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Theatre / The Music Man

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"But what the heck, you're welcome,
Join us at the picnic!
You can eat your fill
Of all the food you bring yourself.
You really ought to give
A try."
River City Citizens, "Iowa Stubborn"

This page has tropes with a capital T, and that rhymes with "D", and that stands for "Describe The Music Man Here!"

The Music Man is a Tony Award-winning 1957 musical comedy written by Meredith Willson. Long regarded as one of the classics of the genre, it has been a staple of Summer Stock, High School, and Community theatre productions for more than 50 years.

The story involves an itinerant Con Man rolling into the small Iowa town of River City, where the people tend to be standoffish and distrustful of any stranger. Using his charm, "Professor" Harold Hill introduces himself as a music teacher, come to help the town's easily-corrupted youth stay out of trouble by organizing them into a marching band. Hill's plan is basically to charge the townspeople through the roof for band instruments and uniforms, then run off when the time comes to actually make good on his offer. Unfortunately for him, he starts to get too into the role and gains an attraction to the feisty and independent Marian, the local librarian, who is quick to see through his deception.

Set in 1912, The Music Man misses The Gay '90s, but not by much, and demonstrates the same nostalgic treatment, while (at least in the film version) lampshading it.

The original Broadway production starred Robert Preston as Harold Hill and Barbara Cook as Marian. Preston reprised his role for the 1962 film adaptation, which costarred Shirley Jones as Marian and a very young Ron Howard as Marian's little brother Winthrop. The film was produced and directed by Morton DaCosta, who'd also directed the original Broadway show, and is more faithful to the show than most musical film adaptations of the era. It was adapted again as a 2003 Wonderful World of Disney remake starring Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth. The show has also been revived multiple times on Broadway, most recently in 2022 with Broadway luminaries Hugh Jackman as Hill and Sutton Foster as Marian.

Tropes with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for "pool!":

  • A Cappella: Both the stage play and the film. Professor Harold Hill teaches the four squabbling members of the school board to sing barbershop. All of their performances from then on are a capella. (In both the original production and the film, the School Board was played by The Buffalo Bills, the 1950 International Quartet Champions of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA).) All the other songs, performed by anyone else, have orchestral accompaniment (with the exception of "Rock Island", the result of a late pianist during one rehearsal).
  • Absurdly Elderly Mother:
    • Mrs. Paroo, who is clearly well into her middle age and has both an adult daughter and a young school-aged son. If one were to go by the ages of their actors in the 1962 film, Mrs. Paroo would have been 27 when Marion was born (Pert Kelton was born in 1907 and Shirley Jones in 1934) and 47 when Winthrop was born. Winthrop must've been a Surprise Pregnancy. Downplayed in productions where Marian is closer to her early 20s.
    • Eulalie Shinn is played by Hermione Gingold, who was 63 during filming. Mrs. Shinn's eldest daughter Zaneeta appears to be roughly high-school or college age, while her youngest daughters are elementary school age.
  • Affably Evil: Harold Hill is a conman, but his friendly, charming nature is totally genuine and he winds up helping out the town whilst scamming it. By the end of the show, he's grown into a total Nice Guy.
  • Anti-Villain: Mayor George Shinn, who comes across as the bad guy, but after all is only trying to expose a con artist. He's also a bit too much of a boob to be completely unlikable.
  • Appeal to Flattery: Whenever the four members of the school board try to question Harold Hill about his plan to start a school band, he distracts them by complementing their voices and getting to sing barbershop quartet songs.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Delivered by an eight-year-old, no less: "What band?"
  • Author Avatar: River City is based on Meredith Willson's hometown of Mason City, Iowa. It's mentioned by name, along with its neighbor, Clear Lake, in "Iowa Stubborn" alongside more prominent Iowa Cities such as Dubuque and Des Moines.
  • Barbershop Quartets Are Funny: Harold Hill organizes the four members of the River City School Board into a barbershop quartet that bursts into four-part harmony at the slightest excuse.
  • The Barnum: Professor Harold Hill, until his Heel–Face Turn.
  • Becoming the Mask: Professor Harold Hill.
  • Beta Couple:
    • Great Honk! Tommy Djilas and Zaneeta Shinn. Ye Gods!note 
    • Marcellus and Ethel
  • Big Finale Crowd Song: Towards the end, the boys' marching band that was actually created and trained without Professor Hill knowing about it (he thought he was just scamming the townsfolk as usual) comes on to perform a reprise of "Seventy Six Trombones".
  • Boyish Shorts: Knickerbockers, but yes. in "Ya Got Trouble," one of the signs of childhood corruption that Harold Hill invokes uses to rile up the citizens of River City into moral panic against the pool hall is asking the parents if they've noticed their sons re-buckling their knee-length knickerbockers below the knee. The knickerbockers are a visible sign of the boys still being in childhood—too young for wearing full length pants; the idea of the boys trying to wear them longer would imply they're trying to pass themselves off as older than they are to get into said pool hall.
  • The Charmer: Harold Hill, especially with Marian; he practically works Charm Person on her.
  • Chess Master: Harold Hill plays all the angels with the town and is able to manipulate his way out of trouble on multiple occasions.
  • Comically Missing the Point: "Honestly, Mrs. Shinn, wouldn't you rather have your daughter read a classic than, than Elinor Glyn?" "What Elinor Glyn reads is her mother's problem."
  • The Comically Serious: Mayor Shinn.
  • Complaining About Shows You Don't Watch: The women of River City complain about Marian recommending the works Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac, calling them dirty books. Marian remarks that none of them have ever actually read those books. During the reprise of "Pick a Little, Talk a Little", the ladies claim that Harold Hill told them to give the books a try, and they enjoyed them.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: The band plays as well as "The Think System" would work, but they're close enough to Beethoven's Minuet in G that the parents don't really care that it's kind of terrible — though they get better after a while with real instruction.
  • Crowd Song: "Iowa Stubborn".
  • Cue Card Pause: The Mayor's introduction of his wife. "The Wa-Tan-Yee Girls of the local wigwam of Heeawatha will now present a spectacle, my wife – in which my wife, Eulalie McKecknie Shinn, will take a leading part."
  • Curse of The Ancients: "Jeely Cly!" onstage and "Great Honk!" in the movie.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Marian, with Harold as her defroster.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: In the "You Got Trouble" number, Harold Hill whips the crowd into a panic about the fallout of a pool table being available for play. While we know this is a scam, it's still amusing to see the locals get agitated about their kids using language that we consider perfectly innocuous like "Swell" and "So's your old man!"
  • Dirty Kid: In the film, during the "Ya got Trouble" sequence a couple discover a copy of "Cap'n Billy's Whizz Bang" in their young son's bag.
  • Distinction Without a Difference: Harold Hill insists that pool and billiards are not the same thing.
  • Duet Bonding: Harold Hill gets the members of the River City school board to engage in barbershop quartet bonding.
  • Everybody Knew Already: At the end, Harold tries to confess his true identity to Marian, only for her to tell him she's known all along.
  • Exact Words: Shows up in a modified form. Marian's father was the only friend of "miser Madison," an extremely rich man who, upon his death, donated a large amount of property to River City (including the park and gymnasium). He also willed the town the library, but as the Pick-a-Little ladies explain, he only gave the city the building—he left all of the books to Marian. Since they are her legal property, she's the only one who can have the job as librarian; presumably, Madison sensed that Marian was disliked in the town and did this to ensure that she would always be employed and her family would be taken care of after her father died.
  • Final Love Duet: "Till There Was You."
  • First-Name Basis: Marian's evolving feelings towards Harold are echoed in the way she addresses him. At first she insistently calls him "Mr. Hill," then switches to "Professor Hill" once she warms up to him, and then finally to "Harold" after they kiss.
  • Genre Motif: Showtunes, anyone?
  • Gossipy Hens: Mrs. Shinn's Ladies Classical Dance Group (AKA the "pickalittle" ladies). Their signature song even has them making birdlike sounds. Lampshaded in the movie with Robert Preston: after the ladies start singing (pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more), the camera switches to a view of their bobbing heads—and then to a group of chickens with the same colors as the ladies' feathered hats.
  • Grande Dame: Eulalie McKecknie Shinn.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Harold's already shown many times that he has the makings of a good man, and his love for Marian causes him to completely embrace it whilst ditching his schemer tactics.
  • Hot Librarian: For the civilized world accepts as unforgivable sin/Any talking out loud with any librarian/Such as Ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-Rian!
  • Incessant Chorus: The town gossips. "Pickalittletalkalittlepickalittletalkalittle..."
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Inverted when Hill claims to be a graduate of Gary Music Conservatory, gold medal, class of Aught-Five.
  • Inherently Funny Words: "Balzac!" Also, "Shipoopi."
  • Insane Troll Logic: From "Ya Got Trouble":
    "It takes judgement, brains, and maturity to score
    In a baulk line game,
    I say that any boob can take
    And shove a ball in a pocket.
    And I call that sloth.
    The first big step on the road
    To the depths of deg-ra-Day—
    I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon,
    Then beer from a bottle.
    An' the next thing ya know,
    Your son is playin' for money
    In a pinch-back suit.
    You got one, two, three, four, five, six pockets in a table.
    Pockets that mark the diff'rence
    Between a gentlemen and a bum,
    Trouble with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for 'pool'!"
  • Insidious Rumor Mill: Played with and discussed.
    • Played straight with the Pick-a-Little ladies, depicted as nearly literal Gossipy Hens, who try to dissuade Harold Hill from talking to Marian Paroo by implying that she had inappropriate relations with Old Miser Madison, still bitter that he left Marian the town librarian job in his will. Subverted, since this actually makes Harold want to flirt with Marian more (the "sadder but wiser girl", after all), and downplayed, since the ladies seem to believe what they say is true, and seem truly unaware Madison was a friend of Marian's late father.
    • Invoked when Harold discredits Charlie Cowell's (likely true) claims that Harold has been with hundreds of women as rumors, by claiming Charlie is just like the Pick-a-Little ladies.
      Harold: But why do you think people start those rumors?
      Marian: Narrow-mindedness, jealousy — jealousy mostly, I guess.
      Harold: Exactly. And jealousy mostly starts rumors about travelling salesmen.
  • "I Want" Song: "My White Knight" and its Spear Counterpart, "The Sadder but Wiser Girl for Me".
    • A characteristic piece of brilliance when you realize that the two songs are (musically) counterpoints to each other.
    • "The Wells Fargo Wagon" is another, though it's more of a "I Wanted It, I Hope It Arrives Today" song.
  • Irrelevant Act Opener: Not only does "Shipoopi" have nothing to do with the plot, it's a word Meredith Willson invented for the show.
  • Jerkass: Charlie Cowell may be right to expose Hill, but he's also a dick and doing it not out of moral goodness but to help his own business, with it also being implied that he's jealous of Harold's success. And since Harold's shown us that he's a good man deep down, our sympathies still lie with him instead.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Collectively, the town of River City. After spending most of "Iowa Stubborn" describing how unwelcoming they are to strangers, the townsfolk also make it clear that they'll be behind you when the chips are down:
    But we'll give you our shirt,
    And the back to go with it,
    If your crop should happen to die.
  • Karma Houdini: Harold Hill is about to be punished for the crimes of tricking the town out of all their money, and making their children look like idiots by not teaching them how to play their instruments at all. All of this is true, but because the kids show up playing as a band (even though they're not playing very well), Hill gets away with it all.
  • Kiss of Distraction: Marian Paroo plants one on anvil-salesman Charlie Cowell, in an attempt to keep him from delivering documents that would discredit Harold Hill.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Harold, with Marian.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: And taking her glasses off, too.
  • Love Epiphany: Harold has his shortly after Marian reveals that she knew his true identity all along and could have ratted him out at any time, but chose not to.
  • Loveable Rogue: Professor Hill. And given how much actual good he does — with Winthrop, Zaneeta and Tommy, and the School Board to name three — he earns the adjective even more than the noun.
  • Make a Wish: "Goodnight, My Someone."
  • Make-Out Point: Cars aren't widespread enough for this trope to be played straight, but the youngsters can still go to "the footbridge" to kiss. Marian even bemoans the fact that it's taken her so long to meet a guy there.
  • Malaproper: Mayor Shinn practically has his own version of the English language.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Since Marian is skeptical about Harold's qualifications, she pointedly calls him "Mister Hill" instead of "Professor Hill".
  • Mathematician's Answer:
    Harold Hill [having just arrived in River City, Iowa]: Excuse me, friend. Where would I find a good hotel?
    River City Resident: Try the Palmer House in Chicago.
  • Misunderstood Loner with a Heart of Gold: The late "Miser" Madison. The Pick-a-Little ladies imply that he was labeled a miser because he was rich but friendless and think that he only left the librarian job to Marian because they had an affair. It turns out that Mr. Madison did have a friend in Marian's late father, there was no affair, and he got Marian the job out of the goodness of his heart so that his only friend's family would have some security.
  • Moral Guardians:
    • Mocked. Professor Hill uses his Everyone Is Satan in Hell arguments to pad out his con.
    • Mrs. Shinn and her friends wish Marian would stop recommending books that they think are smutty.
  • More Experienced Chases the Innocent: Discussed in "Sadder But Wiser Girl" and double subverted in the show. When Marcellus suggests setting con-artist and ladies man Harold Hill up with a Sunday school teacher, Harold rejects it, believing that innocent girls are more likely to ensnare you and get you to settle down than the experienced ones. As such, he subverts the trope by going after Marian Paroo, who is not only skeptical of Harold, but is rumored to have slept with the old rich miser who left the library to her when he died. Marian is actually innocent of the rumors—the miser was a friend of her late father's—meaning she is technically still innocent in that regard, but Harold falls for her because when she finds out about his con, she chooses not to sell him out, ultimately downplaying the trope.
  • Musicalis Interruptus: Inverted repeatedly by Professor Hill who distracts the School Board from seeking his credentials by forming them into a barbershop quartet.
  • The Music Meister: Harold Hill frequently keeps his con going whenever someone questions the logic of what is going on by getting everyone to start singing. The School Board is the most frequent victim, but the Ladies Auxiliary is not immune. Characters eventually start protesting this tactic but don't seem to be able to stop.
  • My Girl Is a Slut: In "The Sadder But Wiser Girl for Me," Harold sings about how he prefers to date girls who've been around the block. Ironically, he ends up falling for Marian.
  • The New Rock & Roll: Invoked by Harold Hill, who decries "Ragtime/shameless music" and a whole host of other things. Ya got trouble, I say!
  • Non-Indicative Name: "Miser" Madison, who donated a significant amount of real estate to River City.
  • Oireland: Mrs. Paroo has a very thick Irish accent.
  • Old Maid: Marian. Amaryllis also fears becoming one of these.
  • Patter Song: "Rock Island" and "Ya Got Trouble".
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: Shipoopi
  • Pet the Dog: Harold's conning the town, but he also helps so many people in doing so and clearly enjoys doing good beyond just playing people for his own benefit.
  • Phony Degree: Harold constantly claims he attended "Gary Conservatory of Music, Gold-Medal Class of Aught-Five" to prove he can lead a boys marching band. Except, as Marion discovers from looking up the school, the conservatory wasn't even founded until 1906. Her hiding this damning fact from the mayor shows her Heel–Face Turn (at least in terms of being antagonistic towards Harold) and later stuns Harold when he realizes she's known he's a fraud for ages and loves him anyway.
  • Posthumous Character: "Miser" Madison. Also Winthrop's father, though we hear less about him.
  • Practically Different Generations: Marion and her younger brother Winthrop, the latter is a young grade-school aged boy and the former is a Hot Librarian who is considered an Old Maid by the standards of her town and era (likely in her mid to late twenties). Going by the ages of their actors in the 1962 film, there is a twenty year age gap.
  • Product Placement: "Oh, oh, the Wells Fargo wagon is a-comin' down the street...!"
  • Recycled Soundtrack: "Till There Was You" was written and recorded several years earlier under the title "Till I Met You," but didn't become a hit. Willson changed two words in the title and put it in The Music Man, where it became one of the show's biggest hits.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Harold Hill's stock in trade.
  • Ridiculously High Relationship Standards: Marian's mother accuses her of being like this after Marian rebuffs Professor Hill's advances.
    Mrs. Paroo: I know all about your standards, and if you don't mind my saying so, there's not a man alive who could hope to measure up to that blend of Paul Revere, Saint Pat and Noah Webster you've concocted for yourself out of your Irish imagination, your Iowa stubbornness and your library full of books.
  • Running Gag: Professor Hill manages to get the bickering school board to sing barbershop quartet standards to distract them from properly investigating his credentials.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Inverted in "Iowa Stubborn." The townsfolk are proudly cold and hostile to outsiders.
  • Setting Introduction Song: The second song in the show is "Iowa Stubborn", which introduces the audience to the small town of River City, Iowa and the attitude of its citizens.
  • Shipper on Deck: All over the place. Hill is this for Tommy and Zaneeta; Marcellus and Mrs Paroo are this for Hill and Marian; Marian appears to be this at times for Winthrop and Amaryllis...
  • Shout-Out: Too many to conveniently list, from both high and low culture — including a couple, like Cap'n Billy's Whizz Bang, that were only approximately in the time period. Some of the most notable:
  • Slippery Slope Fallacy: Invoked by Prof. Hill in "Ya Got Trouble." He claims a pool table will lead to drinking, gambling, smoking, and using certain words, words like (gasp!) "swell." note 
  • Snake Oil Salesman: The aforementioned Prof. H. Hill.
  • The Social Expert: Hill, though he uses it for less-than-noble ends at the beginning. The charisma comes with the territory of being a Snake Oil Salesman, but his ability to read people allows him to liven up the sleepy town of River City by seeing past the surface of troubled people and guiding them toward a path that would make them less miserable. Case in point, Tommy: he's not some incorrigible troublemaker, he's just bored and lonely. Give him something to do inventing for the band and nudging him and Zaneeta together, and problem solved.
    Hill: Now Constable, I'm going to show you how to break up a gang.
  • Speech Impediment: Winthrop's lisp.
  • "Success Through Sex" Accusation: Implied by the Pick-a-Little Ladies about Marian Paroo. They believe that the late Miser Madison left the library collection to her in his will, guaranteeing her a job as the town librarian, because she had an affair with him, but it turns out Madison was simply a friend of Marian's late father who wanted to make sure the fatherless family was provided for.
  • Take It to the Bridge: It's indecent to meet boys at the footbridge.
  • Tar and Feathers: The anvil salesman refers to tar and feathers.note 
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: The members of the school board at first. They have hated each other for years but are forced to work together. After Hill organizes them into a barbershop quartet, they forget their bickering and gradually become friends.
  • That Reminds Me of a Song:
    • "Shipoopi". Again.
    • Also "Lida Rose", although all Harold Hill has to do is get the song started and the school board takes it from there.
  • Think of the Children!: "You Got Trouble"
  • Title Drop: "He's a music man/and he sells clarinets", although slightly later the Professor points out that he hasn't dropped his name, at least.
  • Ungrateful Townsfolk: "Old Miser Madison" never had a friend in the town before Marian showed up — even though he apparently was quite the philanthropist, donating gymnasiums, libraries, and so on.
  • Verbal Tic:
    • Zaneeta, ye Gods!
    • Tommy, great honk / Jeely cly!
    • Mayor Shinn, watch your phraseology!
    • Mrs. Shinn, tempus fugit!
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Where Marian keeps the incriminating page.
  • Villain Has a Point: Charlie Cowell is only pursuing Harold for selfish reasons, but that doesn't alter the fact that he's right. The "Professor" has left a trail of broken-hearted single women (music teachers, mostly), sobbing children with instruments they can't play for bands that will never exist, and enraged parents stuck with the bills for said instruments and uniforms, through the state of Illinois. Only the fact that Harold forms a familial bond with the Paroos and, of course, falls in love with Marian kept him from doing the same to River City.
  • Welcoming Song: "Iowa Stubborn", in which the inhabitants of River City sing about how they're all Jerkasses,
    "But what the heck, you're welcome,
    Join us at the picnic.
    You can eat your fill
    Of all the food you bring yourself."

The 1962 film also has examples of:

  • Agony of the Feet: Charlie the anvil salesman ends up dropping his sample case on his foot.
  • Canon Foreigner: The film adds a fifth Pick-a-Little lady named Avis Grubb who was not in the original musical.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Amaryllis.
  • Large Ham: Paul Ford as Mayor Shinn and Buddy Hackett as Marcellus Washburn.
  • Malt Shop, complete with Sweetheart Sipping: Soda fountains have been around since about 1800 and were insanely popular by 1912. There was no place that did not have them. The operator was a "soda jerk", because they pulled a lever to dispense soda water which would then be mixed with different flavors (like a sno-cone). It could get very elaborate. Today's coffee places and baristas are their descendants.
  • Stop Motion: The animation of the toy soldiers in the opening credits sequence.

The 2003 film also has examples of:

  • Adaptational Job Change: Marcellus is a hotel worker in this version instead of a stable hand.
  • Adaptational Seriousness: This film's Mayor Shinn suspects Harold Hill right off the bat, unlike his 1962 counterpart who was captivated by Hill's performance, along with the school board, until Marian snaps them out of it using common sense.
  • Truer to the Text: The 1962 film boasts a screenplay by Marion Hargrove, a popular comic novelist of the time; quite a few of the dialogue's juicy verbal niceties, like the exclamation "Great Honk!", are Hargrove's. The 2003 film, not having the rights to the Hargrove screenplay, goes back to the (often plainer and simpler) stage script for a lot of the lines.