Redeeming Harold Hill

redeeming harold hill

I don’t know why I’ve always liked the con-man. The fictional ones, I mean. The real ones are little more than despicable thieves, and I’d rather not be lied to or robbed. But in fiction – the books and movies – the con-artist always has my attention. For some twisted reason, I want him to win.

Maybe it goes back to the Christmas that my grandparents gave me The Great Brain, a series of kids’ books about Tom Fitzgerald, boy hero and incorrigible swindler. Perhaps I might blame Mr. Keyte, my Year 10 English teacher who always had me read Iago’s lines when we studied Othello. Or it could have been my father, who referred to me as a “jailhouse lawyer” on more than one occasion. Whatever the reason, when I first met Harold Hill, I was enthralled.

Of course, Robert Preston helped. In the 1962 film version of The Music Man, he shaped the role of Professor Hill and then broke the mold. But he gave us the consummate con-man, and made us want to see this smooth-talking salesman succeed. Who can forget the fear-mongering “Ya Got Trouble?” Or the cure-all promise of “76 Trombones?”

I won’t be forgetting them any time soon. Not just because they’re fun show tunes, but because this past summer I was given the amazing privilege of becoming Harold Hill in the Thomasville Arts Council’s musical production. There are so many great memories to share from that experience, but one in particular made me realize why I’ve always liked this kind of character.

I like him because he’s me.

But you’re a pastor…

I realize that’s a dangerous thing to say, and I think I only said it once because it didn’t sound right on its way out. A local editor asked me how I fit into the role, and I said something awkward about identifying with Harold Hill personally. Unfortunately, I don’t think I got around to clarifying what that meant.

And it’s a really bad idea for folks to start thinking of pastors as con-men. Some people already do, and the rest don’t need the help. (Actually, it’s bad enough for folks to think of pastors as actors, without them acting like con-men to boot.)

Happily, I got another chance. After the show one night, an orchestra member complimented me on how naturally I seemed to play the role. (Not an indication of my acting ability.) “Thank you,” I responded, gesturing to the stage, “But that’s me…except for Jesus.”

Does everything have to be religious?

Now please don’t take this as “I’m a Christian and need to work Jesus into the arts so they can be worthwhile.” I am a Christian, and I want everything I do to bring glory to God. But that’s not why I said it.

I said it because it’s true.

Oh, I’m not referring to Robert Preston or any of the actors that have played this role, and I’m not really referring to Harold Hill as Meredith Willson wrote him to be. I’m referring to the fact that deep down, I have every tendency to be a greedy, womanizing liar. And I’ve been conquered by love.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The musical opens on a railroad car filled with travelling salesmen. Money is at the heart of the matter, and as one man says, Harold Hill “…lives like a king.” In fact, he’s so good at what he does that “When the man dances – certainly boys, what else? – the piper pays him.” Later, as Hill explains his plan to fleece the citizens of River City, he tells his assistant that he knows how to keep people happy long enough for him to “collect and leave.”

Of course, one of the main obstacles to his piracy is the prudish-but-beautiful librarian, who also teaches piano and is probably the only real musician in town. Hill’s usual tactic is to seduce local women to keep them off-guard, but she proves unusually obstinate. Talking to his assistant once again, he denounces her “Sunday-school teacher” morals and says that he prefers much looser women. The “Sadder, But Wiser Girl” is the girl for him.

Not that he tells her that. Not exactly. Nor does he really ever tell anyone what he’s up to. Like an old-fashioned tent-meeting revivalist, he demonizes the local billiard parlor for bringing in a pool table and corrupting young boys, and then he mesmerizes the townspeople with visions of said boys marching in uniform, their brass instruments flashing in the sun. Expensive instruments. And uniforms. And instruction books. Only he neglects to mention that he plans to leave town before anyone learns how to play any music. And like a modern psychologist, he tells the parents and their children that they’ll be able to “think” the music from deep within. Truth plays 2nd Cornet in Professor Hill’s mind.

He’s a really good con-man, but a pretty bad guy. Until he’s trapped by love.

“Till There Was You”

The great thing about the story is that it’s not really about him falling in love with her. It’s about her falling in love with him and her love helping him come to realize that he’s filled his life with things that can’t last. As he says to her, he didn’t realize it “…Till there was you.” In the end, he tells the truth at great personal cost and chooses the one woman whose love is marked by the very things he’s been avoiding – honesty and commitment.

And that’s me. Because of Jesus.

I am a son of Adam, and like all our race, my heart has a great capacity for greed, lust, and deceit. But God loved past all that and committed himself to me through Christ on the cross. I can only love him because he first loved me, and his love is marked by truth and purity and grace so that I can come to him through simple repentance and faith. Then, through his love, I am more than I could ever be, more than a conqueror, in fact. And there is nothing that can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Harold Hill is good fun and a great story. I still want him to win. Actually, even though the curtain falls while he’s still in handcuffs, he does win. He doesn’t necessarily get what he was after, but he ends up with the love of one person who could see past all the corruption and had the power to bring him into the light. Maybe he was redeemed, after all.

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2 Responses to Redeeming Harold Hill

  1. Pingback: “Things They Didn’t Teach Me in Seminary,” Item #3057: | Blueprints

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