A slice of Americana updated

"Dark" is not a word you usually find applied to the classic American musical. And most certainly not to that quintessential feel-good celebration of early 20th-century Americana, Meredith Willson's "The Music Man."

But the creators of the remake, airing this Sunday (ABC, 7-10 p.m.), say that's what they wanted.

"Norman Rockwell," says director Jeff Bleckner, "was one of our focal points in terms of how to approach it."

The palette of this famous illustrator was a muted, realistic one, not the sort of bright cheerful colors usually associated with productions of this musical.

These earthy tones provided a better background against which to bring to life the sort of impact that a traveling salesman might have had in that 1912 setting.

"It was the last hurrah of the traveling salesman, who were sort of culture bringers to the general populace," says Mr. Bleckner.

The big catalog houses were just getting started, full of new ideas, and the salesmen were the ones who brought fresh input to the outskirts of the big cities.

"We tried to make a world that was very true to that, which would make it a little bit more realistic, make the clothing more true to the period," he says.

"We were trying to let the effect [show] that Harold Hill, 'The Music Man,' had on the town and bring it to color."

The team also ramped back the cartoonish quality of the supporting players such as the children and the townspeople (although Molly Shannon has managed to keep the mayor's wife at a pretty goofy pitch), and lowered the mean age of the entire cast by at least 10 years, starting with Matthew Broderick as professor Harold Hill and Broadway ingenue Kristin Chenoweth as Marian, the librarian.

Not surprisingly, these decisions have produced a significantly different "Music Man" than the Robert Preston-Shirley Jones 1950s production most of us were weaned on. The Broadway production won six Tonys in 1958.

"We also thought that 'Music Man' was something people would be very much in the mood for in the country right now," says executive producer Craig Zadan, "with its Americana and its emotion and its family."

In fact, says Zadan, all these changes allowed the heart of the piece to show through more powerfully.

"The thing that attracted us to do it now, especially, was the fact that we did find a core of emotion in the piece that hasn't been present in the past perhaps as much."

For starters, the love story between Marian the librarian and Hill is more developed.

"The scenes with Harold and Marian are incredibly moving. It's the first time I really completely see the evolution of the love story.

"Before," he adds, "I've always seen the love story stated and then you accept it, but I've never seen it actually evolve."

Hill's relationship with the town children is also given an extra punch in this version, he says.

"The scenes between Harold and the little boy are just heartbreaking and touching and very moving."

The result is, in fact, a slightly subdued version of a musical most older viewers probably remember as bubbling over with musical energy and goofy shenanigans.

But keeping a valuable legacy fresh may be more important than preserving old memories, says fellow executive producer Neil Meron.

"People should be exposed to this kind of material," he says. "It continues the great American legacy of the staged musical art form."

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