Director and playwright Robert O’Hara thinks there’s something curious about The Music Man, Meredith Willson’s famous musical about big brass bands and small-town busybodies.
“This is a man who knows nothing about music – in a musical,” he says matter-of-factly, referring to the lead character of con man and “Professor” Harold Hill. “And it’s a town that doesn’t want music, per se, but they’re singing the entire show. No one wants the music man or believes in the music man, yet everything is sung!”
O’Hara is directing a co-production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man to be performed during March at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and Two River Theater in Red Bank. The Tony-winning best musical of 1957 will be presented as a concert version with an intriguing twist: The entire cast, led by Broadway actors Isaiah Johnson as Harold Hill and Stephanie Umoh as Marian “The Librarian” Paroo, will be African-American.
As people might say in 1912 River City, Iowa, where the show is set: Ye gods, they’re going to sing the bejesus out of it.
“We think of early Americana as through the lens of white people and that black people were on the margins. Well, here is Americana where black people are actually in the center,” O’Hara says. “How exciting that it’s a musical, which is something that African-Americans have contributed to greatly in this country.”
Revisit the score and you’ll hear the rap-like syncopation and call-and-response of “Rock Island,” the revivalist “Ya Got Trouble,” the soulful “Till There Was You,” and even the staccato “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” which O’Hara speculates could lend itself to jazz or R&B. The singers will be accompanied by a six-piece, onstage band.
Meeting with the cast and creative team for the first read-through in New York, O’Hara is captivated by copies of vintage photos displayed by costume designer Dede Ayite. Culled from the archives of the Library of Congress, they depict black women of the 19th century Midwest dressed in wasp-waisted, mutton-sleeved finery, blouses buttoned completely up the throat. Holding a portrait of four prim women with their index fingers placed solemnly on chins – their heads dwarfed by ostentatious hats –O’Hara exclaims, “Here are the ‘Pick-a-Littles’!,” referring to the gossipy meddlers of River City.
The show’s opening sequence aboard a train is intended to conjure the Great Migration of blacks to the Midwest and across the country following the Civil War. The players, seated in a minimalist set representing the Colored Section, will assemble themselves into the community of River City; in true trunk show fashion, some of their props and costuming will be pulled from luggage.
The action suggests “this thing about ‘something from nothing’ that’s always been attributed to black people,” the director says, noting the imagery of trains and porters throughout African-American culture. “You’re given the Colored Section of a train and you make an entire musical out of it.”
The fictional River City, where Hill tries to bamboozle residents into financing a boys’ marching band (when he’s not courting the haughty Marian), is described by O’Hara as “stiff upper-lip” and “hoity-toity.” “Iowa Stubborn” is a proud, self-aware anthem to their aloofness.
“I’m equating the town with a sort of high-end church community. Not that they’re going to be Bible-thumping, but there’s a sort of religiosity to it. And to their conservatism,” he says. “(Hill) is a con man and he becomes endearing as a con man. But only if the people he’s conning need to be conned. And I think this is a community that needs to be conned.
“The people of River City see things in black and white. The mayor owns the place where the pool table is supposed to be going. So there’s sort of a hypocrisy, which I love. And there’s the whole idea that (Marian) is a librarian, but apparently she was supposed to have had some affair with the guy who gave her the library and the books. So there’s gossip involved, there’s cliques involved, there’s status involved.”
O’Hara, who lives in New York, is an Obie Award-winning director (for In the Continuum) and author of the acclaimed dramas Antebellum and Insurrection: Holding History; he also directed the latter. At McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, he directed the world premiere of The Brother/Sister Plays (Part 2). An adjunct professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, he is playwright in residence at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
Surprisingly, this is the first musical he has staged professionally.
“I’m known as the ‘new play’ guy,” the soft-spoken O’Hara says with a laugh, although he is a fan of musicals. “I think this is one of the reasons why (producers) approached me, because they knew I did not have the sort of reverence to the old school or traditional interpretations of musicals. The idea of taking someone who is encapsulated in new plays and giving him a classic musical was quite exciting to me because, of course, no one else would offer me such a thing.”
Meredith Willson’s The Music Man opens a four-performance engagement at NJPAC following its run at Two River Theater in Red Bank. Performances in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater take place Friday, March 21 at 8pm; Saturday, March 22 at 3 and 8pm; and Sunday, March 23 at 3pm. Tickets are $59.50 and $69.50 and can be purchased online, by calling 1-888-GO-NJPAC or by visiting the box office at 1 Center St. in downtown Newark.
Performances in Two River’s Rechnitz Theater are Thursday, March 13 and Friday, March 14 at 8pm; Saturday, March 15 at 3 and 8pm; and Sunday, March 16 at 3 and 7pm. Tickets starting at $20 are available online or at (732) 345-1400.