the film and help put it in its proper historical context. All material is in standard definition.
With its winning score and sprightly performances, 'The Music Man' remains one of the most popular Broadway musical adaptations, and this Blu-ray rendering from Warner grandly showcases it. High-quality video and audio transfers bring this nostalgic period piece to life and enhance the effervescence of Robert Preston's iconic portrayal. This is one the whole family can enjoy, and though it's not a personal favorite of mine, its myriad charms are undeniable. Recommended.