Broderick and Chenoweth Give Iowa a Try in Music Man TV Movie, Feb. 16

By Robert Simonson
February 13, 2003

Disney's new small-screen version of Meredith Willson's classic musical piece of Americana, The Music Man — starring Matthew Broderick as boys-band-peddling con artist Prof. Harold Hill and Kristin Chenoweth as his small-town detractor-turned-admirer — will air at 7 PM EST, Feb. 16.

The title is the latest in a line of television films of classic stage musicals produced by the team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (the same men behind the hit movie "Chicago.").

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

Jeff Bleckner, the director, told Playbill On-Line he was admittedly somewhat flabbergasted when Zadan and Meron chose him to direct.

"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" 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."

Broderick hesitated momentarily when he accepted the role, recalling the artistic hold original Preston has on the part. "I certainly thought of that," said the actor, "but I also thought that was not a good reason to not do the movie. Nobody will get over Robert Preston. I think, though, that would be, in a way, shortchanging Meredith Willson." Broderick saw the recent Broadway revival starring Craig Bierko, an actor who was accused by many of supplying a carbon copy of Preston's performance. Still, said Broderick, "That was worth doing, too. I think the show should be done as often as it can."

The film star, who comes from an acting family (dad was actor James Broderick), recalls growing up with the Willson score, which includes such classics as "Ya Got Trouble," "Seventy Six Trombones," "The Wells Fargo Wagon" and "Till There Was You."

"I heard the record many times," he said. "My father had it. I also remember being in a car with my father and my sisters singing 'Pick-a-Little' and 'Goodnight Ladies.'"

When Bleckner approached Kristin Chenoweth about the project, the Tony-winning actress misunderstood the offer. "I thought—Oh, Zaneeta," she said, mentioning the much smaller role of River City Mayor Shinn's daughter. Chenoweth has surprised when Bleckner corrected her and said he wanted her for Marian Paroo.

The casting of the young Chenoweth against the preternaturally youthful looking Broderick (the actor notes that he is actually roughly the same age Preston was when the latter took on the part of Hill) was part of Bleckner's plan to "skew the whole thing young." So a fresh-faced barbershop quartet was cast as the school board members and a relatively young-in-years Debra Monk was cast as Marian's mother Mrs. Paroo. "[Monk] played it with a lot of zest and sensuality," Bleckner said. "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."

Another aim of the film was to emphasize the love story between Hill and Marian. The actress said that her character's conversion from skeptic to sweetheart usually takes place almost instantly in the "Wells Fargo Wagon" scene when Marian sees her shy little brother Winthrop sputter with joy upon being handed a coronet by Harold. Chenoweth wanted to show that love growing over time. Toward that end, the couple share two romantic dances during the story—one, a fantasy turn in the middle of "Marian the Librarian" (the actor playing town tough Tommy Djilas, not Broderick, did the impressive flip) and another in real life at the school auditorium before the town's citizens. "I thought it was important to show how this woman chooses this man for the audience."

It was also important to Chenoweth to show the formerly chilly Marian become slowly accepted by River City, as well as show how Marian enjoys that welcome.

Both Broderick and Chenoweth testified to the difficulty in recording the songs beforehand and then later trying to lipsynch to the music while filming the scenes. "That was the hardest part of the whole thing!" exclaimed Chenoweth. "Getting the lips right and getting a good take," gave Broderick "a million things to thing about" while impersonating the Professor.

The unchronological filming of the scenes also contributed to the confusion. Chenoweth's first shot was the final scene of the musical, when Marian defends Hill to River City's angry citizens. "Close ups and wide and medium shots all at once," marvelled Broderick. "And it's at a very high dramatic moment for which you haven't done any scenes before it." The soundtrack to the film was released in stores on Feb. 11.