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Getting into Treble

There’s trouble in River City when a fast-talking salesman gets his heart stolen by the town librarian. "The Music Man" will march into your heart with its funny, romantic, and family-friendly story.

Gina Conroy
December 28, 2019

From social media highlight reels to catfishing and those darn click-bait ads we all fall for, things are never as they appear in our fishbowl society. We’re getting scammed left and right, and it’s not just happening to the naive. Even the “smart ones” are questioning their judgment because the frauds are getting more sophisticated by the minute.

How is it then in a world where even the most trusted seem to have ulterior motives, The Music Man, whose “hero” is a bona fide con man, continues to attract crowds?

“It’s one of those musicals that stood the test of time,” says Mark Frie, who plays the con man, aka traveling salesman, professor Harold Hill in Theatre Tulsa’s production of The Music Man.

“He’s a unique character,” says Frie, who agrees there’s a fine line between Hill being a hero and villain. “The way the role was written, and then the way Robert Preston plays it originally, draws people into the charisma of the character.”

Set in 1912, the story follows Hill, who travels by train from state to state selling something he can’t deliver: a boys’ band. Hill winds up in River City, Iowa, trying to hide from his reputation as a con man. Hill’s got his dirty hands busy dodging the mayor and school board, and convincing the townsfolk the new pool table will only cause “trouble” in their quiet town. Also, he must woo the librarian and only music teacher in town, Marian Paroo, so she doesn’t find out the truth. Then he has to skip town with the down payment from the instruments and uniforms he’s collected before anyone catches on he’s a fraud.

Eventually, Hill has the people of River City as well as the audience falling under his spell.

The Music Man is a musical with book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey.

In 1957, the show became a hit on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and running for 1,375 performances. The cast album won the first Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and spent an astounding 245 weeks on the Billboard charts. The show’s success led to several revivals, including a long-running 2000 Broadway revival, a popular 1962 film adaptation, and a 2003 television adaptation.

“It mirrors what we see in society today with everything we see going on via social media, with people making all kinds of promises,” says Frie. “You can easily fall under the spell of someone or something.”

Throughout all the crazy antics and toe-tapping musical numbers, Paroo softens to the swindler even after she discovers he’s a fake.

“I think she starts to see the change in her little brother, Winthrop,” says Frie. “She sees Harold give the cornet to Winthrop and how that brought him such joy. That’s a critical moment right there.”

Having her brother go from shy and self-conscious because of his lisp to belting out two of the most popular songs in the show without a care in the world, softens Paroo’s heart to the traveling con man.

“I also think as Marian starts to see her town changing, the audience sees the very uptight protected character relax and start to fall in love with this guy,” says Frie. “I think for Harold, once he realizes Marian’s been in on the sham as well, he sees from the get-go she had his back.”

In the end, the underlying theme of forgiveness and redemption comes through loud and clear. Hill believes in himself, and the impossible happens in pure musical theater magic.

“He [Hill] ends up delivering on what he thinks he isn’t,” says Frie. “He gives the town a new spark and new energy. He delivers the instruments, and everything ends up working out.”

But the magic of The Music Man wouldn’t be as mesmerizing without the music.

“It comes back to great music and some incredible dance scenes,” says Frie. “You think of ‘Marian the Librarian,’ ‘Seventy-Six Trombones,’ and ‘(Ya Got) Trouble.’ For a lot of people, they’re songs that have been a part of their music collection and their memory.”

As if playing this iconic lead was not challenging enough, Frie directs the musical as well, though that was never the intention when he started talking about playing Harold Hill.

“You’d have to be crazy to do that,” says Frie, who, through a set of circumstances, found himself agreeing to both roles. “I’m onstage so much, I’d never be able to keep an eye on everything the way I would if I was just directing it.”  

To make his jobs easier, he’s put together his dream team of co-directors — Jen Alden, Pete Brennan, and Jeremy Stevens — to bring The Music Man to life.

“We have a responsibility to people and a certain duty to stay true to the story and show it respect, but also put new energy and spin on it,” says Frie.

Don’t expect to see the story set in modern times or with outlandish costume changes. What you can expect is a fresh set design and choreography.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Frie. “People will see parts of The Music Man they want to see, what they remember from the movie or the last time they saw it live, but also see a few new things.”

Tulsa audiences will be overjoyed to see the reunion of their favorite barbershop quartet performers: the original guys of Forever Plaid. Mike Pryor, Justin Boyd, Tracy Watson, and Mark Powell play the unlikely quartet in The Music Man.

“Tulsans love the Plaid. Mark Powell and I worked together at Discovery Land in 1988,” says Frie. “To be reunited with them is a lot of fun.”

Frie grew up in Jenks and was involved in the musical program from an early age; his first role was in fifth grade. After attending the University of Tulsa and the University of Oklahoma, he spent most of his professional career in New York City and Dallas.

“I did this for a living for a long, long time,” says Frie. “About 12 years ago, I moved back home to open the Broken Arrow Performing Arts Center and ran that for nine years.” Now, Frie is the CEO of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

“I didn’t perform or direct for five years until Sara Phoenix of Theatre Tulsa called and offered me the role of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables in  2014,” says Frie. “Since then, I’ve had a great partnership with Theater Tulsa and have played some bucket list roles. At least once a year, I get to spread my wings a bit.”

When he’s not acting, directing, or working as CEO of the TPAC, you can find Frie spreading his love of theater through community service.

One of his goals as CEO at TPAC was to create access for all Tulsans to enjoy and participate in the arts, whether or not they had the financial means to do so. Along with Stevens, they created an education program called Orbit Initiative that launched to the community last year. “The Orbit Initiative offers free classes in the arts for anyone and everyone,” says Frie. “I’m very proud of that.”

Frie is also involved with Kristin Chenoweth’s nonprofit called Broadway Bootcamp. Along with a team of A-list Broadway professionals, they collaborate with students offering insight into the world of performing arts for aspiring entertainers.

Whether he’s performing onstage, working with nonprofits, or directing, Frie loves being a part of multigenerational products, and that’s just what The Music Man has.

“This show is hard to beat,” says Frie. “At the end of the day, you remember the great songs and will leave whistling, singing, or at least smiling, if we’ve done our jobs right.”

The Music Man
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St. | Tulsa
Jan. 10-11: 8 p.m.
Jan. 12: 2 p.m.
Jan. 17-18: 8 p.m.
Jan. 19: 2 p.m.
Jan. 24: 8 p.m.
Jan. 25: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
Jan. 26: 2 p.m.