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Aug 28, 2023

“The Music Man” and Donald Trump: Together Again

What can we learn from—Wait. This column teaches nothing

By Ed Goldman

As September heats up in more ways than one, I need to declare that no matter how loathsome, repugnant and vile many of us find Donald Trump (hashtag: #The Crook Who Would Be King), he is not, repeat, not, the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler, Nero, Vlad the Impaler, Attila the Hun, the Anti-Christ or the inventor of reverse mortgages.  

He is, rather, the real-life avatar of Professor Harold Hill, the salesman/con artist known as “The Music Man” in Meredith Willson’s immortal show.

Edgy Cartoon

Political insultant

Just one caveat: He’s Harold Hill before he met Marian (the Librarian) Paroo, with whom he fell in love—resulting in his getting his “foot caught in the door” for the first time in his life. I love a good salesman joke, don’t you?

Had he not met the maid Marian, Harold likely have continued his town-by-town and state-by-state campaign of fooling hard-working people into giving him money for highly dubious reasons. (Harold was earlier known as Gregg, we learn from his sidekick Marcellus Washburn in their first scene together.)

If he’d made it out of River City, Iowa—there was talk of tar-and-feathering him in the musical’s semi-suspenseful climax—the Music Man would doubtless have found another pitch to bamboozle the bumpkins. Perhaps the entire country.

His forming a children’s marching band and selling their parents musical instruments, at a considerable mark-up is a con he’d worked before, one suspects (which also comes out in his conversation with Marcellus). Grifters maintain and update lists of schemes, as you may imagine, to reflect the geography and zeitgeist of those about to be duped. (For younger readers: “Zeitgeist,” which rhymes with “night heist,” simply means what’s happening in the culture at the moment. And at this moment in history—given the music, art, literature, movies, TV shows and products—the zeitgeist could be defined as “crap, largely.”) 

Anyway, if Hill still didn’t get stopped, who knows what he could have accomplished, even though his fellow traveling salesmen wanted him out of the way since he was muddying the waters for them (especially an anvil salesman named Chris Christie, I mean Charlie Cowell)?

He might have, for example: 

  • Run for President of the United States, selecting the “dumber” of the two major political parties to align himself with (as Trump admitted to doing even though he’d voted with and donated money to the other party for years);
  • Chosen as his running mate an unquestionably moral man with zero charisma to ensure he himself would always own the spotlight. Probably Marcellus, since Mike Pence hadn’t been born yet;
  • Cried “mandate” when he won the election then “fraud” when he lost his re-election bid. Fraud, by the way, is also what he’d have committed throughout, following and even before his Presidency (there are a lot of figurative anvil salesmen out there who were never paid for their services);
  • Married someone of distracting physical beauty and a complete lack of knowledge or interest in his shenanigans. Marian the Librarian would have been too much for him to handle. Meet Melania the Ignorian;
  • Just as he “worked” the mayor and city council of River City, he’d have courted world leaders whose grasp of power and obliviousness to morality were a good fit for him. When Harold Hill claimed to have attended and graduated from a Gary, Indiana, music conservatory that didn’t yet exist, the mayor wanted him investigated—but his council balked at doing so when Harold got them to sing like a barbershop quartet. I think one of the councilmembers may have been named Clarence or Alito.

Now, before you go charging me with non-consensual analogy forcing, I need to confess a couple of things. First, I played Harold Hill as a senior at Lakewood High School and again, as an adult some years later, by which time I understood what the song “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” was about and why Hill sang, “I hope and I pray/For Hester to win just one more ‘A'”. (For younger readers: I hope and I pray that “The Scarlett Letter” was on your summer reading list—along with anything by James Fenimore Cooper in its original Esperanto.) 

I got the part, both times, because in my younger days I was sometimes assumed to be a con man, though mainly by my parents, my dates’ parents, and teachers. Oh, yes, my teachers. I once convinced my 11th-grade biology teacher that, “as clichéd as it sounds, sir, my dog ate my homework.” The jig was up when the PTA hosted Parents Night at the school a few weeks later and the teacher asked my folks how my dog was doing. We had no dog. 

But because I was momentarily serious about wanting to become an actor, I’d found out everything I could about how swindlers ply their trade. It’s mainly by pretending to be sincere in order to win your confidence, whence we find the root of con man. Thank you. There’ll be no math on the final.

Harold and Donald had/have that gift. They could look straight at a grieving widow (Harold, at Marian’s mom) or Teleprompter (Donald, at all of us) and irrefutably, unblinkingly, unconscionably lie

So forget the comparisons of our Trump to mein Fuhrer. Just settle back and enjoy the baloney. But don’t expect those band instruments to arrive anytime soon.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).