Broadway review

Sutton Foster is the real star of ‘The Music Man’ on Broadway

The Daily Beast

February 11, 2022

Hugh Jackman has been getting the hype for “The Music Man” on Broadway, but it is his co-star Sutton Foster who truly inhabits her role, and commands our attention.

Musicals, especially Broadway musicals, and especially Broadway musicals with big stars in them, are necessarily grand sweeps. The crowd is amped to see the likes of Hugh Jackman in Meredith Willson’s 1957 classic  i; tickets are sold before it opens on the strength of his name, and Thursday night, opening night, was quite the grand to-do, with a real band outside the theater just in case you had not heard enough brass and percussion onstage. Inside were stars like Anne Hathaway and Blake Lively.

There were no preview performances for members of the press before opening night. As befits its subject matter, The Music Man opened with a fanfare. Come curtain up, the ovation was resounding.

This wasn’t just because the crowd was filled with the show’s biggest supporters, financial and otherwise. Two months ago, it became a standard-bearer of strength in the face of adversity. You may have seen the viral moment when Jackman stepped forward to praise Broadway understudies and swings when the show like so many others was in the throes of Omicron, and when Kathy Voytko stood in for lead Sutton Foster, playing Marian the librarian, at the show’s fourth preview. (One of the show’s lead producers is Barry Diller, chairman and senior executive of IAC, which owns The Daily Beast.)

Jackman that night seemed the father of the company, and so it is during the show. He sings, he dances, he is in the best-fitted suits on Broadway. Indeed, sometimes it is like he is dancing in another of his one-man shows rather than with a company. His glance, his smile, his leer, his mugging is all aimed at us. He is always center stage. He is the conductor, choreographer, ringleader.

This isn’t to say he is a peacock, or outwardly arrogant, but he is a magnetizing center of attention—and yet oddly, we do not miss him when he is not on stage. He fades in this show, even while in the spotlight. Jackman the performer is the perfect synthesis with his character Harold Hill, the music man of the show’s title, who too is on a mission of calculated seductions—venal and romantic. Hill is a conman who travels from town to town, eliciting funds for a band in the town, and then absconding with the money. Then he gets to River City, Iowa, whose townsfolk, while “Iowa Stubborn” as the song goes, also include Marian the librarian (Sutton Foster), her younger brother Winthrop (Benjamin Pajak), who has a lisp and is withdrawn—and so it is that Hill finds the one town he cannot so easily say goodbye to.

Will Marian succumb to Harold’s insistent, more-than-slightly stalkerish advances, and will Harold’s true identity be revealed? Mayor Shinn (Jefferson Mays) and Charlie Cowell (the wonderful Remy Auberjonois) are the nearest things The Music Man has to villains. They are determined to expose Harold as the rogue that he is, are both absolutely right, and are played by canny enough actors for us to sympathize with their righteous bluster, even though the mayor is a sexist bully to his wife, Eulalie (the wonderful Jayne Houdyshell making the most of a too-slight role).

If you like your Broadway numbers big, then the likes of “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Shipoopi” are present, correct, and may have you—like the gentleman on the other side of the aisle to this reporter—rocking back and forth happily.

At the show’s end, Harold reveals his own villainy bluntly to young Winthrop, and the musical has a hard time with Harold extending any kind of reasoning beyond it, until the great rabbit out of the hat at the end—yes, a boys’ band has formed, and no matter how bad they are, the boys’ parents love them for playing their instruments. And so… Harold did bring music and love to River City, it seems. It plays as a creaky outcome of redemption, especially in this production where the power and audience allegiance come to absolutely lie with Marian, not Harold.

This production, directed by musical master Jerry Zaks, is 10,000-carat traditional—Santo Loquasto’s period dress of sharp suits for the men and swirling skirts for the women are a knockout. The sets, however, look strangely parochial, until the stage opens up far too rarely into larger spaces, as the beautifully dusky library used for “Marian the Librarian,” where Warren Carlyle’s choreography is given the space to come alive and thrill rather than just flounce prettily. There is no modernizing here, no winks to dark subtexts. One thing, which is played for uncomfortable laughs throughout, is Winthrop’s lisp.

The Music Man’s big, perhaps unintended surprise—after a scattered first act and a much smoother and involving second—is that it becomes Marian’s show. It is Sutton Foster who ultimately commands our attention and applause, and it is Marian’s story and transformation we follow most closely and makes most sense. Foster not only sings beautifully, she acts this role perfectly—we follow Marian and hear her because of Foster’s intelligent inhabitation of her. The first act is not kind to Marian both in story and songs (the here-weak “Goodnight, My Someone” and “My White Knight”). But in act two comes “Till There was You,” more a song of transformation than love—and it is so powerful that Harold reprises it.

Jackman recedes rather next to Foster’s very pronounced performance. We never feel Harold is in danger of discovery or what that means, we are not entirely sure what his character has learned at the end. We know he loves Marian, we know he feels shame. But his route to these self-discoveries seems glancing. She keeps his secret for her own power. Listening to the audience on opening night was instructive. Yes, they appreciated Jackman and his ferocious, lithe stage energy, but Foster-as-Marian truly won them over. Or made sense to them. Musicals often require our suspensions of belief to follow the transformations of character, and here Foster does the sensitive mapping necessary to make Marian feel whole.

Marian attains control, and this is especially sweet to watch in the second act after the first act’s weird songs, “The Sadder but Wiser Girl” and “Marian the Librarian,” which merely propose her as prey. “No dewy young miss/Who keeps resisting all the time she keeps insisting!/No wide-eyed, wholesome innocent female/No sir,” sings Harold.

Well, by the end Marian has the power to save Harold or leave him to the mob, and obviously chooses the former. But it is very clear to us that this is her choice to make. Yes, she loves him, even if your final thought may be not happiness they are together but that she is worthy of so much better. And so it is, we follow, in the second act, the beat-by-beat growth and mastery of Sutton Foster as the star of The Music Man.