Whether it’s finding your voice in a high school production or falling for a touring show in Chicago’s Theater District, musicals are what get many of us hooked on theater.
That wasn’t the case for director Mary Zimmerman, who shot to fame with Metamorphoses, her visually poetic rendering of Ovid. Straight plays were more her thing. But from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to the Damon Runyan-inspired Guys and Dolls, to her own adaption of The Jungle Book, the Tony Award-winning director has brought her unique style to this beloved American entertainment. She’s long exercised her chops on the Goodman stage and now returns with The Music Man, the 1957 classic about a smooth-talking swindler and the small Midwestern town he wraps around his little finger.
Known for adapting long and sometimes difficult texts—from Homer’s The Odyssey to the Chinese legend The White Snake—Zimmerman is quick to praise the makers of the American musical. “I am always fascinated to learn from people who are the very best at what they did,” she says. “And these classic musicals I’ve been doing, they’re all by these masters of entertainment. Guys and Dolls clicks like a machine. Everything hangs on everything else in that show. And in The Music Man, I feel that too. There’s very little that strays. It’s all of a piece.”
Zimmerman first found herself at home with musicals in 2010, when she mounted Candide in the Goodman’s Albert Theatre. “That show was in keeping with what I have done all my life in that I did a new book based on the novel, so it was an adaptation of a story, a story that has an epic, episodic quality, which is something I have always been attracted to. And part of the reason I loved it so much was I had just come off doing two or three operas in a row, which is sort of going all the way to the farthest point of the music theater universe. So to come back to people who are also really actors and creatures of entertainment and unbelievably game and able to do anything you ask them while singing, was so refreshing.”
Which isn’t to suggest that working at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (where she has directed Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Dvořák’s Rusalka, among others) isn’t thrilling, but a different kind of challenge. “Early in my experience at the Met, my stage manager took me aside at lunch and she said, ‘You are talking to them like they are actors. They are not actors, they are acrobats.’ And that’s very true. With dialogue in the theater, the actors and director constantly make choices regarding
pitch, pace and rhythm with volume and accent. With opera, that’s all in the score. I’m not the boss in the room. The composer is.”
Although more fully in charge as she directs The Music Man, the experience differs from a project such as Mirror of the Invisible World, in which Zimmerman adapted the work of 12th-century Persian poet, Nisami Ganjavi. For starters, the script and the story it tells are already set. Audiences who only know Zimmerman’s original productions, in which minimalist decor and metaphor often play a part, may wonder what on earth she’ll do with a show that’s as straight as a field of corn shooting
skyward in the summer sun. “When I do these classic shows, people sometimes think I may be deconstructive and sort of attack the text in some way,” suggests Zimmerman. “But I have never been that way. My adaptation work is always faithful. And I would not spend my time and my life on a text I did not love. I am not out to take apart. I want to learn from the thing that it is.”
Perhaps more than the other standard musicals she’s tackled, The Music Man resonates personally with Zimmerman, who grew up in Nebraska. And she’s drawn to Marian, the less-than-loved librarian. “She is a very specific character and not the smiling, gracious soprano that a lot of musicals might have,” notes Zimmerman. “She has read Balzac and Rabelais and she doesn’t have anyone to talk to about it. And I know what that’s like. The first sentence we hear about the heroine of our musical is, ‘We got us this stuck up music teacher in town.’ And you know what? She kind of is. She is a bit of a know-it-all. Harold Hill has something that she needs, which is just
the joy of life.”
The joy of musicals has sometimes eluded Zimmerman in the past. She admits to sitting unmoved through a few as everyone around her sobbed, then leapt to their feet when the curtain came down. But now, having worked intimately on some of the great ones she understands how much effort, skill and love goes into every aspect of these shows. “I love that moment where the characters are talking and then it’s like a plane going down the runway, that beautiful moment of liftoff into music. The merging of the interior of the person and spoken text with this highly artful composition. There’s just something about that that strikes at the heart.”
Thomas Conners is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.
Learn more and get tickets for The Music Man at GoodmanTheatre.org/MusicMan