The Music Woman.Posted: July 29, 2008
Of all the productions of musical comedies I’ve seen in 50 years of patronage since childhood, one of the ten most successful is the current production of The Music Man being put on by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario this summer. Certainly not the only reason, but an important one, is Leah Oster’s performance as Marian Paroo, the librarian.
She made me aware of a paradox. Why this production of The Music Man works is that you know that you are seeing, at last, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. That is, it is the text itself—the book, music and lyrics by Willson—that shines at center stage. You get these characters, you get what Willson wanted you to know and feel about them, and you surrender yourself to his vision and the brilliant, original way he realized it. All of that, one would think, might be at odds with a performance that stands out for its beauty as much as Leah Oster’s does. You might think, I should be believing in Marian Paroo’s reality right now, not being ravished by Oster’s singing. I should be in River City, not somewhere inside my own head making comparisons to Barbara Cook’s Tony-winning (and Capitol-recorded) performance in 1957—comparisons which, and this is all that really needs to be said, do not leave Leah Oster in the dust.
The paradox, I guess, is that it takes a singer/actress of such magnificent voice that you can’t help noticing her to erase the singer/actress from your mind and put you in communion with the author.
The paradox occurs elsewhere. It takes someone of Sinatra’s preternatural talent—a voice so special that Sinatra was nicknamed, in fact, “The Voice,” as if all others need not apply—to make you finally understand Cole Porter when he asked the musical question, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The awesomeness of Sinatra’s talent calls attention to itself and somehow, by doing so, abnegates itself so that you feel in direct communication with the writer, not the singer. It can take an unconventional production that rethinks Hamlet (such as the one playing at Stratford this year with Ben Carlson, directed by Adrian Noble and set in some 1910 nightmare hybrid of Edwardian England and Denmark)—a production the idiosyncrasy of which can’t help calling attention to its own brilliance—to make you finally understand Shakespeare. It’s counterintuitive that the more an interpreter’s majesty holds center stage, the more the writer of the original text does, too, but that seems to be the way it often works.