HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – “The Music Man” Comes to Hilo

By Kelly Moran

“The Music Man” Comes to Hilo

I’m interrupting my discussion of living off-the-grid to let you know that some of the best local actors and musicians stage a Broadway musical every October at Hilo’s Palace Theater, and this year’s (Eighth Annual) Fall Musical is “The Music Man” by Meredith Willson.

I have a friend who’s a singer and band-leader here, but right now he’s a member of the cast. So I’m going to turn this blog entry over to Hal Glatzer, and let him tell you about the show … 

Hilo's Palace Theater“‘The Music Man’. . . is that the one with ’76 Trombones’?” Yes it is. And you know that because you have almost certainly seen it before: perhaps in the movies, on TV, or on a local stage somewhere. It was even the inaugural musical for the new UH Hilo Performing Arts Center, in 1974. So, you may think it’s merely a valentine to small-town America, with old-fashioned music. And indeed it is that, too. But like many great works of art, it seems simple on the surface only because it’s complex underneath.


“The Music Man,” which premiered in 1957, is among the cleverest pieces of musical theater in the history of the American stage, and easily one of the best “book-musicals” ever. (In Broadway parlance, a book-musical – unlike a “revue” of songs and skits – tells a coherent dramatic story, with songs that advance the plot and/or deepen your understanding of the characters.)

Into stodgy River City, Iowa, on the Fourth of July, 1912, comes Harold Hill, a con-man posing as a music “professor” who will organize a marching band, and teach the local children to play, so they’ll stay out of the pool hall. Of course, he’s really there to fleece the townsfolk and skip out with their money just as the band uniforms arrive. But unexpectedly, he’s touched by the sadness of a small boy; and he falls in love with the boy’s sister, the local librarian, who sees right though his scam and is all set to bust him.

Meredith Willson had a long career as a composer and arranger for big bands, radio orchestras, and movie scores. He wrote “The Music Man” – book, music and lyrics – at the height of his powers, combining many of the American musical theater’s best components into a single show.

* Memorable characters in a believable situation, inspired by the playwright’s own Iowa boyhood.

* Beautiful love songs, the most famous being “Till There Was You,” which The Beatles also recorded.

* Funny, fast-talking raps – Willson called them “speak-songs” – not only Harold Hill’s grifter pitch “Ya Got Trouble,” but the entire opening scene with a railroad-rhythm chorus of traveling salesmen.

* Four-part harmony numbers that have become “standards” for barbershop quartets everywhere.

* And “double-songs.” Three of the songs in the show turn into six, when a different melody line, fresh lyrics and a change of rhythm form a counterpoint to those that were sung before. In this musical legerdemain, one of those beautiful love songs – the waltz, “Goodnight, My Someone” – is soul-mated to the show’s signature march (you guessed it) “76 Trombones.”

Willson wrote a short book, called “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory,” about how the show came to be. [Long out of print, a new edition was published this year by the University of Minnesota Press.] The title quotes the traveling salesmen’s hapless complaint about their rival, Harold Hill; but it’s also what thespian snobs were saying, in effect, when they predicted that Willson’s debut musical, set in small-town Iowa, would flop on Broadway. It didn’t. The original production won five Tony Awards, beat out (New York’s own) “West Side Story” for Best Musical honors, and ran for more than 1,300 performances.

Our Hilo production showcases great local talent. Jim Thompson is the slick Harold Hill, Corey Paglinawan is lovely Marian the librarian. Steve Peyton is the blustery mayor, with Jeri Gertz his haughty wife. Don Moody is Hill’s goofy pal Marcellus, and Nathan Sullivan is sad young Winthrop. Arval Shipley directs the show, with choreography by Lina Manning; musical director Cheryl “Quack” Moore conducts the orchestra.

Watching these folks in top form, I’m sure you’ll gain a new appreciation for Willson’s achievement. “The Music Man” is a feel-good show in the best sense: you won’t be embarrassed to say it made you feel good.

Evening performances of “The Music Man” start at 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays Oct. 9 & 10, 16 & 17 and 23 & 24. Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. on Oct. 18 and 25. Advance-sale tickets are $15; $12 for ages 12 and under or for Palace Friends. At the door, tickets are $20 and $15, respectively. The box office is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Phone the Palace at 808-934-7010 for more information and credit card orders.