The Music Man Doesn't Get the Girl

Curator's Note

Nothing evokes images of Americana quite like bands, particularly marching bands which today are perhaps most visible as the featured entertainment for high school and university football games. Their participation in parades, in addition to providing music for civic and military functions, make it almost impossible to imagine a patriotic event without a band. Yet something queer attends bands.

While athletics and war continue to be regarded as mainly masculine activities, music in the US has been tainted by femininity for around 150 years. Bands, so it seems, are the only reliable stronghold for hetero-masculine musical men, evidenced by uniforms, rigid order, and strict discipline. Unader the facade of sameness, however, queer lives may flourish, as this uniformity provides cover for women in pants, men on their toes.

In Meredith Willson's musical, The Music Man, traveling salesman Harold Hill, queerly singing and dancing, asserts hetero-masculinity by wooing local piano teacher and librarian, Marian Paroo, pragmatically diverting her attention from his musical and financial scam. But this time he seemingly loses his heart. Singing to him that she had never noticed bells, birds, music, roses, and love before his arrival, they embrace and kiss. All is implied, but never sung or spoken, about hetero-marriage, and instead of bolting when his con is discovered, he lingers until he is apprehended. The excitement and joy that Harold brings, though, are not about him as suitor to Marian. They are produced by his fantasy: the band he promises the town and her; the band he twice conjures out of nothing; the band that transmogrifies at the end into an impossible 76 trombones and 110 cornets by virtue of Harold's leaving Marian, the only way the fantasy may be maintained. This band that would seem to guarantee Harold's hetero-masculinity nevertheless requires him to disappear without 'the girl'; indeed he will leave at her insistence, even as she takes his arm, marching with him down the street literally out of step and soon out of frame. Thanking Harold for his gifts to her while repeatedly urging him to depart without her, Marian returns the music man to the queer(ly) American(a) band fraternity.

For a detailed analysis, see "'I Always Think There's a Band, Kid': Queer Music Education Lost." Bulletin of the Council on Research in Music Education


One of the things I really like about this post is that it captures two approaches to "Queer Americana" -- it queers an example of "classic" Americana (the marching band) at the same time that it is an example of "queer" (or, perhaps, "gay") Americana (the musical).  I'm wondering what you might see to be the relationship between those two?  I should be clear that I don't mean to paint gay Americana as not queer; for the love of musicals that is certainly not the case!  But while, in general, I don't identify with "classic" Americana and I do confess to liking some of what might be called "queer" Americana (I could spend days in a windowless bar), I must shamefully admit that I would much prefer to eat an apple pie than to go to a musical.  One might be tempted to say that is something about my failed appreciation of aesthetics -- or my success at "being a lesbian" -- but, of course, that characterization is like the categories I've named above: a stereotype and based on rather narrow parameters for "lesbian." For example, I love the look of Technicolor (and, of course, I've got great style).  But in all seriousness, I would be very eager to hear your thoughts on musicals, in general, as queer Americana!

Thanks, Christina, for your fun and generous response. Not only, as you note, are musicals classically Americana, they are typically decidedly not queer (and perhaps not even gay, compared to the high culture status of opera which is so much more gay!). Nevertheless, my interest is rather more with this particular musical than with musicals in general. Meredith Willson's The Music Man is unusal because it is purportedly the only musical to be written in its entirety (book, music, lyrics) by one person. And, of course, its subject matter (which I maintain is the band and not Harold's and Marian's so-called love story) is also unique--if only because it is not about the hetero-love story. Most importantly, The Music Man provides an entry point for me to talk about bands which I (also) shamefully admit to loving much more than musicals. Marching bands, it seems to me, are all about spectacle, which is integral to (aspects of) queer Americana. They present men--in drag as (real) men, and women (musicians--not the scantily clad dancers)--in drag as (unreal) men, whose femininity remains unchallenged (like trousers roles in opera), providing openings for queer expression, both gay and lesbian. That this was part of my own experience, perhaps goes without saying--in Technicolor before a crowd of more than 75,000 in Michigan State University's Spartan Stadium, with style! Never in high school was I more "lesbian" than when I marched with my (military style) band. The Music Man articulates all of that (it's about the band, after all), where I insert myself and do 'get the girl'--as I can lead a band (not only in my dreams!). Of course, it must be noted that neither bands nor musicals are much like The Music Man anymore......

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