Tuesday, July 25, 2006

"Billiard parlor walls come a-tumbling down"

Ephesians 2, the second lesson appointed for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, was the text for last Sunday’s sermon, which was titled “Where Once There Was a Wall.”

For he [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. Ephesians 2:14, 19

As has been the case for many Sundays now, I was not concentrating all that well on what the pastor was saying. My mind was jumping forward to the afternoon and its performance of The Music Man. I am the director of a summer, community/church-based production of Meredith Willson’s “valentine to small-town America.” We’ve been rehearsing on Sunday afternoons, starting at 1:00 p.m., which means that my 11:30 a.m., sitting-in-church thoughts have inevitably tended toward what needed to be accomplished with my cast in the afternoon.

So the walls that flashed into my mind during last Sunday’s pre-performance sermon were from Harold Hill’s “Trouble” reprise: “Oh, think, my friends, what a handful of trumpet players did to the famous, fabled walls of Jericho/Oh, billiard parlor walls come a-tumbling down.”

Small fictional potatoes compared to, say, walls between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East (which is where the sermon ended up)? Sure. Music Man is a microcosm kind of musical—it doesn’t take on big or complicated issues. It’s just the fun story of people in a small town in 1912 who get caught up in the excitement created by a con man’s vision of a River City Boys’ Band.

But the sudden interest in culture—barbershop singing, ladies’ Del Sarte programs, everyone singing Beethoven’s Minuet in G and dancing the Shipoopi—does bring down walls in River City. Down comes the wall between the mayor’s daughter and a boy from the other side of the tracks. Down come the walls between bickering school board members, walls erected long ago for reasons probably long forgotten. Down come the walls between the married ladies and the snippy young spinster. And down comes that wall between the con man, with his dashingly crude pick-up lines (“I’ve got some wonderful caramels over at the hotel”) and that snippy single lady, who sees right through him at first, and then looks deeper and sees something more.

Near the end of the show, Harold, dressed in a white summer suit, is arrested and led off to appear before the citizens of River City—which is kind of a Christ-like image. It frightens me to say that—way too heavy an analysis for a fun summer show--and way more than any actor playing Harold Hill should even think about. (Forget you read it, Brandon.) But there it is.

Of course, Harold is far from holy. Yet he is saved at the end by a miracle, a transformation that is part “Think System” and part the faith of the woman who loves him. But it’s not just romantic love that delivers the big pay-off at the end of the show. What Harold brings to town—or maybe just brings out in the people there—is genuine love and affection, the kind that flows from the open hearts of people who recognize, respect, and appreciate one another’s virtues and flaws.

Meredith Willson wrote that kind of love into the characters in this show, because he had that kind of respect for the peopl he was remembering from his boyhood. My huge, wonderful company of performers (47 of them, plus crew) makes that love and respect come alive onstage, and backstage as well.

Which is kind of a “household of God” thing.