Carnett: Even our best achievements are seldom timeless

I'm a longtime fan of American musical theater.

Several weeks ago, I eschewed watching the Olympics to view an antiquated Broadway chestnut on television: Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." It's been a favorite of mine for decades.

A lyricist, composer and playwright, Willson once described "The Music Man" as his valentine to his home state of Iowa. And a quixotic valentine it is. The story is set 100 years ago in the quaint burg of River City.

A tonic for harried 21st century denizens, it takes us back to the innocence of a simpler time. But, alas, the present has a way of encroaching upon sepia-hued memories.

"The Music Man" captured the 1963 Oscar for best motion picture (though I can't imagine it winning any type of trophy today) and the 1957 Tony Award for best Broadway musical. Legendary song and dance man, Robert Preston, starred in the iconic role of "Professor" Harold Hill in both productions.

A morality tale, "The Music Man" tells of a scheming — but lovable — con artist who visits River City intending to fleece its citizenry. His scam is to enroll local youths in a nonexistent marching band. He's won over by those he intends to dupe, however, and falls in love with the town librarian, Marian.

Regrettably, it was my observation as I watched it the other evening that the musical's charm has mostly faded. It's grown long in the tooth. Bluntly put: It doesn't hold up a half century after its heyday.

I don't like saying that, but each of us faces inescapable obsolescence. And such is the state of "The Music Man."

There are precious few Beethovens, Shakespeares and da Vincis among us who blaze comet trails overhead and are unencumbered by the bounds of time. Life isn't fair. Unlike most of us, Beethoven will never be irrelevant.

Only a few of the countless billions who've populated our planet have been imbued with such genius that their achievements are nearly eternal. Their works are so brilliant that we, the middling, must stand in awe.

In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, virtually every high school, college and community theater group in the land mounted a production of "The Music Man." Audiences couldn't get enough.

But times have changed. Theater has changed. We've changed. And not necessarily for the better.

I saw "The Music Man" in 1963 at Orange Coast College and was smitten. It was a corker of a show. But audiences today tend to view it as exaggeratedly sentimental.

I watched a community production two years ago and was shocked by its creaking gait (that fault can be attributed to the show, not so much the production). I was surprised because I hadn't remembered it being that way years before.

Even the 1962 movie version that I watched the other evening exhibited a distressing limp. Current Hollywood mogul Ron Howard appeared in the film as a precocious 8-year-old. He played Winthrop Paroo, an elfin redhead with an adorable speech impediment.

Times, tastes — and Howard himself — have changed, however.

Robert Preston died in 1987 at the age of 68. When he passed, I suspect that he was proud of the enduring Harold Hill legacy he'd left on celluloid and vinyl. He had every right to be. But Hill's portrayal today plays out more pedestrian than inspired.

Present-day audiences might label it "cornball" rather than "classic," no disrespect intended. I'd never have said that 20 years ago.

I suppose I've changed with the times.

What happens when one's accomplishments are boiled down to "irrelevant" or, worse yet, "cornball"? Our best efforts, if they're to be remembered at all beyond our lifetimes, are, most assuredly, destined to vanish. Like footprints in the sand.

Unless you're Ludwig van Beethoven. But genius exacts a heavy price.

The Psalmist writes: "Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die." And for most of us, any achievement we win ultimately wilts like the grass.

But banalities — not achievements — are the real stuff of life, anyway.

We should embrace them.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.

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