Watching The Music Man without feeling insanely jealous, as I recounted yesterday, opened my eyes to some of the fundamental flaws in the story. It’s a story I love, mind you, but in many cases, it’s really messed up.
If you don’t know the premise, here’s a thumbnail sketch. Harold Hill is a scam artist who goes town to town selling band instruments, uniforms, and musical instruction books to unsuspecting yokels with the promise that he will teach them how to play and form them into a band. But after the stuff arrives, he skips town, leaving behind lots of instruments and things with people who don’t know what to do with them.
What a really lousy scam.
First of all, he does all the same work he would have to do if he really were going to form them into a band. He makes all the sales calls, and, most notably, he actually produces the goods he is selling. What kind of scam is that? He has to eat the cost of the raw materials, so he only makes as much money as a legitimate salesman would. Why not collect the money, skip town the next day, and then not deliver anything? Where I come from, that’s a real scam.
In fact, Harold Hill himself alludes to the fact that that’s the way he used to do business. On arrival in River City, the setting for his latest shenanigans, he bumps into an old sidekick, who doesn’t understand why he’s back peddling music.
“I thought you were in steam automobiles,” his sidekick says.
“I was,” Hill replies.
Hill grimaces. “Somebody actually invented one.”
See? A fine scam right there! Hill was selling a product that didn’t exist – notably, an EXPENSIVE product that didn’t exist. What’s the profit margin on a real live trombone or a band outfit compared to the bounty that comes from selling nonexistent cars? In addition, think of how much time Hill has to waste as he sticks around town to wait for the Wells Fargo Wagon to show up with the goods. One sale of a fantasy steam car in a single day would give him more money than weeks of hawking real band goods, and he could skip town twenty-four hours later. Time is money, especially for scammers.
Think of all the online Nigerian princes who offer you billions of dollars if you’ll only give them a five thousand dollar finder’s fee. Now imagine what their lives would be like if, instead, they offered you free clarinet lessons with the purchase of every clarinet. You get the clarinet; you even get a music instruction book, but doggone it if that Nigerian prince doesn’t have any online musical support! Which, in terms of scam potential, is the most lucrative?
In addition, one of the first things Harold tells Marian, the local music teacher he has to seduce to keep her quiet, is that he’s only going to be in town a short while. He makes it clear to everyone that he’s a traveling salesman. Well, don’t traveling salesmen travel? How stupid are his marks that they can’t see the contradiction in the idea of a traveling salesman sticking around to be a volunteer band conductor for the next several years?
Even with all this said, it’s still a delightful show. But not as delightful as the show I’m writing now called “The Prince of Nigeria,” about a guy who actually inherits billions of dollars from a dead king and can’t get anyone in America to give him the five grand he needs to release the funds.