By Hap Erstein
Frequent Wick Theatre director Norb Joerder has forgotten how many times he has staged Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. But he can recall a lot of the prominent performers who have played the traveling salesman who cons town after town into buying instruments and band uniforms for their music-challenged youngsters.
“This is probably my eighth or ninth time, I think. I can name most of the Harold Hills – John Davidson, John Schneider, Tom Wopat, Barry Williams, Burke Moses,” he says, then drops his voice to a whisper. “I can’t say they were all good.”
But he is high on his latest huckster, John Tartaglia, 2004 Tony nominee for Avenue Q and current Sirius XM radio personality. The casting came about when Tartaglia’s mother – South Florida veteran actress and Carbonell Award winner Angie Radosh – hinted to Joerder than she had never been onstage with her son before.
“I used to have a TV show and she was on one episode. But other than that, we’ve never been onstage together, in my whole life,” says Tartaglia. “We’ve talked about it literally for years and years and years. And finally this year, schedule-wise, it worked. It’s surreal to walk into a rehearsal with my mom, because she’s my mom.”
He feels certain that the iconic role – originated by Robert Preston in 1957 – was a good fit for himself. “In every role I play, there’s a bit of showman in it. There’s always a little razzle-dazzle. Those are the roles that I’m attracted to,” Tartaglia explains. “And that’s Harold Hill. He’s putting on the greatest show in the world, convincing the town that he can make this amazing band come to life and he can make this town into something it wishes it could be.
“I love playing the dual sides of who he really is and ultimately who he becomes because of Marian,” River City, Iowa’s librarian, who – spoiler alert, in the unlikely event that you are unfamiliar with the show – cons the con man into setting down roots and falling in love. “It’s interesting to explore, because I know people like that in real life. Performers too, who on stage they’re one person, but who they really are behind the scenes is a totally different story.
“But he’s totally a con man. He’s the worst kind, because he’s charming and he’s flirtatious and he’s funny, all the things that people think you should be. But ultimately he’s underhanded.”
“I think that’s what everyone enjoys, seeing this man who thinks he’s one thing kind of dissolve into something totally different by the end of the show,” chimes in Joerder. “One little footbridge, some kissing and he’s a goner.”
“When they first asked me to do this with John and Angie, I thought, ‘Yes, but I can’t do it without Julie,’” Kleiner, that is, Joerder’s go-to soprano who has worked with him on 42nd Street, She Loves Me and Crazy for You in recent seasons. “She fits in this role so naturally, it’s really nice and so easy for me,” he says. “As I get older, I don’t want to work that hard.”
Marian Paroo has long been a bucket list role for Kleiner, but she is relieved to be doing it with Joerder. “When you come into a role that you’ve been dying to do, and you only get 10 days of rehearsal to do it, to have the expertise of someone who knows it so well is so helpful,” she says. “He lets you play and go where you want, but then he’s got such great direction to give you in the moment.”
As Kleiner says of Marian, “I believe the town has sort of shaped her into this hard, tough persona. She keeps to herself, she’s not accepted within the town, but underneath she wants love and she’s got maternal instincts. So ultimately, I think (Harold) brings that out in her and says that’s OK, until I fall head over heels for him. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s a beautiful story.”
Tartaglia too has had his eye on the Harold Hill role, but he never realized how difficult it would be until he started playing it. “There’s a 25-minute section of the show where I basically don’t leave the stage and it’s song after song after song,” he says. “I can see why Robert Preston would get winded. I find the whole thing to be a great adventure. I knew it was a huge role, but what I didn’t realize was how you have to stay four steps ahead of everybody to pull off the con man thing.
“It was written that way and I love that. I’m one of those actors that hate being backstage sitting around. I love being busy. I probably should take up knitting or something like that. But I love that challenge, from ‘Trouble’ to ‘Marian the Librarian,’ it’s a workout.”
The trick, says Tartaglia, is “never letting the audience see you sweat. He can never let down his façade, until the very end, of course. Even when you as the performer are completely out of breath or your brain is going 100 miles a minute, you have to always be completely in control. Like all good con men, he’s a manipulator. He’s manipulating all the time and you can’t let someone see your weakness come through.
“Most shows you have a lull and then you come back up. But he’s like a steam train; he doesn’t stop.”
As Tartaglia concedes, the audience is bound to already be familiar with the show. “It is a challenge, because they have expectations. Everyone has seen the movie,” he says. “But it doesn’t need to be rethought. It’s a brilliant role, so you have to figure out how you honor that while finding out what you bring to it.”
For Kleiner, what sets The Music Man apart from most musicals is “the heart. The refreshing vision that there’s a happily ever after that’s difficult to get to. As you enter different stages in your life, you can find new things in this piece. Different things hit home to me now than the first time I saw it many years ago.”
“And it’s smart. It’s a family show, you don’t have to be embarrassed taking your kids, but it is truly for everybody,” adds Tartaglia. “I know, I know, that’s such a cliché thing to say, but truly it is for everybody, yet it’s intelligent. It works on so many different levels.
“We all want to feel really good right now. You come out of this show thinking, ‘We’re gonna be OK. Life’s going to go on.’ And it’s a good holiday show. It makes you feel real good about the world right now.”
THE MUSIC MAN, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sat., Dec. 28. $75-$85. Call 561-995-2333 or visit thewick.org.