Reviving “The Music Man” On Broadway

By Steve Vertlieb: Actor Robert Preston had been playing charming villains and cads in movies since 1938, and was known for his larcenous grace, having appeared in Paramount’s prestigious 1939 remake of Beau Geste, co-starring Gary Cooper and Ray Milland, as well as several films for director Cecil B DeMille, including Union Pacific, Northwest Mounted Police, and Reap The Wild Wind. Like many other actors in Hollywood at this time, his film career was interrupted by the advent of the Second World War. He returned to the screen in 1947, as well as the legitimate stage in the early Fifties.

When theatrical producers were searching for a star to play beloved rogue Professor Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s big new Broadway production of The Music Man in 1956, according to Preston, virtually every actor in New York and Hollywood was considered before deciding, somewhat hesitantly, on casting non-singer Robert Preston in the leading role.

Although an older man by the late Fifties, Robert Preston proved his musical talents and abilities with nimble foot work and compelling vocals when The Music Man premiered in New York on December 19, 1958. Both the show and its revered, featured star were an immediate sensation, and Preston continued to perform in the role until April 15, 1961.

Robert Preston as Prof. Harold Hill

When Jack Warner was casting the film version of the smash hit, he considered performers such as Cary Grant, James Cagney, or Frank Sinatra for the lead. Meredith Willson, the show’s composer, however, demanded that Robert Preston star in the movie version of his play, or he’d withdraw the contracts and licensing. The film version of The Music Man, produced for Warner Brothers, and starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, opened to rave reviews on movie screens across the country in 1962. Robert Preston, like Rex Harrison in Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, had proven that older, seasoned film stars could propel both Broadway and big screen musicals to enormous artistic success.

Shirley Jones and Robert Preston

Upon leaving the show, Robert Preston continued to act in film, and on stage in both dramatic and distinguished musical productions until his death, due to lung cancer, in March, 1987 at the age of 68.

While subsequent productions of The Music Man have often been performed over the years, a major star-studded theatrical revival had not been attempted until February, 2022, when a similarly trained, versatile film and legitimate theatrical performer, equally adept on both stage and screen, took nimbly to the lead role upon the hallowed stage of the legendary Winter Garden Theater in New York City to star in a massive new production of The Music Man.

Hugh Jackman, beloved screen and stage actor, had wanted to play the coveted role of Harold Hill since he was but sixteen years old in his native Australia. Teaming with acclaimed Tony Award winning actress Sutton Foster as “Marian … Madame Librarian,” this stellar cast and production of Meredith Wilson’s adored play, The Music Man, is a singular delight filled with cherished songs and melodies, wondrous gaiety, and the unforgettable charm of world class performers bringing new life to a Broadway classic.

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster

Jackman, as the loveable con man, bilking simple townsfolk out of their hard-earned savings, in order to construct a wholly imaginary school band with the innocent children of the community, is an electrifying presence on the stage while Sutton Foster, as his grudging love interest is a spunky, no nonsense town librarian able to give as good as she gets. Their chemistry is undeniable, creating an utterly delightful battle of the sexes, with Foster’s Marian a vulnerable, lonely spinster, camouflaging her vulnerability with wise cracks, wit, and sublime intelligence.

This limited, critically acclaimed revival of the classic Broadway musical closes its doors at the end of the year, while continually selling out to thousands of adoring fans. Long after the doors have shuttered, however, New York’s night air will continue to resound with the fabled echo of “Seventy Six Trombones.”

10 thoughts on “Reviving “The Music Man” On Broadway

  1. Anybody who quibbles that The Music Man is not genre betrays their own lack of sensawonda. All hail Iowa’s greatest masterpiece!

  2. Several friends who saw the Grant/Foster revival loved it. (We’d ordered (affordable) tix but because Covid wimped out — refundable because they were from the ‘before official start’ or something-like-that date.) (I’d love to see a gender flip so Sutton Foster could get more of the fun songs.)
    Meanwhile, this scroll provides an unexpectedly relevant place to note/plug the fast upcoming Season 4 of DOOM PATROL, arguably the gonzo-ist comic/superhero show around, inarguably one of, on HBO Max (assuming beancounters don’t add this to their list of money-saving cuts, grrrr): here’s the Season 4 teaser.

  3. There is and will forever be only ONE Music Man and that is the wonderful Robert Preston.?????????? He made the show and the role what it is. My hat goes off to him forever!! When I was a theatre student and we were doing “The Music Man” at USC, Meredith Wilson came and talked to us which was a total thrill. God Mr Wilson stuck to his Iowa stubborness insisting that Preston be in the movie even though they axed Barbara Cook out. Great job and the casting was brilliant all the way round. I saw the original on Broadway as a little girl. It was the first musical I ever saw and it was the greatest musical I ever saw.

    With all due respect Hugh Jackman who I’ve heard does a great job (and if I had a gazillion dollars to score a ticket I would go see it) but if you’re thinking any other Music Man can come close to Robert Preston. ” Whadya Talk Whadya Talk Whadya Talk, Whadya Talk??!!!!

    PS I am also biased because my mother was an actress and good friends with Robert Preston and he would come to see us! Yes! We had theMusic Man in our livingroom on 86th Street! Right here in River City!! I can tell you he had megawatt charisma onstage and off! What a presence!! ????????????????????????????

  4. “Although an older man by the late Fifties” . . . Robert Preston was just 39 years old in December 1957 when The Music Man premiered at the Majestic Theatre on December 19 of that year. The “older man” was Hugh Jackman who was 53 years old in February 2022 when he appeared in The Music Man revival at the Winter Garden Theatre.

    There is no comparison between Preston and Jackman’s performances in The Music Man – just listen to the cast albums. No contest. Robert Preston was Meredith Willson’s choice to play Harold Hill on Broadway and on film. He will always be the Music Man.

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