The Muzak Man

I figured I wouldn't like Barry Williams. I expected that if I didn't find him personally repellent, I'd at least hate his performance in The Music Man, which I saw last weekend in Tucson, and which opened in Phoenix on October 20. I don't have anything against Williams, who's best known as Mr. Brady's oldest boy, Greg, on The Brady Bunch. But I've seen enough bus-and-truck theater featuring former television stars to know that they're usually an excuse to make some bucks off the name of an undertalented blast from the past. And I've handled enough telephone interviews with bitter, onetime TV celebs to know that their primary talent is for whining.

So I approached a phoner with Williams expecting the usual yarns about parents squandering a kid-star fortune, failed attempts at a comeback, maybe a stint in rehab. But I never got them; too bad--a run-in with a former Clearasil kid turned creepy thug would have made for a better story than an intelligent discussion with a well-informed musical-theater star. If Williams wasn't the most sparkling conversationalist (like a lot of actors, he sounds like he's reading from a press release), he was at least lucid. And his pleasant performance as Harold Hill in The Music Man is just about the only recommendation I can muster for this ratty road show.

That's probably because, while many of his kid-star cronies were busy taking drugs and robbing the local dry cleaners, Williams was getting his chops up. Despite a tabloid banner a few years back about his former gambling jones, the onetime Tiger Beat cover boy has mostly made headlines as a consistently well-liked musical-theater star. He's worked on Broadway and in big-budget regional theater, always playing leads and almost always taking home healthy notices. Unlike several of his television sibs who grudgingly sign up for Brady reunions, Williams views these artless outings as obligatory family gatherings; he takes the money, hits his marks, and heads back to the stage.

(Imagine being handed $100,000 in exchange for Thanksgiving dinner with your folks.)

Lately, he's been biding his time between network reunions with a tour of Theater League's The Music Man, Meredith Wilson's darkly funny fable about a con man who dupes a dimwitted townful of folks into buying nonexistent instruments for a boys' marching band. The show collected five Tonys when it debuted four decades ago, and remains an anomaly among musicals: In an era bloated with squeaky-clean love stories and pale pop-music scores, The Music Man offered a sleaze-ball hero and quirky choral and symphonic arrangements.

A couple of weeks before the show arrived here for its Orpheum engagement, I tracked Williams down to a Los Angeles doctor's office, where an M.D. was eyeballing the ankle Williams had sprained onstage the night before. I tried to get him to talk about the horrors of a Hollywood that won't let a child star live down his past, but Williams, who's been dodging such cagey questions since before he had pubic hair, was relentlessly upbeat. Like most show-biz veterans, he spoke mainly in sound bites, telling me that The Music Man is "timeless because it's a slice of Americana"; that it's a "feel-good musical full of great songs"; and similarly hackneyed hokum. But what professional is going to admit that he hates the material he's performing in or that he's surrounded onstage by losers and half-wits? The closest Barry Williams came to being bitchy was when he dissed David Cassidy, who outed his own father in a recent autobiography. (Williams would never do such a thing. In an interview for The Advocate, about six years ago, he told me he didn't know any homosexuals, although he'd worked in show business most of his life and despite the fact that his TV dad, the late Robert Reed, was notoriously gay.)

I tried to engage Williams in banter about the sad state of musical theater today, but he demurred, politely (and accurately) pointing out that "the form is in transition," and that if folks are finding Disney extravaganzas on Broadway these days, it isn't entirely a bad thing.

"Anything that gets non-theater audiences to the theater is great," he told me. "Yeah, I'd like to think that there's a purity to this art form, but if kids are going to Beauty and the Beast to see the dancing teapots, at least they're going to the theater. So maybe they'll grow up to be adults who go see more artistic stuff."

Audiences looking for "artistic stuff" won't find much of it in this sluggish production of The Music Man, which features more small-screen stars than a Nick at Nite marathon. Besides Williams, there's Alan Young of Mr. Ed fame and Mary Jo Catlett, who plays Eulalie Shinn here but is better known as Pearl from TV's Diff'rent Strokes.

Not even a cameo from the late Vivian Vance could bring a spark to this moribund Music Man. Glenn Casale's creaky direction has all the pizzazz of a high school marching-band concert. Teri Bibb, who plays Marion the librarian, has a bright, clear soprano, and Broadway trouper Jeffrey Polk has a couple of nice scenes, but there's little else to recommend this tatty, slothful show.

If Williams were anyone other than a former teen idol, audiences would be wowed by his singing and fleet-footed dancing skills. But it isn't likely that anyone will notice. People will come to see Greg Brady, and probably leave disappointed to find that--thanks to some expert hair plugs and a few extra pounds--their former teen idol is no more.

He's been replaced by a capable musical-comedy actor who, like Meredith Wilson, will be remembered primarily for one early accomplishment. (Although he went on to score many more musicals--most notably The Unsinkable Molly Brown--and to write dozens of hit songs for the likes of Perry Como and the Beatles, Wilson was never able to surpass The Music Man.)

In true trouper fashion, Williams is keeping his angst to himself. "The only way to overcome this kind of notoriety is to do something bigger than what you've become known for," he says. "Let's face it, The Brady Bunch has been on the air for 29 years in 120 different countries. I'll never top that. But I'm not going to drink myself into a stupor over it, either."

The Music Man continues through Sunday, October 25, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 West Adams.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela