Ya gotta know the territory, and Cedar Rapids’ own music man, Orchestra Iowa Maestro Timothy Hankewich, does. So does Casey Prince at Theatre Cedar Rapids. Put their heads together, and out pops “Seventy-Six Trombones.”
The leaders of the two venerable arts institutions are instituting a new collaboration with a concert version of “The Music Man,” marching onto the Paramount Theatre stage from Sept. 26 to 29. It brings new opportunities for actors, audiences and musicians to crossover into auditoriums and realms they might not otherwise experience.
“This has been a conversation two or three years in the making,” Hankewich says. “Throughout the last five years, nonprofits, and symphonies in particular, have really gotten religious about forging new partnerships — not only to push the boundaries of the artistic scene happening in the area, but out of a sense of self-preservation. We are stronger when we unite in a project, rather than when we go off in other directions.”
- “The Music Man” in concert
- Presented by Theatre Cedar Rapids and Orchestra Iowa
- Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
- Sept. 26 to 29; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets: $19 to $42 at Orchestra Iowa Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or OrchestraIowa.org
A cast of thousands, including TCR veterans, newcomers and Chorale Midwest singers, will be singing and dancing around the orchestra members. Snippets of dialogue will introduce various songs and hats and costuming accessories will identify such characters as Harold Hill, Marian the Librarian, the Pickalittle Ladies and the barbershop quartet Mason City native Meredith Willson immortalized with his 1957 Tony-winning musical and 1962 Oscar-winning movie.
Three men, including Prince, will alternate Harold Hill songs and four women will share the role of Marian.
“What’s fun about it, we all have very different takes on (Hill),” Prince says.
He calls himself “the most age-appropriate” for the flim-flam man who breezes into River City, Iowa, with the promise of putting instruments and uniforms in the children’s hands and turn them into a band. He really intends to take the money and run — until he falls under the charms of Marian the Librarian. Prince calls Shane Nielson of Cedar Rapids “a great, comic musical performer,” while the other Hill, University of Iowa graduate student Michael Worth Penick, is “your dashing young man with a killer baritone voice.”
“The diversity of the Marians is even more broad,” Prince says, with area residents Britta Fults, Stephanie Goff, Tracie Hodina and Amy Stoner sharing the spotlight.
“To see four different takes on an iconic character is a fascinating new twist,” Prince says. “These are roles that if you love to perform in community theater, you may only get the chance to do them once, so this allows some fabulous talent to get their hands on a role, even if they are sharing it. As people pass in and out of songs, the take on the characters changes a little bit, too.”
Director Cameron Sullenberger of Cedar Rapids came up with the role-sharing concept.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be great to have the very best people of our community featured,” says Sullenberger, who previously taught music at McKinley Middle School and directed music for TCR’s 2012 holiday production of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Instead of casting according to age or look, as typically is done with a fully staged play, Sullenberger preferred “giving the audience the very best musical snapshot, instead of having the same two people (in the lead roles). Obviously, when you’re telling a story, the same two people are important, but when you’re doing a sketch, a tribute or an homage to a musical in a concert version, you can get away with using different singers.
“I know it’s a risk, but in the end, you’re gonna get the very best voices matching the songs to a T,” he says.
Speaking of a T, nearly all the songs in the iconic show are iconic, as well, from “(Ya Got) Trouble,” “Rock Island,” “Goodnight Ladies” and “Gary, Indiana” to “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “The Wells Fargo Wagon” and “Iowa Stubborn.”
The latter song was an eye-opener for Hankewich, who played lead trumpet in his high school production of “The Music Man” in British Columbia. That’s where he first heard of Dubuque, Des Moines, Davenport, Marshalltown, Mason City, Keokuk, Ames and Clear Lake, all named in “Iowa Stubborn.”
“When we got to ‘You really ought to give Iowa a try,’ I didn’t even know where Iowa was at that time,” he says. “They were just names to me then — I had no idea I would be driving through them almost every day.”
So why is this totally wholesome show, written in the 1950s about 1912 small-town Iowa both enduring and endearing?
“Great musicals and productions survive the test of time,” Hankewich says. “There’s a reason people still do ‘South Pacific,’ ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘The Music Man’ and ‘Oklahoma.’ They’re examples of Broadway’s finest.”
“It’s become such an important part of the fabric of Americana,” he says. “Iowans have kept it alive. There’s something very special about an Iowa boy who made it. (The show) also has intricacies in the score — enough to keep you wanting more. … The melodies are infectious and it harkens to a simpler time. … For some reason it doesn’t get old — it gets better with time.”
He hopes this collaboration creates a tradition for Orchestra Iowa and Theatre Cedar Rapids.
“Our community of performers and artists are really top notch and I’d put them next to any group of singers and performers in New York,” Sullenberger says. “We’re very fortunate to have a theater like TCR that is not only a reflection of its community, but the best part of its community. You’re not going to see something homespun — you’re going to see something at the height of excellence. Then to hear a symphony on the stage as good as Orchestra Iowa, it’s a gift to the city.”