News Column

'The Music Man' emphasizes heart

June 20, 2014

By Shea Conner, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

June 20--When Tee Quillin found out that he'd be directing Western Playhouse's production of "The Music Man," he couldn't help but feel a little skeptical.

The Missouri Western theater instructor often has directed musicals of an edgier, more modern style, like "Sweeney Todd," "The Drowsy Chaperone" and Western Playhouse's 2013 rendition of "Miss Saigon." Those were in his wheelhouse, and he didn't feel like he knew how to approach something as wholesome and heartwarming as "The Music Man."

While reviewing his materials, however, he found his inspirational spark. It was a brief note from playwright Meredith Willson attached to the script from Music Theatre International.

"It says, 'This show is not intended to be a caricature. It's intended to be a valentine,'" Quillin recites. "It's a valentine to the people that were near and dear to his heart. He didn't want them to be portrayed as buffoonish or clowny. He wanted them to be played as honest people."

That heartfelt honesty has served as the driving force for the cast and crew of Western Playhouse's production of "The Music Man," which will be performed at 7:30 p.m.June 20, 21, 26, 27 and 28 and at 2 p.m. on June 22 at the university's Potter Hall Theater.

Written by Willson in 1957, "The Music Man" is a sweet ode to life in Smalltown, U.S.A. While he found inspiration for the script from his upbringing in Mason City, Iowa, the play resonated with theater-goers across the country. The musical won five Tony Awards the following year, beating out greats like "West Side Story" and "New Girl in Town" for the award for Outstanding Musical.

Taking place in the summer of 1912, "The Music Man" follows fast-talking traveling salesman "Professor" Harold Hill (played in Western Playhouse's production by Dallas Henry, the college's other theater instructor) as he sweet-talks the people of River City, Iowa, into buying instruments and uniforms for a boys' band he vows to organize. But it's nothing more than a swerve. Hill is a con-man who doesn't know a trombone from a trumpet or a flute from a 4/4 time signature. He plans to skip town with the cash, but his dastardly scheme -- which he's already pulled off in 102 counties -- unravels when he falls for Marian Paroo (Melissa Perry), the town's lovely librarian. She aims to turn Harold into a respectable River City citizen by play's end.

Quillin, Henry, Perry and Judy Simmons (who plays Marian's Irish mother, Mrs. Paroo) all say they've enjoyed digging into the authenticity of these Midwestern characters. Several other productions of "The Music Man" have emphasized the old-timey spectacle of the musical numbers while overlooking the play's realism, so Quillin's approach has offered a refreshing reprieve.

"It's a different take on it, and I'm really enjoying that immensely," says Simmons, a member of the Actors' Equity Association who's playing Mrs. Paroo for the second time in her life. "I'm trying to let go of the Mrs. Paroo I knew and bring in the new one."

Simmons points to her scenes with Perry as an example. Many productions, and even the 1962 film based on the musical, depicted Mrs. Paroo and her daughter as too close to be confrontational. Their disagreements were very conversational. In Western Playhouse's production, things get slightly more tense.

"Even though we love each other, there's still a sense that she's a grown-up and I should let her go. I like that tension because it feels so real," Simmons says.

Quillin says there are several interactions where he and the cast have dug a little deeper, but it doesn't stop there. The director also has taken a more accurate approach to the visuals of the production, which will come much closer to the look of rural Iowa in the 1910s than the '62 film.

"I actually specifically told our costume designer, 'No pastel. Nothing pastel in the show,'" Quillin says with a chuckle. "I wanted to have either the fabric, the material or the actual clothing that, depending on their socio-economic status, came from the Sears-Roebuck catalog and would have been delivered by the Wells Fargo wagon."

Although the audience won't be bombarded by the bright colors, the playbook's bright spirit and bright music remain prevalent in Western Playhouse's take. Perhaps more than any other American musical, the jovial songs of "The Music Man" have resonated through every corner of pop culture.

"With almost every song in this show, you leave humming it," Perry says. "It really sticks with you."

The cast largely agrees that one of its strongest numbers is the closer "76 Trombones," to which it has taken a very unique approach (we won't give it away here). Henry says he's had a blast working through the speedy verbiage of "Ya Got Trouble," and just about everyone has raved over the work of The Quartet, which includes Missouri Western students Caleb Hazelwood, Jacob Mills, Jagger Bowers and Ian Fast. Furthermore, Quillin says Perry has absolutely enchanted her castmates with her beautiful renditions of the ballads "Goodnight, My Someone" and "My White Knight."

But, at the end of the day, they've all raved about the incredibly fun and perfectly executed "Shipoopi." The song is anchored by powerhouse vocalist Raymond Johnson (who plays Harold's buddy Marcellus Washburn), but the cast says the number is taken to the next level by the choreography of Randy Davis.

"Randy has just blown me away with that song," says Henry, who's playing Harold Hill for the second time after an 85-performance run with an outdoor theater company in Indiana in 2002. "Every night when I walk in, I think 'Holy moly, this is a great way to start act two!' I'm seeing sophomores and juniors dancing so fast and I'm getting chills on stage."

Davis says he crafted the quickly paced choreography of "Shipoopi" to match the spunk of the cast and the energy that Harold Hill brings to River City in the play.

"That number was not created because I wanted it to be that way," Davis explains. "It was because of the town and the people who are present. That's what I saw and what I felt."

Quillin says that, in addition to the honesty of the script, that sense of energy and community are what he has tried to highlight throughout the last two weeks of rehearsal. He sincerely hopes that people go away feeling that excitement as they leave Potter Hall Theater.

"I wanted us -- the audience -- to be able to fall in love with not just the idea of River City, but with River City itself again, just like Harold does," Quillin says. "He doesn't just get swept up by Marian, he gets swept up by every person in that town."

Tickets for the "The Music Man" are $22.50 for adults and $9.50 for the first two youths 17 and under, then $1 for each additional child. For more information about Western Playhouse's production, visit

Shea Conner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.


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