There’s more subtlety in “The Music Man” than I ever realized, as I sat and watched the film version in an attempt to study the choral medley I wanted to present with my choir, the General Motors Employees’ Chorus. The main thrust of the story is that “Professor” Harold Hill cons an entire town into buying instruments and equipment for a boys’ marching band, at which point he intends to escape to the next town with the money, without establishing any kind of band at all. He himself knows nothing about music; however, he does know enough about human nature to manipulate a whole town into thinking that idle hands are the Devil’s plaything and the only solution is to put them to work in a marching band.
Hill introduces the “think system,” which simply states that if you think enough about accomplishing something, you will eventually be able to do it without any formal instruction. Now, this method may sound familiar to those of us who use positive affirmations, the Law of Attraction, and other popular self-affirming practices for achieving any number of things; in fact, the “think system” sounds like it could be a satire or parody of them. Who knows–maybe a hundred years ago, in the period of the story, the “think system” could have been a real satirical comment on the spiritualist/theosophical/alternative spirituality movements that were just peeking through the cultural veil of the time. (Well, maybe not so much in rural Iowa, but it was out there.)
Hill knows that he’s just making this all up, that’s it’s all in his head, and if he gets the idea into everyone else’s head, then he has completed his con job and can move on to the next town. And for the most part, it works: one of his best projects was to charm a group of grumpy old men into a barbershop quartet, melting hearts with “Lida Rose.” …But then comes Marian the Librarian, who beguiles him with her vulnerability, eventually exposing his own. Some townspeople eventually find out who Harold Hill really is and are ready to blow the whistle on him, when he finds himself in the place he least expected to be: on the podium in front of a rag-tag assembly of young brass players in a do-or-die scenario:
“Think…think!” And guess what happens: the “think system” works… on Harold! All the time he spent infusing it into the psyche of River City, he was doing it to himself. He actually took up the baton and conducted music. He became the band conductor he faked his way into being, in spite his own disbelief. The mothers of the town stood up and beamed with pride at their little boys honking through Minuet in G, not unlike any proud Moms in today’s audiences. The experience actually made him an authentic man.
Now the interesting question: Was he a salesman pretending to be a Music Man, or a Music Man pretending to be a salesman? Maybe he was pretending on both counts, as our real selves are not “real” at all, but just inventions that we build and rebuild over time from our experiences. If you go deep enough into yourself, maybe you won’t find a self at all, but the primal essence from which to build it, that we are all a part of. And so it’s okay to pretend and fool yourself into any way of being you like, because that’s how a self is made. Maybe the art of the con itself is most authentic to the human experience.