Doug Schulkind's
Sound Mind

River City Writ Large

Has anyone else noticed how neatly the story (at least the first part of the story) of Meredith Willson's musical "The Music Man" dovetails with the Republicans' hoodwinking of evangelical America?

on man descends upon a proud but struggling town in the heartlands with the intention of screwing the populace out of the little its got. Steeped in old-fashioned "traditional" values, the community is riven by issues confronting a more modern America. There is a pitched battle over censorship: The mayor's wife has organized a group of ladies to protest the town librarian's refusal to ban books by Balzac and other prurient authors. The con man slips into the middle of this town in transition and immediately seizes on the best way to separate the locals from their cash: Convince them that their moral values are under attack (citing the opening of a decadent billiard parlor–owned, ironically, by the mayor–and the reading of dime-store novels and use of slang by the youngfolk). Under the guise of promoting a wholeome atmosphere, the con man cynically turns the town's fear of a changing world against itself and convinces the good citizens to spend their hard-earned dollars on an illusion (band uniforms and instruments for the kids, who will get stuck high and dry when the con man skips town).

I know many of you recoil at the thought of the words "show" and "tunes" appearing in close proximity, but it has been my contention, in the defense of musicals and the dreaded show tunes, that American musical theater plays a thrilling role in our popular culture. Far from being boring antiques, musicals have consistently been in the vanguard of critical thought about the major issues that confront us. Race, class determinism, gender equality, and yes, as with "The Music Man," embracing a changing world–these are the issues that musicals have wrestled with, sometimes years ahead of the mainstream. (Some may think of "South Pacific," as primarily the source of fluff like "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," but geez, the musical won a Pulitzer Prize for its unabashed excoriation of racism. Check out the scathing number "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught.") In the case of Meredith Willson's musical, which opened on Broadway in 1957, it just happens to be about 50 years ahead of its time.

Doug Schulkind
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