Susan Stroman seems to have single-handedly revived the old theatrical tradition of plucking new talents out of crowd scenes and chorus lines and placing them dead center stage. The first in this line of Stroman sponsored Ruby Keeler-esque figures was Deborah Yates, a statuesque and up-until-recently unheralded dancer now known to New York theatregoers as The Girl in the Yellow Dress, star of the season's most celebrated new musical, Contact.
Now, following in Yates' footsteps, comes The Man in the Straw Hat, better known as Prof. Harold Hill, the traveling salesman who waltzes into The Music Man's turn-of-the-century River City, Iowa, to con the citizenry into buying tubas and trombones for a boys band. Last year, the air rang with reports that Dodger Endemol productions was casting about for a celebrity Hill, with names like Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin and Scott Bakula mentioned. But when the cast was finally announced, the list began with the distinctly unfamiliar name of Craig Bierko, an obscure film actor.
Explained Stroman: "The producers had said to me, `We want a television star or movie star. We really need a star.' But I saw a lot of television stars and movie stars for this, and if fact, they didn't really have the chops for it. It is a hard role.
"The one thing Craig Bierko has is a complete command for the language -- he has a beautiful speaking voice, and perfect diction. In The Music Man, part of the show's success is the rhythm of the pitch of the traveling salesman. Craig has it. When he does `Trouble,'" -- said Stroman, referring to one of the most difficult singing assignments in all of musical theatre -- "it's almost Shakespearean how he can wrap his mouth around the lyrics." Stroman told the producers that she required Bierko. When they viewed his third and last audition, they agreed (perhaps influenced by the fact that, with the success of Contact, Stroman herself was now arguably The Music Man's star attraction).
"People like Deborah Yates and Craig Bierko," elaborated Stroman. "When they walk in, there's special aura about them, even before they open their mouths." Stroman says she saw a hundred women for The Girl in the Yellow Dress, a mysterious dancing dreamgirl who rescues Boyd Gaines' suicidal Madison Avenue whiz from a slough of despond. "But when Deborah Yates read that last scene, I knew she could do it all." For Bierko's part, he's cognizant of the opportunity -- his first theatre role of any note and his Broadway debut. "This is the way to start if you're going to do it," quips the actor. "Swan dive. Hope they filled the pool with water."
While Stroman is interested in creating further experimental works along the lines of Contact, her approach to the classic musical comedies is more respectful, than radical. "These shows like Oklahoma! and The Music Man. I never think of changing them so much as enhancing them--enhancing them is a poetic way."
Not surprisingly, Stroman's idea of injected poetry into a piece is to add more footwork. "There will be more dance and music in this Music Man," she stated. "The dance wasn't really motivated before. In this version you'll actually see Harold Hill teach the steps and we'll see the steps later in `Shipoopi.' So, it will be that Hill brought dance and music to this town. When these people sing `Iowa Stubborn,' they're very stiff and hardly move at all, and then Hill comes in, and by the second act they're dancing and singing with great abandon. They really have a musical journey."
Stroman's musical journey, meanwhile, has only just begun. Following the opening of The Music Man, she will concentrate on Mel Brooks' stage adaptation of his film, The Producers, starring Nathan Lane. There are also plans for a national tour of Contact and a new musical penned by jazz pianist and crooner Harry Connick, Jr., based on the Zola novel Therese Raquin. Sadly, this most successful period of Stroman's professional life coincided with a great personal loss; her husband, and frequent collaborator, director Mike Ockrent, died last December. After his passing, however, it did not become difficult to go on with her many commitments -- it became imperative.
"It saved my life really," she said. "My nighttimes and my mornings are simply unbearable. I find great solace in being in a studio with music and being with actors. Theatre is such a life force. It brings me great comfort." It's a sentiment many people -- including a despairing ad exec revived by a saffron-clad daughter of Terpsichore, and some obstinate townspeople conned into happiness by a penny-ante John Philip Sousa -- would well understand.