The Music Man

Those who read this blog regularly will have heard me burble on about the fabulous season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and in particularly about the wonderful productions of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man and the world premiere Equivocation by Bill Cain. Because of the way the schedule worked, The Music Man and Equivocation often played on the same day. After I returned from my July trip to OSF in Ashland with my friend Penny, I decided I’d make a trip back in the fall to see both plays again (or rather for the third time, since I’d seen them first in the spring). I bought tickets, made plans to see the matinee of The Music Man and have dinner with my friend Elaine who lives in Ashland, booked the hotel. Of course by the time the trip rolled around I was busy and stressed. I knew I’d have fun, but I didn’t realize quite how beneficial the brief break would be for my writing.

I always do some of my best plot-thinking in the car. On the drive up I worked through one plot issue that had been bothering me. There was snow beside the road going over the pass into Ashland. The fall leaves were gorgeous as I drove into town, the air crisp with a hint of winter when I got out of the car. Stress melted away with the change of scene. I went to Elaine’s house for a fabulous dinner. It was great to have a leisurely evening to talk. I’ve known Elaine since I was a child (she worked with my parents for many years), but this is the first time I learned that she too loves The Scarlet Pimpernel. I showed her my SP blog posts and the online sites where you can download all the novels.

Both plays were wonderful. I think the productions had grown each richer, and I found myself noticing small details I’d missed the previous times. Elaine and I discussed the new nuances we’d noticed in The Music Man over dinner at the wonderful Chateaulin. Equivocation in particular was an inspiration for my current book, as it deals with power, monarchs, politics, and searching for the truth amid layers of intrigue. I didn’t try to write while I was on the trip, but over a latte and a fabulous portobello mushroom vegetarian eggs benedict at the Ashland Bistro Café the next day, I made notes for my book, inspired by the plays I’d just seen, particularly the tension between sovereigns and the politicians behind the throne. New ideas and connections sprang to mind.

I drove out of Ashland under a gray, drizzling sky, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. I put Broadway musicals on the CD player and returned to pondering Act III of my book. Pieces I’d been struggling with fell into place with delightful ease. Not only was getting away good for me, it was creatively energizing. I returned home happy to get back to work.

Do you find getting away for a couple of days clears your thoughts for writing or other projects? Writers, where do you do your best writing thinking? What feeds your inspiration?

Be sure to check out Mélanie writing to Isobel Lydgate about the Peace Festival at the Congress of Vienna in the latest Fraser Correspondence addition.

As you’ll know if you’ve seen my Twitter updates, I spent the last week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. My friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and I have been going to OSF together for years. We spend a lot of time discussing and analyzing the plays. Over dinner the last night of our trip, we found ourselves discussing the plays we’d seen and, in particular, the heroes of two of them and the transformations they undergo.

Benedick begins Much Ado About Nothing tossing off clever repartee and exchanging witty insults with Beatrice. Then, in the midst of the play, after Benedick has been tricked into admitting to himself his love for Beatrice and she hers for him, the story takes a dark turn. Beatrice’s cousin Hero is falsely accused of infidelity on her wedding day. Benedick’s friends, Claudio (Hero’s fiancé) and the Prince, Don Pedro, believe the story without question, turning Hero and Claudio’s wedding into tragedy. Even Hero’s father condemns her at first. Of the major male characters, only Benedick questions the truth of what has happened. Eventually, he trusts Beatrice’s faith in Hero’s innocence enough that he challenges Claudio to a duel and discontinues his service to the Prince. When Claudio and the Prince try to joke with him later in the play, it’s Benedick who reminds them of the gravity of the situation. Benedick shows his mettle and the strength of his commitment in the second half of the play. In the end, when he and Beatrice—still bantering—are betrothed, you truly believe the marriage will work.

Harold Hill in The Music Man also undergoes a transformation. He beings to woo librarian Marian Paroo under the mistaken impression that she’s a “sadder’ but wiser girl,” planning to skip town before the residents of River City can discover that he’s incapable of leading the boys’ band he’s sold them on. But even as Harold transforms starchy River City (wonderful evoked on the OSF production by the costumes changing from shades of gray to vibrant color), he is also transformed. When he realizes Marian has fallen in love with him, knowing full well that he is an impostor, he becomes the man she believes him to be. Watching the OSF production Saturday, I was struck by the amazing emotional shifts Harold undergoes in the latter part of the story. From realizing Marian loves him but thinking she’ll hate him when she knows the truth, to his wonder at the reveatlion she loves him for who he really is, to his realization that with this he loves her and can’t run. In the end Harold stays in River City to face the music (which at that point looks as though it will be decidedly unpleasant), a moment beautifully captured in the OSF production when Harold holds out his hands to be handcuffed. And then there’s his stunned amazement when Marian hands him a baton to lead the boys—and girls in the OSF production-band and the young musicians manage to scrape together enough notes to delight their parents.

Beneidick’s and Harold’s emotional arcs were brilliantly catpured in the OSF productions by David E. Kelly (as Benedick) and Michael Ellich (as Harold). The audience saw both men grow and change over the course of the play, and in that growth made the endings to both plays ring with heart-warming truth. Do you have favorite characters, in plays or books or movies, who change and earn a hard-won happy ending? What makes the change particularly believable?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from David to Charles, giving David’s take on the events Simon wrote about last week.

A later update this week because my friend Penny and I just got back from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s wonderful going to the theater with a good friend who’s also a writer. Between performances we walked, shopped, lingered over meals at favorite restaurants, and analyzed the plays.

We saw a wonderful mix of plays. One favorite was Equivocation, a world premiere by Bill Cain in which William Shakespeare is commissioned (or rather commanded by King James’s right-hand man Robert Cecil) to write a play about the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot. A brilliant, layered play about politics, writing, family–and theater. Another surprise favorite was Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. When Penny and I first heard OSF was doing The Music Man, we were a bit skeptical about a Broadway musical mixed in with OSF’s usual blend of Shakespeare, modern and older classics, and edgy new plays. We left the theater completely entranced. It was a wonderful, clever production that brought out how River City, Iowa, is changed by musical con man Harold Hill and how Harold Hill is equally changed by River City and its inhabitants.

Particularly Marian Paroo, the town librarian. The romance at the heart of The Music Man is delicate and heart warming. Con man Harold Hill who is looking for a “sadder but wiser girl” and librarian Marian Paroo who is waiting for her “white knight” seem complete opposites and yet you root for them to get together. More than that, you believe in their happy ending. Perhaps because, as Penny and I discussed, while Marian and Harold are both misjudged by those round them, they see each other with surprising clarity. Marian falls in love with Harold knowing he’s lied about his past. Harold sees past Marian’s frosty demeanor. Meredith Wilson’s clever lyrics point to the fact that this seemingly mismatched couple may have more in common than one thinks. In the song “The Sadder but Wiser Girl,” Harold refers to The Scarlet Letter and the goddess Diana. He may be the most well-read person in River City next to Marian, who shocks the town by reading Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac. And musically, their two signature solos, “Goodnight My Someone” and “Seventy-six Trombones” have the same melody.

This got me thinking about other favorite mismatched literary couples who are soulmates under the skin. Such as Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing (which OSF is doing later this year). Despite their war of words Benedick believes Beatrice without question when she swears to her cousin Hero’s innocence. Or Mulder and Scully who begin as skeptic and believer but become each other’s touchstone. Or in a different way Arthur Clenham and Amy Dorrit (I came home to watch the last episode of Little Dorrit). In their case the apparent mismatch isn’t personality it’s age and circumstance, which prevent Arthur from seeing Amy’s feelings for him or acknowledging his own for her.

Mélanie goes into her marriage to Charles knowing they are an impossible mismatch in ideology, loyalties, background, and life experiences. Yet when she realizes she loves him it’s because “though he might not know her true name or any details of her life, he understand her as no one else ever had”.

Do you like stories about mismatched couples? What does it take for you to believe they have a chance to be happy? Did you find Little Dorrit as engrossing as I did?

Inspired by fabulous theater, and particularly the scenes among the acting company in Equivocation, I wrote this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition as Simon’s update to David on the production he’s staging in Edinburgh.