"Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little" - Humor and Exposition
The Music Man is a marvel for many reasons and I'm weary of all of the arguments that West Side Story was robbed of the "Best Musical" Tony that year (1957-58 season). I'm not knocking West Side Story. It's a special show full of artistry and it was certainly groundbreaking for its use of dance in telling the story. The Music Man, however, is a tightly constructed piece of original musical theatre in its own right, combining nostalgia, humor, musical pastiche, sentiment, and a terrific story. The story is original, it works, it moves the audience, and it gives everyone that uplift they so enjoy from musical theatre. It is a slice of Americana and appeals on so many levels.
At the turn-of-the-twentieth-century, a con man named Harold Hill masquerades as a traveling salesman and sweeps into a small, uptight, Midwestern town to sell the folks on the idea that they need a boys' marching band. He hangs around just long enough to collect money for instruments and uniforms and plans to skip town. Along the way, he brings the town together, transforming them into a community. He also falls in love with the emotionally stunted town librarian, and becomes a father figure to her little brother.
What makes The Music Man all the more interesting is that it was essentially constructed by one man: Meredith Willson who provided the story, music, and lyrics, loosely basing the show on the town of his childhood. Though an accomplished composer, Willson had little experience writing musical theatre. It is astounding that, on his first major effort, he managed to pack the score with so many wonderful songs. "Ya Got Trouble," "76 Trombones," "Goodnight, My Someone," "Till There Was You," "Shipoopi," "Gary, Indiana," "The Wells Fargo Wagon," "Marian the Librarian," and "Lida Rose" are all well-deserved standards of the American Musical Theatre lexicon. How many musicals boast so many immediately recognizable songs by the masses?
What Willson did best was to use humor combined with song to make plot exposition exciting and interesting. The finest example of this is in the cackling, chirping cacophony of "Pick-a-Little, Talk-A-Little." This exposition song features the town biddies telling Harold Hill the gossip, specifically about Marian Paroo the librarian. They relate to him a supposed scandal surrounding her, and as they revel in their juicy tidbits, musically they become the old hens that they are. This is masterful musical theatre craftsmanship from a composer, who, on his first time out, created a musical theatre masterpiece.