Earlier this year, The Sharon Playhouse in Connecticut—under the leadership of its new artistic director Johnson Henshaw—announced that for the first time, its 2017 summer season would be director-driven. In the spotlight was Morgan Green, a 27-year-old director who had cut her teeth working with the likes of Pam MacKinnon on Broadway and running her own theatre company, New Saloon, in New York City. Green was set to direct three shows at the regional theatre: an adaptation of Uncle Vanya titled Minor Character (June 9–25), Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (July 7–23), and a contemporary chamber adaptation of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (August 4–20).
It was a gamble for Henshaw, but—with ticket sales soaring—one that seemed to pay off. And the season went off without a hitch—almost. The week after The Music Man opened, The Sharon Playhouse received a cease and desist from Music Theatre International. The licensing body had learned that two songs had been cut from the show (“The Sadder-but-Wiser Girl” and “My White Knight”) and a theatregoer who had seen the production complained it was “salacious, vulgar, overly sexualized and inappropriate for children.” Henshaw was instructed to shut it down immediately.
Henshaw hopped on the phone with MTI and after much discussion, Green’s Music Man was allowed to continue under the condition that the contemporary design elements be removed (anything that had taken the show out of 1912); that the two cut songs be restored; and that the “making out [between two teenagers] be toned down.” The run continued. The actors were able to sing the newly added songs with the help of music stands; design elements were altered; and Henshaw began addressing the audience prior to each performance.
The Music Man was Green’s first musical, and with a 27-person cast, a big undertaking. The entire experience held a huge learning curve for the young director. Now that she’s wrapped up her season in Connecticut, she’s able to look back on some of the things she learned from the crisis—as well as explain what her intentions were in the first place.
“I wasn’t trying to change the text,” says Green. “I was trying to respond to the material as simply and as honestly as I could.” Green says she was drawn to Willson’s story because of the way it resonated with her in today’s political and social context. “I was thinking about Harold Hill, a con artist, who comes to small town America and lies to everyone…and they eat it up,” explains the director. “Rather than being interested in Harold as a shyster, I was interested in the townspeople—people like me—who are susceptible to fantasy and how that exists in a contemporary way: like in music videos, or through consumerism.”
Green set out to convey these modern parallels through the use of video design—“Kanye West-inspired music video moments”—and contemporary scenic and prop additions such as to-go coffee cups, razor scooters, cellphones, and boxes bearing the Amazon logo. “I was hired to do to something new,” says Green. “To bring innovative, experimental theatre to Sharon.” The director says she was never interested in reviving the musical in the way it would have been staged at the turn of the century—her primary goal was to make it contemporary, and have audiences respond to it in a way that felt relevant and urgent. “It’s one thing to take the material and manipulate or change it…I was trying to do The Music Man and respond to the material there,” she says. “I understand that MTI was trying to protect the intention of Meredith Willson. But I was trying to see those intentions and bring them to a modern audience.”
So what about the cut songs? Early on, Green had made the decision to remove two numbers from the musical, the aforementioned “The Sadder-but-Wiser Girl” and “My White Knight.” The latter had been removed because the actor who would be singing it, Elizabeth Thomas, is a woman of color, and it no longer seemed appropriate, says the director. The second song was cut for a similar reason, in that Green felt it touched inappropriately on the topic of sexual consent—with lyrics like “No dewy young miss / Who keeps resisting all the time she keeps insisting.”
Her intention in removing the songs stayed true to her overall mission: creating a relatable production in a modern context. “It felt like a clean cut because [the two songs] balanced each other. I still kept the scenes surrounding them,” says Green. In the end, she felt that the two songs, once restored and performed with music stands, offered something unexpected to the production. “I think the songs engaged the audience even more because you had to really listen to the lyrics and think about why they’d been cut,” says the director.
After all of the changes, Green says that her final staging of The Music Man was “a different show, but [that] the soul of it was the same.” In the end, it was Green who went through the biggest transformation. She was reminded of the magic of theatre—in which artists come together in the face of a problem and find solutions—as well as the value in engaging in conversations with licensing organizations. And ultimately, she believes it’s made her a stronger director. “This experience has forced me to believe in my ideas even more,” she says. “When you’re met with resistance, it makes you want to fight for your ideas more.”
Flip through photos of The Music Man at the Sharon Playhouse: