The newly opened Broadway revival of The Music Man is the first time Hugh Jackman has played brazen swindler Harold Hill (though, per the Playbill credits, he apparently played Salesman #2 as a teenager). But the role is such a natural fit for Jackman’s interests as an actor that the performance itself feels like a revival, too – a triumphant return, rather than a long-awaited teaming of superstar and role. Thanks to Covid, it can be both: this Music Man planned to begin its run in 2020, only to be pushed back repeatedly, finally beginning previews in December 2021, then shutting down for a week after Jackman himself caught Covid. It officially opens many months and two calendar years after its initial target.
Throughout the swiftly paced production, Jackman looks like he’s been raring to go. As Hill, a con artist disguised as a traveling salesman who moves in on a small Iowa town, selling the promise of civic improvement through musical instruments, uniforms, and band instruction, Jackman is appropriately snaky and cynical – when he’s not pretending to be an upstanding musical impresario, of course. But when he brings a signature number like 76 Trombones or a smaller one like Gary, Indiana to a close, there is unmistakable joy in his eyes; at times, facing the rapturous crowd reactions, he looked as if he might burst out laughing with glee.
Though Jackman is best known for his nearly two decades playing the grim Marvel Comics superhero Wolverine, Harold Hill is of a piece so much of his other film work: the smooth-talking embezzler of Bad Education, the carny-barker stylings of Real Steel, and his singing and dancing PT Barnum in The Greatest Showman. He’s obviously fascinated by the ways that flash and charm can give way to a different, more nefarious form of confidence, and whether or not that can circle back to a kind of honorable flim-flam for the greater good. That’s The Music Man all over; Jackman slips into its rhythms effortlessly.
It’s tempting to say that the rest of this production director Jerry Zaks can’t match the star power at its center, but that’s not quite it – not exactly. Sutton Foster plays the buttoned-up librarian Marion, who is immediately suspicious of Hill but starts to see the good in him even before he does, and she emerges as a formidable match for her co-star. This is particularly noticeable in the second act, which she periodically rescues the killer song score from its first-act front-loading. Jefferson Mays and Jayne Houdyshell provide ample support as the sputtering Mayor Shinn and his wife, respectively; beyond the marquee names and Broadway mainstays, the whole stage is packed with terrific young performers. They’re the real spectacle, moreso than the sometimes overly fussy sets and costumes; even those with their own lines aren’t really playing fully realized characters here, but their big-group production numbers provide the passionate rush that Broadway audiences pay exorbitant prices to experience firsthand.
That razzle-dazzle could explain the decision to invite critics to the glamorous opening-night performance, rather than having a press night during previews. With an appreciative star-packed crowd applauding not just every introduction and musical number, but the appearance of a pool table – warming up for the inevitable (Ya Got) Trouble – and the occasional semi-clever flourish of stagecraft, it’s easy to feel either like a fan giving in to the will of the crowd, or a grump who’s pointedly refusing to. In other words, it’s a high-energy con worthy of Harold Hill.
If only this production acknowledged that shamelessness a little more directly, a little more cleverly. Much of the time, it attempts a mega-yet-modest balance of big-budget splashiness with a beating human heart underneath, and comes across like a high-energy cover rather than any kind of reimagining. Is there something, anything, The Music Man might say about how we think about attractive scams and manipulations now, over a century past its 1912 setting? Maybe the answers to that question could turn facile or labored; this version doesn’t show any interest in finding out.
The original Broadway run of The Music Man opened in the same season as the original West Side Story, and though the recent Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story is a film and not a stage production, it can’t help but make its fellow revival from the class of ‘57 look a little staid and traditionalist by comparison – even allowing for the fact that it’s a less revolutionary text to begin with. That best Ppcture nominee pays tribute to the show’s strengths while making tweaks, updates, and recontextualizations that sometimes place classic songs in a new light. This Music Man is mostly playing Meredith Wilson’s hits. There are a ton of them – Trombones, Trouble, Marian the Librarian, Till There Was You, and so on, plus worthy deeper cuts like The Sadder But Wiser Girl – and Jackman, Sutton, and company nail them all in the moment. As Broadway slowly regains its footing during a drawn-out pandemic, that might be more than enough. A few months down the line, though, and this might look more like an enthusiastic mascot for live theater than a great show. To his credit, Jackman probably wouldn’t mind.