It’s been a Music Man week in our family.
I don’t know if your family has “go-to” movies that are the equivalent of comfort food, but our family definitely does. If The Sound of Music is our mashed potatoes movie, then The Music Man is probably our homemade mac and cheese. I got my daughter hooked on this film early (she once watched the “Marian the Librarian” scene five times in a row) though it’s only been recently that she’s been ready to sit through the whole thing. My husband and I have enjoyed watching it numerous times over the years – I think he once helped design a set for a stage production of it.
I fell in love with this movie in my early teen years. There was a year where I probably watched it once a month. I love its bright colors, the fact that it’s set in “my” historical era (the early 20th century), the costumes, the creative music, the humor, the great performances. Of course I had a crush on Robert Preston, which probably goes without saying. And it always made me smile to see little “Ronny” Howard hoofing it to “Gary, Indiana” years before he’d grow up to direct things like Parenthood and Apollo 13.
Watching it again this week – in two sittings, because it’s so long – I found myself musing again why I love this story so much. Yes, it’s funny and snarky – its caricatures of human nature draw big pictures we can all relate to on some level. The plot, like most musical plots, doesn’t hold up under intense scrutiny. And yet, there are moments in this movie that actually make me tear up, even though they come in the midst of so much delightful silliness, and even though I’ve seen them twenty-seven times. That’s the power of story for you.
All the moments, I realized, involved Harold Hill. I got to thinking about Harold Hill and why he makes such a terrific “every-man.” Despite his incredible charm, he’s really a scoundrel. OK, yes, a Han Solo kind of scoundrel, but a scoundrel nonetheless. He’s a con man, one with years of practice at hoodwinking innocent people into buying stuff they don’t need and will never really use by whipping them up into a frenzy over how important that stuff is to their health and well-being. (In other words, he’s in advertising.) He also has an eye for any side benefits he can get out of his latest con, including making time with the pretty ladies – especially the town music teachers who might figure out his con and rat on him to the authorities unless he keeps them off-kilter emotionally.
Despite his brimming confidence, a confidence that Preston plays brilliantly right down to the way he walks and gestures, you get glimpses of the fact that Harold Hill is insecure. He never stays long enough in one place to get caught – or to get close to anybody. He hides behind the mask of “music professor” – something we learn he actually isn’t – and even behind his name. His friend Marcellus, who used to run cons with him before turning legitimate and getting a job, knows him by the name of Gregory. We never find out if that, in fact, is his real name, or was just another false name he wore in some other towns he conned long ago.
Nobody in town has a clue who Harold Hill really is, perhaps most especially Harold Hill himself.
The beauty of the story comes when one person sees through all the masks he’s hiding behind to the real person underneath. Marian Paroo, herself no stranger to hiding and insecurity (just in other ways) realizes that Harold Hill is behaving shamefully. She sees that he’s a liar and a fraud pretending to be someone he’s not. She invests time in uncovering those lies, only to find that when she gets to the end of them that she doesn’t actually want to shame him in front of the town. That’s because she’s come to appreciate the gifts that Harold has, unbeknownst to himself, actually brought to them – his imagination, energy, his passion for living, his ability to make people care about something beyond their insulated little lives. She begins to see Harold not as he is, but who he might become, and she loves him, even while he’s still a mess. That’s grace.
It’s also why I tend to tear up in three places: the first when Harold, alone for a few moments (as he hardly ever is) imagines himself conducting a band just as he claims he can. We see the magic that thought brings him, and the sadness he feels when the dream disappears and leaves him with the reality of who he actually is. I’m also moved every time I see the scene where Winthrop, Marian’s little brother, who has looked up to Harold as a hero, tearfully demands, “Are you a big fat liar?” and Harold, who for once has promised the truth, exclaims “Yes!” in a great moment of confession. That’s followed quickly by the most poignant line of the movie. After Winthrop says spitefully, “What band?” throwing Harold’s lie right back in his face, Harold says sorrowfully “I always think there’s a band, kid,” reminding us of that redeemed moment in his imagination and his longing to be the man he says he is.
And then of course, there’s the other great line, not long after, when Marian, having made her beautiful declaration of gratitude for everything he’s brought them, urges Harold to go before the angry townspeople descend on him to arrest him. Even Winthrop, dejected, urges him to go. And Harold says, in a completely wondering tone… “I can’t go, Winthrop…for the first time in my life, I got my foot caught in the door.”
What a great picture of how God’s grace catches us. We’re all little Harold Hills – conning ourselves and others, hiding behind masks, intentionally and even unintentionally causing others pain. Then someone unexpectedly shows us love – love that loves us in spite of the worst it sees in us – and when we try to run again, to escape through the door we’ve always left open as our emergency hatch when anybody gets too close, we stumble on the threshold. We slow down. We stop, even though we know that it’s not the easiest choice to stop. But we can’t help it. The pull of love is too strong, the pull of truth too beautiful. We don’t want to run anymore. The Hound of Heaven has caught us. And having loved us enough to pursue us and catch us, He’s going to love us into new creatures.
Who knew The Music Man was so full of gospel echoes?