What I Learned from The Music Man

Followers of this blog will likely recollect my two Music Man stories – one here and one here – that were seminal experiences in my theatrical career. I thought I’d take a moment to chronicle a third Music Man story that was equally seminal, albeit not in a way you might expect.

This past month, I joined my extended family in their annual pilgrimage to the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, Utah, where they produce six plays in repertory ever summer. I missed the first of the three days, so I only saw four of the six, and three of the four were really quite extraordinary. But the extraordinariest was yet another production of The Music Man, featuring Utah Shakes co-artistic director Brian Vaughan in the title role.

For years, even when producing theatre for a living, I was incapable of watching a quality production of any kind without feeling a dull, aching jealousy in the pit of my stomach and a nagging voice in the back of my psyche.

“That should be you up there, “ the Voice would say. “You’re a performer. So if you’re not performing, you’re worthless.”

I don’t really know where that voice comes from. I wasted a great deal of my adolescence and my young adulthood judging my worth by the amount of applause I could get on any given night. Thunderous applause was validation; mediocre applause was failure. My value as a human being was measured solely by how loudly people I didn’t know clapped their hands together.

Intellectually, I could always recognize just how silly that idea is. But emotionally, that’s a hard pathology to overcome.

That was what was so remarkable about this performance of The Music Man in Cedar City. I have seen this particular show in a variety of settings, including a stellar Broadway production back in 2000. Yet I have never seen a finer production than the one I saw this past month. So if any show were going to reignite that jealous ache and the nagging voice, this would have been it.

It was such a delightful experience to discover that the voice and the ache weren’t there at all. I could enjoy the performance for what it was and be grateful for the talent of those presenting it without being envious of them. Maybe I really am a grown-up after all.

Well, not necessarily.

What this performance also taught me was that theatre is, for most participants, a fairly ephemeral art. Only a relative handful of people have ever seen me perform at all, and only a small fraction of those people remember the experience. (Most of those people are related to me.) Once the show is over, it’s really over. The performers have made no permanent mark on the world.

The writer, on the other hand…

See, the one constant in every performance of The Music Man is the story itself. It’s the writer who makes the one indelible contribution. Thousands of people have played Harold Hill in theatres and high schools and community gymnasiums all across the country, and no one remembers any of them. But Meredith Willson’s musical is common to all of them.

So the old ache has been replaced by a new one. Before I die, I want to write something that will be read and performed and remembered for generations. It’s a tall order, I know, and I probably ought to recognize that even writers fade with time. But that’s one of the reasons I’ve reignited this blog. I don’t want to sing and dance; I want to write. I want to be read. So maybe I’m still measuring my worth by how other people react to me, and I haven’t learned a dang thing.

But you’ve read this, and you can’t unread it, so I’m one step closer to my goal.

The Science of Resurrection
...And Why The Music Man Makes No Sense.

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