If you haven’t yet met Miss Marian, it’s time.
The famous singing small-town librarian is in town this summer and loving it.
“It’s wonderful to be here in Chicago,” said Monica West, 39, the actress playing Marian Paroo in the Goodman Theatre’s new production of The Music Man. “I’m near my family and so many friends.”
West said her family moved around when she was growing up. Her father worked for one company, Kodak. But as he climbed the ladder, the family moved 23 different times. But when she was 17, her parents, Gerald and Sue, settled in St. Charles. So, Chicago has a certain hometown feeling for her.
Still, West said, perhaps it was the moving and the small towns she lived in that feed her understanding of Paroo in this classic musical.
After all, Marian is the consummate outsider in the small town of River City, Iowa where Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, the authors of the play, set the 1912 story. (Willson also wrote the music and lyrics, basing many of the characters on the small town where he was born, Mason City, Iowa.)
“Every place we moved we were a little bit the outsider and my family didn’t really get involved in the small-town squabbles and things such as that,” said West. “And in school, sometimes I would feel like I was on the outside because I hadn’t gone to preschool and kindergarten with the other kids and this was a tight-knit small town.”
From third to twelfth grade, West lived in Honeoye Falls in western New York state, which in 2010 reported a population of just about 2,600. There, West found a consistent champion in the music teacher she had from elementary through high school, Jan Zoesch.
“She encouraged me to sing and to explore theater,” said West, and maybe she was like Marian, someone who thought differently than her neighbors. “Mrs. Zoesch really thought outside of the box in terms of teaching us all kinds of music from spirituals to classical songs. … And what was cool about her is that people accepted her, even though they thought she was kind of kooky.”
Zoesch saw theatrical talent in West even before she or her parents saw it. In fact, West said, she was chosen to sing a solo as part from “Les Miserable” in the school coral concert. “And when I stepped forward, my parents both grabbed each other. They had no idea I could sing. Then, they said both were relieved and said, ‘Oh my gosh she really can sing!’ ”
After graduating college, West moved to New York City to hone her craft. Ever since, she has been on stage, in movies and in television.
But she said, “the best thing is being on stage because you get to take the emotional journey of the character every night. It is so satisfying.”
And the journey West takes on stage with Marian is one she really enjoys.
This is not the Marian you might remember from the 1962 movie as played by Shirley Jones.
It’s an important role to director Mary Zimmerman, who described it this way in a video for the Goodman’s website: “A possible virtue I have in directing this, and also possible flaw is that I am intensely overidentified with Marian. I feel extremely close to that character and I’ve cast someone who I think is unbelievable real in the role and grounded and mature.”
West said, Zimmerman “has really encouraged me to interpret Marian as a woman of principle. And when she falls in love with Harold (Hill, played by Geoff Packard) she’s not naïve. She says I understand who you are and who I am and I understand how I feel about you. It’s an evolved way of loving.”
And there are other differences we will see in this production, West said. “As with anything Mary does, she really brings a sense of nature to projects and being from Nebraska, she understands the landscape of a small town. She and the designers have incorporated that idea into the show. The movie is really bright and candy colored but these sets come from nature and play a part in the show.”
Any other differences West sees? Well, it is the first show she has done since becoming a mother to her son Isaiah 14 months ago.
“This is a beautiful way to return to work,” West said.
Motherhood has caused her to look a bit differently at Marian’s little brother in the play, Winthrop, played by actor Carter Graf.
“We’re seeing the evolution of a child,” she said. “He is going from someone who feels like they don’t belong, afraid of sharing his voice to singing out loud. He fully blossoms in the show. And that’s beautiful.”