This interview is reprinted from Broadway World< July 15, 2015.
“I grew up in a small town in Illinois with a similar feel to it [as that of the musical’s setting, River City]. With my chosen profession, there are still some folks back home who think of me almost as a Harold Hill. To them what I do isn’t a job. When I go home, they ask if I am still ‘doing that acting thing?’ And I feel that Brunswick has some of River City in it; there are lots of sophisticated people here who just want to get away from all the hubbub. This show says life can be a little simpler, and still be pretty fantastic.”
But it is not only the idyllic setting of the fictional town which fascinates Blackman and Clark, but the journey it undergoes during the course of the musical. “The show is both nostalgic and timeless. I think it is neat,” Blackman explains, “to watch a small town grow into something else. That is the American idea, after all – that we can all become whatever we want. Harold Hill reminds Marian that a person can dream, can open up.”
Blackman, who previously had starred in MSMT’s Mary Poppins, has a distinguished New York and regional resume which also includes, Hello, Dolly, Legally Blonde, Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ in the Rain, Camelot, and Phantom of the Opera, is delighted to be working again with director/choreographer Marc Robin, who, she feels, always “brings a refreshing new perspective to any show. I had done Mary Poppins and Singin’ in the Rain with Marc and Curt, and as soon as I got this role, I resolved not to watch the movie, but just trust to Marc and the character and try to make it my own.”
Clark agrees that it is a challenge to remount such a well-known show where people have expectations “and they will be upset if it isn’t what they anticipate. So, if you are going to make it different, then it has to be better.”
Public and critics alike seem to agree that this is a gift Marc Robin has, most notable in recent MSMT history with his revelatory new productions of Les Misérables and Mary Poppins. Asked what the director’s process has been to spin an unique take on Music Man and to help his stars shape their characters, Clark replies, “This is a different version of the script from the one I did with Marc ten years ago. He is mixing the stage, movie, and original versions. He has adjusted the sequence a little to strengthen the dramatic arc and facilitate the flow,” something Blackman says, she too, appreciates.
“For me as an actress and person,” Blackman continues, “I find it very easy to identify with Marian. I think I am lucky to be doing the role at this point in my life when we are most similar. ”She tells how at the opening rehearsals, Robin asked the cast to choose one word to express what brought their characters to River City. “For me it was ‘knowledge’ – knowledge that is to her detriment, in fact, because she is so knowledgeable and so frustrated that no one is listening. It is actually harming her relationships. She knows it is not really a knight in shining white armor she awaits, but she hasn’t been able to let down that wall yet.”
“Sometimes being right is the wrong choice,” Clark adds, going on to describe how his con man Hill comes to effect a transformation not only in Marian, but in himself and the whole town. “Harold has lived his whole adult life stirring the pot, and when he meets Marian, he realizes the pot has been stirred on him. He comes to realize that has happened to me in the process of making her fall for him. Harold Hill plans on bamboozling all these people and taking their money- not a very likeable quality – but somehow his character survives all that. The one word which leads him to River City is ‘hope.’ He doesn’t realize that’s what he brings, but Marian and the kids show him this is true.”
In addition to the heartwarming story line, Clark believes the show’s musical score “is absolute perfection. From start to finish there is such a flow. Music Man, especially Lauren’s part, lends itself to an older style of musical theatre. It has to be sung with technique and emotion.”
Blackman agrees that while this style of musical suits her voice and temperament, Marian’s four songs are a challenge. “All of them rise to a beautiful place – but also to a very high place. To sing them all in one performance requires a strong technique and lots of breath support. Then, when you add the emotion, it intensifies the challenge because you have to be open to hit those high notes and convey the emotion without being overwhelmed by it.”
Clark feels the show is Wilson’s crowning achievement. Citing the composer’s memoir, But He Doesn’t Know the Territory, he says Wilson spent twelve years of his life writing, rewriting, and shepherding his work to the stage, and he everything he had into this single masterpiece. “I think when he finally got had success, he understood what it meant. But his other shows were no where near the level he achieved in Music Man,” Clark opines. “They didn’t have the heart.”
Heart is a central concept to Clark, as Artistic Director of the company, one he values in all his colleagues and collaborators. In order to star in this production and continue with all his other administrative duties, he says he has had to rely on fourteen-hour days. But then, so too to a large extent, have the rest of the staff, creative team, cast and crew because the demands of this huge scale show are enormous. Clark concedes that the forty-three-person cast has the MSMT facilities “bursting at their seams. This morning I had to rehearse a musical number in the hallway outside my office until we were disturbing the company manager, who was trying to make phone calls,” he chuckles. “It is a massive undertaking for props, costumes, set! Not that I am complaining. I love every part of this job! It is more fun than any human being should be allowed to have!”
Blackman smiles in whole-hearted assent. It is clear that both are enjoying the exhilarating ride.
Photos Courtesy Maine State Music Theatre, Roger S. Duncan, photographer