The Music Man (1962)

Seventy-six trombones

The Music Man (1962)

Outside of band camp, who would even care to imagine a parade with 76 trombones, much less one with 110 cornets on their heels? And yet when Robert Preston's professor Harold Hill paints the picture of that brass orgy in The Music Man, it's not just visible in your mind's eye; you tingle at the thought. There's so much enthusiasm in his voice, such verve in his delivery, you're swept up in the vision. Of course, this being Tinseltown, the 1962 film can't end until it actually shows us a parade with 76 trombones, but it's telling that the sight of it doesn't provide nearly the "electric thrill" of Preston's pure description.

Meredith Willson's musical recollection of his early 20th century Iowa upbringing is a combustible mix of nostalgic Americana and small-town satire, rendered in sophisticated song and comical phraseology ("It's as clear as a buttonhook in the well water!"). But it's Preston who really makes the thing catch fire. With the born flim-flam man's effortless charisma and conviction, charged with breakneck patter and intoxicating spontaneity, he makes the professor's "think method" for learning music sound more plausible than Einstein's theory of relativity. In filming stage musicals, Hollywood was notorious for replacing Broadway stars with its own luminaries, whether they could sing or not (e.g., Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), and Jack Warner was all hot to have Frank Sinatra as his Harold Hill. But Willson had enough clout to tell him: No Preston, no Music Man movie – and so we have Preston's legendary Tony-winning performance – really, has anyone ever topped his "Ya Got Trouble"? – to treasure forever.

I knew the film as a kid, but it was in college that I really fell for it the way Marian the librarian falls for the boys'-band-peddling con artist. I remember singing along to a 16mm print at a residence-hall movie night and wearing out the grooves on my parents' LP of the soundtrack. Knowing that Preston and I shared not only the same first name but also the same birth date – June 8, with me exactly 40 years his junior – just endeared his Harold Hill to me all the more. As with those stubborn but gullible Iowans, he's got my number.

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