American Hustler

                                      Robert Preston

Delivered at a head-spinning pace, “Ya Got Trouble” seems like it could have only emerged out of the righteous precincts of mid-century America. 

An article in last Wednesday’s New York Times reported that the Broadway show Beetlejuice will be evicted from the Winter Garden Theater in June to make way for a revival of The Music Man.  Apparently, the producers of the weird and ghoulish  Beetlejuice feel like they cannot move the expensive sets and still recover their $21 million in costs.  And it’s not certain any theater is actually available.  The owner of the Winter Garden believes a splashy Music Man will be a bigger draw.

There’s nothing especially wrong with Meredith Wilson’s hopelessly square but entertaining musical. It is an antique built on a familiar kind of middle American monoculture.  Robert Preston did his best to breathe life into a long Broadway run and the  successful 1962 film.

But I have a compromise that should please everyone.  Simply merge the shows.

There’s no reason the two casts and a few script doctors can’t come up with a new production that combines the best of both.  The Music Beetle, perhaps.  Or maybe Beetleman.  The combined show would probably be a little more hip and a lot of more fun.

Problem solved.

As you can see, I’m good with titles.  It’s what follows that’s hard.

There is actually a point to all this. Taken as a whole, The Music Man is full of perhaps too many trombones and more four-part harmony than might be good for a person. But it does offer one song that’s destined for the ages. Wilson hit a rich vein of Americana with the rapid-fire ‘patter’ song, “Ya Got Trouble.”  Wilson’s home of Mason City Iowa was a pretty tranquil place.  But at least he knew how  people loved to parade their righteousness.  It’s a perfect evocation of an American hustler in full flight: filled with trumped up worries that would excite the fantasies of folks in the play’s fictitious River City.  Delivered at a head-spinning pace, “Ya Got Trouble” seems like it could have only been sung and believed in small-town mid-century America.  The fun of the song is that Americans know a lot about pitches for things that are probably more evocative than true.  Peddling fear can also be profitable.  It’s a perfect representation of the sell-at-any-cost spirit that helped build the country.

I’m thinkin’ of the kids in the knickerbockers
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin’ in the pool
Hall window after school, ya got trouble, folks!

The popular historian Daniel Boorstin wrote a great deal about hustlers in America who were constantly on the make (The Americans: the Democratic Experience, 1974). He was right to note that it was a particular American type.  Many went on to be innovators or builders of business empires.  Others were charlatans. Surely the contestants on CNBC’s Shark Tank are heirs to this tradition.  So, I fear, is our President.