The other night, I happened to catch Meredith Willson’s beloved musical, “The Music Man,” on TV. Despite its Disney-like, idealized setting, it’s hardly a silly entertainment. Ultimately, it examines the revolutionary, transformative power of music.
Briefly, the story is set during the summer of 1912 in the small, stubborn Iowa town of River City which is invaded by a con man. Posing as a music teacher, “Professor” Harold Hill, the con man is expecting to sell these small town folk musical instruments and lessons and then skip town with their money.
Instead, Harold Hill brings harmony to the bickering school board, literally teaching them to sing in close harmony as a barbershop quartet. As his con progresses, he unintentionally brings a sense of hope and confidence to the town and loses his heart to the town’s librarian, Marian Paroo.
Once his con game is uncovered, many townspeople, buoyed by a new found sense of hope and confidence, save Professor Hill’s hide. The show ends with a marching band gloriously marching through a transformed town as music from seventy-six trombones and “rows and rows of the finest virtuoso” fills the air.
“The Music Man” was one of my first, major productions. I was a chorus member in a production at LaGrange College when I was in elementary school. The show was the first in a long road of performances leading up to today.
There is a certain hope and confidence that those early productions instilled in me. Not long after that show I was given the hefty role of Oliver in a production of the musical, “Oliver!” Even now, I marvel that so many adults had so much faith in me as to bestow the weight of a show on the shoulders of a slight, shy seventh grader.
That same hope and confidence have remained with me as I’ve sung and danced, acted, performed on a variety of musical instruments and even worked as a writer.
I can credit LaGrange’s artistic vision and community with granting me this hope and confidence and serving as an incubator for it. Growing up here, I was surrounded by arts and artists in the schools and throughout the community.
I was granted chances to perform with countless musical groups, I performed theatre — I spell it as a proper theatre person — with the college, with my church and the LSPA and I discovered art at Art Discovery at the LaGrange Art Museum. In my English classes in the local public schools, I read the great lights of literature.
During my nearly three decades in the arts, I have forever been amazed at the quality of arts in LaGrange. But I’ve also been appalled to see the arts being systematically removed from the schools.
While I most certainly understand budget cuts and the need to instill educational standards, cutting the arts from our educational system only serves to turn our next generation into automatons that simply spout facts and figures. The arts transcend those facts and figures and teach us about humanity.
The arts instill a sense of hope and confidence that lead us through life and transform us from a mundane small town, like River City, into an impressive cultural bastion.
In the musical, as Marian Paroo’s stoic facade begins to crack and she falls in love with Harold Hill, she sings, “there were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing, no I never heard them at all, till there was you.”
Don’t deny our next generation a sense of hope and confidence. Help them to hear the bells among the hills of LaGrange.