The Brandywiners stage 'The Music Man' on Longwood's beautiful stage
● By J. Chambless
Joe Campbell (left) as Mayor Shinn, along with Bob Miller and Rachel Burghen, and Andrew Cox (right) as Marcellus Washburn.
By John Chambless
The story of good-natured con man
Harold Hill has been charming audiences since 1957, and it's
returning this month as the Brandywiners stage Meredith Wilson's “The
Music Man” at Longwood Gardens beginning on July 26.
This is the fourth time the huge regional theater group has staged the show – they've done it about once a decade since 1970 – but the show's timeless songs and homespun humor are surefire draws for audiences and cast members alike. Set in 1912, the show follows Hill as he tries to pull yet another scam in which townspeople donate money for a marching band and he skips town with the money. But he hasn't counted on finding love with librarian Marian Paroo, or on falling for the infectious town spirit of River City, Iowa.
At a rehearsal this week, Bob Miller, who is playing Harold Hill for the fourth time in a stage production, said he enjoys bringing life to the character. “Whenever you revisit a character, you find new things,” he said. “Acting is based on life experience, so the more life experience you have, the more you bring to your roles. And it's a wonderful show.”
Miller's 10-year-old daughter is in the show with him, appearing onstage with her dad for the third time. Miller's ex-wife is the choreographer for “The Music Man,” and that sort of family bond is typical of people who get involved with the group.
“Harold Hill is one of the most difficult male characters in musical theater to play,” Miller said. “It's the amount of dialogue. I have one scene in act one that I'm not on stage, and about a scene and a half in act two when I'm not on. Just the song 'Trouble' is nonstop dialogue to the point that you're seeing stars because you can't breathe enough.
“But it's truly fun, and people love this show. It's so well written, it's funny, and there is some realism at the end when Harold basically falls in love with Marian. If it's played properly, it's very endearing and very real.”
Rachel Burghen, who co-stars as meek librarian Marian Paroo, is also a veteran of the role, having played it five times since 2012. “I love the show, I love this characrter,” Burghen said. “When I do this show, I feel like I'm coming home. The characters are like family. River City is like a second home to me.
“I kind of identify with Marian, in that she keeps a lot inside and has a lot of these deep feelings that she just doesn't know how to show, and finally this man comes who she doesn't think is going to be the love of her life, but he breaks that wall down,” Burghen said. “She can finally be herself. She's actually her own hero, I think, because she's the only one who knows what he actually is. She has the power to turn him over to the Mayor, but she decides not to because she sees the heart he has, and all the good that he's doing.”
This is Burghen's first time with the Brandywiners. “I didn't even know about them,” she said. “A friend of mine told me about the auditions, and when I saw that the performances are at Longwood Gardens, I had to try out. Longwood is one of my favorite places. What an amazing opportunity to do my favorite show in one of my favorite places. I'm excited to do it,” she said.
Joe Campbell, who is playing Mayor Shinn in the production, is also in his second year as president of the Brandywiners, which means he gets to wear a lot of hats in getting the huge show put together. He started with the group in 1989. “I get to play a buffoon this year,” Campbell said, smiling. “Which is perfect for me. I don't do the pretty leading man parts anymore. I'm old enough that I play the comic old guy.”
Handling the million details of the organization can be frustrating, “but it is supposed to be for fun, so even when I'm feeling frustrated I try to keep the joy and the fun going for the group,” Campbell said.
Campbell, who sings, auditioned for one of the roles in the barbershop quartet featured in “The Music Man,” but is happy to be getting a comedy spotlight in the production. “The barbershop quartet is made up of members of the town school board, and they bicker and quarrel and it drives the Mayor crazy,” he said. “But Harold Hill comes in and gets these bickering old guys to suddenly become the best of friends. That's part of the magic that Harold Hill does in this little town of River City.”
This year's cast has been rehearsing since May 15, devoting many sweaty hours in the large meeting room at the Aldersgate Methodist Church in Wilmington, where rehearsals are held. This week, they will move to the stage at Longwood, where final touches will be put on the show at nightly rehearsals until opening night.
This year's director, Bob Kelly, is making his Brandywiners debut as well. He's been watching the weather forecasts with some nervousness, since rain is one thing that can stop the show in its tracks. “I've performed on outdoor stages before, and I'm a member of Longwood Gardens,” Kelly said. He's looking forward to putting the show on the historic stage there. “I think it's going to be a real treat,” he said. “I love this kind of a challenge. We're doing something unique this year with the staging. We put the whole town on the stage, so there will be no set changes to slow things down. For instance, there's a gazebo in the center of the stage that splits in half and the halves turn, and that will be the train. We're taking the windows that are part of Marian's house they'll become side windows in the gymnasium. We'll double up the pieces wherever we can and get to the next scene as quickly as possible.”
The songs in “The Music Man” include Hill's rapid-fire sales pitch/sermon about the corrupting influence of a pool table (“Trouble”); his story of when six of the greatest marching bands in America came to town on the same day (“Seventy-Six Trombones”); the gossiping ladies of “Pickalittle”; the sly, pleading love song “Marian the Librarian”; the joyous “Wells Fargo Wagon” and the infectious, silly dance song “Shipoopi,” among many other hummable favorites.
The Brandywiners have had 87 years of shows behind them, and they continue to draw return cast and crew members who love the challenge of putting on a huge musical on a huge stage.
The Brandywiners began in the inauspicious year of 1932, when Frances Tatnall, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College, had an idea. While returning from an operetta performance with her sister and brother-in-law, she boasted that she and some of her friends could produce a better show than the one they had just seen. She enlisted the help of William Winder (Chick) Laird, then a student at M.I.T., and plans for a summer production quickly emerged.
The fledgling impresarios engaged Frederick W. Wyatt, a prominent conductor and vocal teacher, to direct a hastily assembled cast in “The Pirates of Penzance.”
Chick Laird asked his uncle, Pierre S. du Pont, to permit the Brandywiners to stage their first performance at his Longwood Gardens Open-Air Theatre. The group has been performing there ever since, except for a blackout during 1942-1945.
The production costs have grown, and the budgets today average around $120,000. That money is raised through advertising sales, fundraising and ticket sales. But all the work is worth it when the sun sets, the orchestra begins to play, the lights come on, and the Brandywiners take the stage one more time.
“The Music Man” will be staged at the Longwood Gardens Open Air Theatre on July 26, 27 and 28, Aug. 2, 3, 4, at 8 p.m. Show tickets include all-day admission to Longwood. Visit www.brandywiners.org for ticket information and reservations.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.