Aspen stage veteran is ‘The Music Man’
October 30, 2009
ASPEN – When Aspen’s Crystal Palace dinner theater closed the curtains for the last time two years ago, Mike Monroney, who had been a cast member for 16 years, had the expected reaction.
“Angry and sad,” he said. “Angry it was ending, sad it was ending.”
But Monroney doesn’t look or sound especially angry or sad as he says this. In fact, it’s hard to picture him angry at all, and you don’t figure him to do sad – at least off-stage sadness – all that convincingly. Monroney is routinely upbeat, and perhaps nothing demonstrates this better than his post-Crystal Palace career.
His Palace years, he said, were “Ideal. You worked seven and a half months of the year, with four and a half months off. Work at night, ski and play by day.” But to hear him tell it, the two years since have been equally ideal. He has a job, as history coach at the Aspen Historical Society, that he says, “lets me do the things I’m good at.” (It also allows him to appear regularly in costume, a Victorian-era get-up that he wears while driving tourists around in a buggy-like vehicle.) And the opportunities to work in the theater have hardly dried up. Since the Crystal Palace went down, he has directed “She Loves Me” for Aspen Community Theatre and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Hudson Reed Ensemble, and appeared in a one-night Theatre Aspen production of the comedy “Almost, Maine.”
“If anything, the demise of the Palace has allowed me to experience more facets, other abilities,” Monroney said. “Having nights free to work on other projects is huge.”
His latest project is the starring role in Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “The Music Man.” Monroney plays Harold Hill – the apparently conscience-free musical instrument salesman/scam artist who arrives in River City, Iowa in 1912, ready to fleece the innocent small-town folks. And while Monroney’s likability might not seem the perfect quality for playing a conniving heel such as Hill, the character also has a can-do, self-assured spirit that Monroney seems to effortlessly embody.
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Monroney has often been told he bears a physical resemblance to Robert Preston, who originated the role of Harold Hill on Broadway. And beneath the skin, Monroney sees more of a likeness with Preston, who gave Harold an appealing exuberance.
“In reality, he and I are probably kindred spirits,” Monroney said of Preston.
Being able to convey a devil-may-care attitude, rather than mere devilishness, is the key to the role, Monroney believes. Preston pulled it off beautifully, earning a Tony Award for best actor in the original 1957 Broadway production of “The Music Man,” and following with an appearance in the acclaimed 1962 film version.
“You can look to his self-assurance and the zeal he brings to the role,” Monroney said. “He’s having so much fun, you can’t help but like the guy. That’s the key: If he’s having so much fun, how bad can he be?”
Actually, plenty of actors saw Harold as such a bad egg that they declined the opportunity to play him. Burt Parks and Ray Bolger refused the stage role. Producers of the film adaptation sought a big name, and offered the job to Cary Grant. He turned it down.
“I don’t think they believed in it,” Monroney said. “Because, how do you turn a rascal into a likable character? How do you pass off this flim-flam artist as a likable guy?”
Monroney has an answer to those questions. There is a rich tradition in American storytelling of the embraceable, even heroic, rake. From that perspective, Harold doesn’t seem so awful.
“In American literature, films, TV, we love to make heroes out of rascals – ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ So maybe it’s not so far-fetched that we create a story about a guy who’s aiming to rip a whole town off.”
Another solution is to dial up the smile, turn up the charm, crank up the volume. John Goss, the director and choreographer of Aspen Community Theatre’s “The Music Man,” who has known Monroney for years, thinks his leading man’s affability will make him an easy-to-take Harold Hill.
“He’s got a generally good outlook in life, a passion for life, and he enjoys the things that he does,” Goss said.
Monroney doesn’t seem fazed by this particular challenge. For the moment, he’s got other concerns. One is the age factor: Monroney turned 54 earlier this month. Marian (played by Nikki Boxer), the librarian who eventually, and genuinely, wins Harold’s heart, is 30 at most; her younger brother, the shy, lisping Winthrop (Cooper Campisi), is 10. “If you push it much past 40, 45, you’re straining credibility,” Monroney said of his character’s age. “So I’m playing 45. That’s what I’m going for.”
Scarier than making Harold a likable con artist is the often blazing speed of the play. Numbers like the crowd-pleasing “Ya Got Trouble” are lightning-fast tongue twisters. “The number of words – it’s rap,” Monroney said. “It’s 1950s rap is what it is.”
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What comforts Monroney is the play itself. Start with the songs: “Seventy Six Trombones” is the quintessential upbeat march; “Wells Fargo Wagon,” about awaiting the delivery of a gift, isn’t far behind. The Beatles recorded exactly one Broadway tune – “Til There Was You,” a magnificent ballad from “The Music Man” that has become a standard. Several of the tunes are sung by a barber shop quartet, which adds a sweetly nostalgic tone.
And “The Music Man,” Monroney points out, is something of a fairy tale. The fact that Harold is a thief intent on skipping town with as much of River City’s loot as he can get his hands on becomes a fairly minor issue – easily forgotten by throwing yourself into the spirit of a good, old-fashioned musical.
“The consequences of Harold’s actions are never discussed,” Monroney said. “The fact that he’s cheating people, lying to people – it’s just glossed over. He’s so confident, so clever, that he floats himself through life. He’s the ultimate escape artist.”
Hill himself never seems to dwell on his cheating and lying. His lack of self-awareness of his actions is worthy of Homer Simpson.
“I don’t think he has a conscience,” Monroney said. “As the actor playing the character, I want to believe that at heart he’s a good person. But if he had a heart and looked at what he was doing to these people, he couldn’t do it. Maybe he’s got a borderline personality disorder.”
But “The Music Man” may not be quite as breezy and lacking in self-reflection as it at first appears. In “The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl For Me,” Harold sings of the kind of girl he wants – and she’s “no golden, glorious, gleaming pristine goddess,” but someone who’s seen the world. There’s even a hint of a sexually experienced woman. “He wants someone who’s on equal footing with him,” Monroney said.
The ultimate assurance offered by “The Music Man,” of course, is that Harold does get redeemed – partly by his romance with Marian, partly by the power of music. In the end, the joke is on Harold, who never counted on bringing any good to River City.
“It’s sort of complex for a simple, little Broadway play,” said Monroney, who has been in two previous productions of “The Music Man” – as Harold’s sidekick Marcellus, in Boulder in 1983; and as the baritone in the barber shop quartet in Denver, in 1991. “All the while, he thinks he’s pulling one over on the town – and the townspeople are getting better. The music is bringing them together, enriching their lives, giving them a dream.”
Monroney prefers to emphasize the simpler aspects of “The Music Man.” Get out there are have a good time with some catchy tunes, some funny lines, a nice romance. And chances are the audience will overlook the fact that they’re cheering for a criminal.
“You can overanalyze it. Perhaps I even have,” Monroney said. “Because the character lives so much in the moment. It’s so light and frothy. It’s play.”