Ruth Bass: Trombones, umbrellas and theater



We recently encountered, not for the first time, the top two con artists in the world of musical comedy: Harold Hill and Mary Poppins, the one selling trombones to a non-musical community and the other practicing her craft on a needy family.

Modern day cons like Bernard Madoff and old-time snake oil salesmen may have pulled in gullible by the thousands, but without the charm of Hill and Poppins - and without much to brag about on the plus side.

Musicals are magical to begin with, so audiences overlook the improbable, including the moments when the plot line is somewhat indistinct and the fact that characters talk little and break into song often. It would be fun if that happened at the post office or in the supermarket, but it doesn't.

This form of entertainment, old or new, is enchanting for the general public, so much so that our regional theaters are well aware that, despite the expense of a musical production, it must be done. And it will sell out.

In January we saw was "The Music Man," with book, lyrics and music written by Meredith Willson.

It stars Harold Hill, a role perfected years ago by Robert Preston, a fast-talking guy who rides the rails into small towns to fleece the populace, then gets on a fast train out before they know they've been had.

The second was "Mary Poppins," which is finishing up a long run on Broadway with a show quite different from the Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke film that took the country by storm years ago. Basically, Miss Poppins cons people, too - but not for her personal gain. She's trying to improve other people's worlds, and she's good at it. She gets em, and they hardly know they've been had.


For "The Music Man," a courageous and talented music director in Greenwich, Conn., spent weeks corralling, coaching and probably scolding a slew of 13-year-olds into learning lines, making fast costume changes, paying attention at all times, singing well and doing a good deal of dancing, boys and girls alike. At curtain call, 96 teenagers were on stage belting out a stirring rendition of "Seventy-Six Trombones."

It was grand, and it's a good guess that few of us parents and grandparents would want to be herding a group like that. Sort of like persuading 96 chickens to march in step.

But the Greenwich teacher who takes on a student musical each year manages it. And it was great fun to watch our Emily, who's more often engrossed in texting, master the comedy of her role as the mayor's wife. She knew her lines, her timing and her songs and apparently nearly drove her brothers crazy with a lot of singing around the house, in and outside of the shower, all the time.

Then, earlier this month, the day after Nemo whacked Manhattan, putting trains out of commission, we had tickets for Mary Poppins. Fortunately, because of a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious job done by Mayor Bloomberg's plowing crews, we were able to drive right up to the front door of the theater.

The only weather hazard in New York that afternoon was at the crosswalks where it was advisable to risk a wet foot, rather than try to Mary Poppins your way over a five-foot puddle.

And speaking of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, the best fun of the afternoon was watching the granddaughter whose hands flew up and down in perfect time while Ashley Brown spun her way through the famous word, over and over, perfectly.

Well, actually the best fun was when Miss Poppins, her family conned into happy behavior, flew right over our heads.

That was eye-popping.

Ruth Bass is a novelist and free-lance writer who lives in Richmond. Her web site is


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