I recently had occasion to see that old chestnut, “The Music Man.” A friend’s son was appearing in the show which was being staged as his high school’s “9th-grade musical.” I went mainly to bolster the young man’s personal cheering section; I will confess that I had some apprehension about how the show would hold up when performed entirely by 14- and 15-year olds. I am grateful to report that, on the whole, it came off rather well.
Let me back up and say that I haven’t always liked “The Music Man.” Or, more precisely, I haven’t always liked the lead character, “Professor” Harold Hill. Hill, you may recall, is a traveling salesman who rides the rails stopping in small towns throughout theMidwestwhere he peddles boys’ bands. And in many ways, the script itself encourages us NOT to like or trust this character.
In the opening scene, Hill hides behind his newspaper in the passenger car of a train while several other traveling salesman discuss his disreputable practices among themselves. From their point of view, flimflam artists like Hill give a bad name to their profession and make it more difficult for honest practitioners (like themselves!) to follow after. They are clearly infuriated and out for blood. When the train stops in River City, Iowa, Hill folds up his newspaper, stands up, declares himself intrigued by the challenge of trying to sell to hard-working, humorless farmers, and briefly identifies himself (to the outrage of his fellow travelers) as he hops off the already-moving train.
Shortly after being “welcomed” by the stone-faced townspeople, Hill runs by chance into an old “business” associate of his who has now given up the “game” and settled into a quieter and less risky life. The man reminisces about their many shared misadventures (while Hill keeps shushing him and reminding him that he no longer goes by “Greg”!); and thus we come to learn that Hill knows nothing about music whatsoever.
What he is, is a fast talker and a spellbinder who sells people the IDEA of a boys’ band. Then, once he collects their hard-earned money for instruments, uniforms, and instruction books, he skips town before they can figure out that they’ve been swindled. Not all that likeable a character to begin with; and, it didn’t help that Robert Preston (who originated the role) came across to me in the movie version as brassy, fake, and fairly cynical.
But my perception of the Hill character, and so, of the show itself, changed when I saw a touring company of the 2000 Broadway revival. This time around, Hill was portrayed by a younger actor as less cynical and more wide-eyed – a sort of overgrown kid who persuades himself that he doesn’t really mean any harm. This gentler, less hardened approach to the character added whole new layers of meaning, particularly in the second act, where Hill begins to realize that for the first time, he has unexpectedly come to care about the townspeople. In fact, he has fallen in love with the librarian (whom he had been romancing as an entrée to town society), her widowed mother, and her lisping little brother, Winthrop.
Which finally brings me close to where I am going with all of this! Hill has befriendedWinthropduring his several weeks in town, recruiting the boy for the band, giving him the confidence to stop being embarrassed by his lisp, and generally bringing him out of the shell of grief precipitated by the premature death of the boy’s father. Understandably, then,Winthropfeels bitterly betrayed and deeply upset when he learns the truth about Hill. But Hill physically stops the sobbing child and swears to answer his questions honestly.
Thus, the “Professor” admits that he is a liar and a crook. But when the boy growls, “And you lied about the band, too, didn’t you? There isn’t any band, is there?!” Hill replies gently: “I always think there’s a band, kid…” And it is at this point that we finally realize that what Harold Hill has really been selling is hopes and dreams – and that he wants desperately to believe them himself. Miraculously, the 15-year old playing Harold Hill in the “9th-grade musical” the other evening must somehow have understood this. I know, at least, that he understood it enough to get straight to my heart with his reading of the line…
You see, I believe in dreams, too. Mine are based on the life and teachings of a small-town rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth, who engaged the imaginations of stone-faced, hard-working, long-suffering farmers – and herders, and fishers. The dreams which he dared them to trust and believe in concerned a God of love and compassion who cared in a special way for the poor and the powerless, and who cherished those who were “little ones” in the eyes of “the world.” In Jesus’ dreams, sinners could be loved and forgiven. By word and example, Jesus led the hopeless to hope that suffering and death might NOT be the “final words,” but that they might give way to joy and new life beyond all imagining.
Because the dreams of Jesus have long since won my heart, “I always think there’s a resurrection, kid…” Thanks be to God! And as we await the Spirit’s coming on Pentecost – that Holy Spirit who will cause elders to dream dreams and young people to see visions – I hope that you’ll always think there’s a resurrection, too…
©2012 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.