Meredith Willson was on the cutting edge when he introduced a con man as the main character in “The Music Man.”
Those Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Walter White anti-heroes just weren’t around in 1957 when the play premiered on Broadway.
Then came Harold Hill, the quick-thinking, fast-talking traveling salesman who promised a marching band based on the “Think System.”
“But when you think about it, Harold Hill isn’t a bad guy, and there’s so much more to the ‘Think System,’” says Evan Roider. “It’s about pursuing your passion and making it come true. It’s about the American dream.”
Roider is the music director of Theatre Baton Rouge’s summer musical production of Willson’s classic, which opens Friday, June 5.
That’s when the curtain will open on River City, Iowa, whose residents in 1912 pride themselves on being “Iowa stubborn.”
But then Hill steps off the train and pitches the town’s need for a marching band, because there’s trouble brewing in River City — trouble that begins with a capital “T,” which rhymes with “P,” and that stands for “Pool.”
A pool hall can lead kids to delinquency and lasciviousness, right? But a marching band could set them on the path to righteousness.
The townspeople are hooked, and Hill begins collecting money for instruments and uniforms for this music group, which will perform based on his “Think System” theory: If you think about Beethoven’s “Minuet in G,” you can play it.
“A lot of people have been telling us that this is their favorite musical,” Roider says. “It’s mine, and I jumped at the chance to be the music director. Musically, it’s one of those shows that’s so seamless that it just happens. ”
“Evan’s put together a great orchestra for this,” says director Jack Lampert. “And sometimes with this cast, it looks like we are really in River City.”
The cast ranges in age from 8-year-old Lorelei Robinson to 76-year-old Carolyn Bowman.
“I was in Baton Rouge Little Theater’s first production of ‘The Music Man’ in 1976,” Bowman says. “I played Mrs. Higgins in ‘My Fair Lady,’ and I’ve been in a number of Ascension Community Theatre productions.”
She and Robinson are both in the ensemble.“My memory isn’t as good as it used to be, so I depend on Lorelei to help me get to where I’m supposed to be at the right time,” she says.
And one of those moments is when she has to play the responsible citizen by removing Robinson from the stage when Harold Hill begins preaching to the townspeople about the pool hall.
“They make the kids leave, because they don’t want them hearing about what goes on in the pool hall,” Robinson says, laughing.
Hill, played by Richard Williams, keeps those left on stage spellbound, yet he’s not without his detractors. The town librarian and music teacher, Marian Paroo, is on to him.
But Marian faces a few challenges in her pursuit of an exposé, as she finds herself falling in love with the con man.
“Marian is demure, self confident, outgoing and educated, and she knows about the world,” says Cara Waring, who plays Marian. “She’s also kind-hearted, and I like it when she falls in love.”
Williams is quick to offer a few jokes about Hill’s character.
“I’m a lawyer,” Williams says. “I find that as a lawyer, playing a con man isn’t too far of a stretch.”
Though his joke sets off a round of laughter among his fellow actors, Williams has reverence for this role. It’s not only iconic in musical theater, it requires more timing and energy than most characters.
“I wanted to audition for it, but I thought about backing away at first,” he says. “There’s a lot of volume to it, and you really have to put time into it to get this right. But I also knew it was something I wanted to do, and I had to audition.”
And as Hill, Williams not only must keep Marian off balance, but also the town’s gossipy “Pickalittle” ladies. In the end, everyone has a good time. The Think System grabs hold of the town, pointing their hopes and dreams in a new direction, where even a con man can be a hero.