Everyone already knows about the music man in “The Music Man” – he’s a sleazy swindler who cons a town of naïve Iowans into buying expensive uniforms and instruments while making false promises that he’ll train them to march and play in a band.
But what about the women in this classic musical?
The "Shipoopi" dancers! The Pickalittle Ladies! And even the Irish mum, Mrs. Paroo!
Joey Hartshorn, director of the Sioux City Community Theatre’s production of “The Music Man,” gathered numerous actresses to share their experiences with the show.
IT TAKES TWO
Remember that good for nothing “music man” Harold Hill we mentioned earlier? That same guy who preys on innocent Iowans? (We suspect he’s from Nebraska.) Well at some point in the show he meets a lass named Marian Paroo, River City’s librarian and piano teacher. In the Sioux City Community Theatre’s production of “The Music Man,” Marian’s mother, Mrs. Paroo, is played by two different actresses: Heather Nordstrom and Ellen Nichols.
“Not at the same time,” Nichols corrected with a sly smile. Nordstrom is unable to play every showing at the theater, which meant Nichols would take over for the dates she misses. Despite the switch, Nichols said the only difference between the two actresses' performances is that she is slightly taller. “I also think our personalities come out a bit differently with the roles, so it’s a little bit different.”
The two have had fun with their character’s Irish ancestry, adding in “Irish-isms” and other regional phrases when the scenes call for an ad-libbed reaction – Saints be praised!
Having two actresses practice the same part during rehearsals can be just as entertaining as the rest of the action onstage. “A lot of times we’ll do it side-by-side,” said Nordstrom. “Or she’s shadowing me. We’ve taken turns also.”
Singing and dancing is already difficult enough in a two-act play, let alone finding time afterward to catch one’s breath and deliver a few witty lines of dialogue. But try doing that all in heels. Oh, and a dress, too.
“For those of us who are older, just dancing at all is a challenge,” said Patti Hesse.
The 54-person cast is comprised of actors aged 7 to 65. Rehearsals for “The Music Man” began in February. Cast members had to learn the music and the choreography before blocking the show and putting it all together.
Hesse said the large show also adds another level of difficulty. “There are so many people onstage. Just trying to figure out where you should go and not run into someone.”
However, the large cast isn’t prohibiting the show’s progression or whittling down its actors with four- to five-hour rehearsals every evening. “You learn to adjust your time like marathon runner,” said Hesse.
Compared to other musicals like “Les Miserables” or “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” the actresses agreed “The Music Man” is full of high energy with its big dance numbers and relatable storyline. The latter ought to resonate with audience members who remember growing up or around small towns in Iowa.
“I think [playwright and composer] Meredith Willson said it best on the front cover of the script: ‘This is a love letter to Iowa,’” said Hesse. “I was in this show 35 years ago and I waited for this show to come again. It’s one of my favorites and it is a love letter to Iowa. And, yeah, it’s making fun of us a little bit. But we’re just making fun of ourselves good- naturedly.”
Hesse said she was a “Shipoopi” dancer 35 years ago and was the only one of the seven women in the roundtable interview to have previously played in another production of “The Music Man.” A newcomer to the show (as well as the Sioux City Community Theatre) is Meret Thali, who just moved to Sioux City six months ago. Having performed shows in Des Moines and her home state of Vermont, Thali said the experience has given her a fun way to meet new people.
“It’s been really awesome to play a role I’ve never played before,” she said.
“You meet people from all walks of life in the theater,” Hesse said.
“The Music Man” is often regarded as a classic musical. But why is that? Hesse said the show’s central theme of acceptance resonates well with audiences of every generation.
“We finally accept Harold Hill, even those he’s a shyster in the beginning,” she said.
“There aren’t a lot of shows that you can take your whole family to anymore,” added Nordstrom. “You get all of that drama, antagonism and heroism and you don’t have the language and stuff.”
Except for, perhaps, “Jeely Kly,” an old rephrased saying for “Jesus Christ.” Is it not ringing any bells? Congratulations, you probably weren’t born in 1912, the year “The Music Man” is set. The cast had to conduct its own research to find out exactly what these long-forgotten words meant.
“What are Bevos? What’s Sen-Sen? What are jews-harps?” said Hesse.
The musical certainly shows its age with songs like “Shipoopi,” but it serves as a reminder to how the time periods have changed.
Well a woman who'll kiss on the very first date is usually a hussy.
“Let’s say morals and standards have changed a little bit since 1912,” Hesse said with a laugh.