Disney's "The Music Man" Director Jeff Bleckner Gets to Know the Territory

News   Disney's "The Music Man" Director Jeff Bleckner Gets to Know the Territory Jeff Bleckner was admittedly somewhat flabbergasted when television producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron chose him to direct Disney's new small-screen version of Meredith Willson's classic musical The Music Man.

"I was surprised that they asked me because it's kind of far from the body of my work," Bleckner told Playbill On-Line. "The Music Man," which airs on ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney" on Feb. 16, now tops a resume that includes such disparate credits as "Hill Street Blues" and a movie about The Beach Boys. "They asked me because they liked the way I handled the musical sequences in the Beach Boys film I did," Bleckner continued. He was immediately intrigued by the idea of a new "Music Man," because "I loved the idea of Matthew Broderick as Harold Hill. He was already attached. I like the casting because it was already a departure. Matthew is so far from Robert Preston as a persona that I felt we're already in a different concept, a different place."

The television movie also stars Kristin Chenoweth as Marian Paroo, Victor Garber as Mayor Shinn, Molly Shannon as Mrs. Shinn, Debra Monk as Mrs. Paroo and David Aaron Baker as Marcellus Washburn.

As Craig Bierko learned when he played the fraudulent music professor on Broadway in Susan Stroman's 2000 production, every new Hill is measured by the yardstick of Preston's immortal performance in the original staging. That turn continues to be seen by succeeding generations, since it was captured in the 1962 feature film of Willson's yarn about a conning traveling salesman who sells an unsuspecting Iowa town on the idea of a boys' marching band.

Many critics charged Bierko with creating a carbon copy of Preston's fast taking huckster. Bleckner, however, is confident that, while Broderick's portrayal will attract its share of debate, no one will say he's a Preston manqué.

"He won't be criticized for that!" laughed Bleckner. "Matthew is much more, somewhat by virtue of who he is, understated and improvisatory. Even in the two big set pieces, 'Ya Got Trouble' and 'Seventy-Six Trombones,' you get the feeling that he doesn't do it exactly the same way every time. It was very important to me to do two things in 'Trouble' — to give the feeling that it was improvised and was a routine that had variations and wasn't exactly the same every time, because the item of focus of the trouble would be different every time." And the second thing?

"In the movie version and in the Stroman stage version, 'Trouble' is always done in the Town Square. And I thought, you know, I've never seen anybody dance on a pool table in this number."

Sure enough, Broderick ends "Trouble" by jigging on top of the green felt menace, with all of River City surrounding him like participants at a revival meeting. It's the fourth set used during the musical sequence, which jumps from the street outside the pool hall to a millinery store to a barber's shop. Bleckner wanted to communicate the idea that Hill's pitch about the devil pool table starts and stops and starts again, gathering moss as it goes. "If I had the time and budget I would have taken him out to the outskirts of town."

While the film, which will air from 7-10 PM EST, sticks fairly close to the Willson storyline, it is certain to surprise both theatre devotees, accustomed to sunny stage renditions, as well as fans of the film, which has many fans among musical theatre buffs but is regarded by movie critics as a stagey, static piece of work.

"I revisited the movie after I said yes [to the project]," said Bleckner, "and I thought, my God, what have I done? This is so lumbering. I wasn't involved at all. I had a moment of terror there."

Bleckner's changes began with the first number, the syncopated "Rock Island," in which a group of traveling salesman on a westbound train jaw about their profession to the rhythm of the rails. "The scene on the train is usually done as a joke [on stage], with the people bumping up and down. We can make the movement of the train on the film set. We tried to play that number as a rap beat and to do it really as a scene, because they are having a dialogue about their plight as salesmen."

The sequence also introduces the film's dark, gritty palette. Colors range from brown to beige, and night scenes and shadow-strewn streets and rooms are prevalent. Most stage versions, Stroman's included, have trafficked in nostalgic pastels. It was all part of his concept, said Bleckner. "Initially, I wanted the town to be somewhat drab, not in disrepair, but in need of freshening up, and wanted Harold and music to brighten the town. It actually does happen. The town does get brighter as you move through the story."

Bleckner also wanted to paint the denizens of River City in more realistic shades. "I felt in [Susan Stroman's] production that they played the River City citizens in a broad manner. That the town mayor and the people were so stupid, it wasn't much to put something over on them." He took his cue from a note that Willson wrote and which is included in the materials the composer's estate sends to every new director of the show. It begins, "This is meant to be a valentine, not a caricature," and warns against the actors turning their characters into buffoons. "The small town Iowans of 1912 certainly did not think they were funny at all," wrote Willson. "I read that," said Bleckner, "and I thought, I don't think any director has ever done that."

Viewers of Disney's "The Music Man" may also notice that River City is looking more youthful than usual. For instance, the four-man school board which Hill transforms into a barbershop quartet is usually played by a quartet of middle-aged men. Here, the foursome are barely past shaving age and newly elected to the board, and are described as having "hated each other since kindergarten."

"For whatever reason, we all felt that Matthew playing Harold would skew the whole thing young," explained Bleckner. So a relatively young-in-years Debra Monk was cast as Marion's mother Mrs. Paroo. "[Monk] played it with a lot of zest and sensuality. She played it like a recent widow, a woman in her mid-40s. She's not that much older than Marian. We also made the Mayor a bit younger and certainly Mrs. Shinn and followed that idea right on down to the quartet." Though Bleckner had little experience with musicals prior to "The Music Man," the genre may soon become his forte. Disney has already hired him again, this time to direct a television version of the animated movie musical, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." He's currently working with composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.