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.
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.
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.
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.”