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Mary Zimmerman celebrates 25 years at the Goodman Theatre with ‘The Music Man’

In addition to the Goodman, Zimmerman’s work has taken her to the stages of myriad Chicago theater companies as well as to Broadway and the world of opera.

“Oh, my dear little librarian. You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make today worth remembering.” — Professor Harold Hill, “The Music Man”

For a quarter century, playwright-director Mary Zimmerman has given Chicago stage audiences so much worth remembering. And there is more to come.

Zimmerman arrived at the Goodman 25 years ago, part of a new wave of young artists and playwrights assembled by the theater’s legendary artistic director Robert Falls. It was a bold and pioneering move.

“I was first brought on to the Goodman with a group of about five of us in a very deliberate move to get more diversity on the artistic staff, which there hadn’t been, and this is 25 years ago,” a smiling Zimmerman recounts during a recent chat at the theater where dress rehearsals were under way for her current production of “The Music Man.”

“So [they brought on] Chuck Smith and Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Henry Godinez, maybe Henry was a little bit later, but it was a deliberate move to hire more women and diverse artists in the city,” she says. “There’s always been a high consciousness for that here.”

Zimmerman would find a creative kindred spirit in the Goodman.

“I’m an artistic associate [here], and I feel like it’s a place capable of making my dreams come true. When I was child, I used to dream of inventing something that could record my dreams and then I could play them back in the morning. This was before video was common. And I feel like the Goodman is sort of like that. I can realize what I dream. And at the same time it’s a very secure institution that makes it able to be a bit riskier and more flexible.”

Laura Savage (Ensemble), Alejandro Fonseca (Ensemble), Denis Jones (Choreographer), Monica West (Marian Paroo), Geoff Packard (Harold Hill), Director Mary Zimmerman and Zach Porter (Ensemble
Mary Zimmerman (second from right) directs the cast of “The Music Man” during rehearsals at the Goodman Theatre.
Liz Lauren

Zimmerman’s street cred (which includes being named a MacArthur Fellow) has taken her to the stages of myriad Chicago theater companies as well as to Broadway (she won a Tony Award in 2002 for her direction of Lookingglass Theatre’s “Metamorphoses”). Her productions at the Goodman include “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” “Journey to the West,’ “The Odyssey” and “Wonderful Town.” In 2007 she made her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, directing “Lucia di Lammermoor” (which she remounted at Milan’s La Scala in 2014). But it is here in Chicago where she says her most exciting creative juices present themselves.

“The Goodman and Lookingglass have been my twin homes, and the third is really Northwestern University (where she is a professor of performance studies),” Zimmerman says. “That’s why I’ve never left the city, because there is this three-part support [system], which is my academic life; the Lookingglass, which is a much smaller institution and an actual company of ensemble of actors who have very long, personal, social and artistic history with each other; and the Goodman, which is so capable of these larger projects, having a large orchestra, and is also a phenomenal artistic institution.”

Those larger musical projects include Zimmerman’s 2013 take on “The Jungle Book,” and this season’s “The Music Man,” Meredith Willson’s masterpiece of song and dance and trombones. The cast stars Geoff Packard as the endearing con man Professor Harold Hill, who descends on an unsuspecting Iowa town with promises of musical grandeur, and Monica West as Marian Paroo, the fiercely independent local librarian who sees right through Hill but can’t resist the charms of this stranger in their midst.

Music director Jermaine Hill conducts an 11-member orchestra for the show, which boasts a cast of 26 and the creative team of choreographer Denis Jones, Dan Ostling (sets), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), T.J. Gerckens (lights) and Ray Nardelli (sound).

Mary Zimmerman, director of the Goodman Theatre’s production of “The Music Man” poses for a portrait in the Goodman Theatre Lounge Thursday June 27, 2019.
Mary Zimmerman, director of the Goodman Theatre’s production of “The Music Man,” poses for a portrait in the Goodman Theatre Lounge Thursday June 27, 2019.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

The conversation returns to Falls, with whom Zimmerman has forged a palpable recipe for theatrical success. It’s been a journey of mutual respect and trust.

“The thing about Bob is he has a very light touch as an artistic director,” she says matter-of-factly. “Sometimes you go places — and I’ve done shows I’ve done 10 times and won awards for and done on Broadway — and an artistic director wants to give me notes about it. And I don’t take that very well. [Laughs] I’m polite about it, but internally I don’t take it very well. Here at my home theater Bob does nothing but encourage. He might ask a question or two but you don’t have any kind of oppressive, looming, controlling hand. ... Sometimes he has ideas of what he’d like to see me [direct] but it’s a very beautiful, light hand.”

“From the beginning, I felt it was necessary at the Goodman to surround myself with associate directors who had different ways of working than I do, who see the world differently than I do, are drawn to material that’s different than what I might be drawn to. Mary was very much at the center of that decision. It was clear from the work she had been doing 30 years ago that she was someone with remarkable vision,” says Falls.

“She makes magic in the theater. It’s witty, it’s gorgeous and it’s transformative. Those are four words I can apply to her work. You enter her world and it’s a magical world where you are completely swept up. At heart, she’s a storyteller. All of her works can almost begin with the classic ‘once upon a time.’ Then she takes you on a journey of a remarkable story.”

“I almost don’t think of her as a director as much as a theater maker,” Falls continues, “because in her plays there is a true auteur sense to her work. She has an extraordinary intellect.”

Which brings Zimmerman to this milestone year in her Goodman life, and a production that surprised the veteran director.

Actors Monica West (Marian Paroo) and Geoff Packard (Harold Hill) of the Goodman’s “The Music Man” pose inside the theater Thursday June 27, 2019.
Actors Monica West (Marian Paroo) and Geoff Packard (Harold Hill) of the Goodman’s “The Music Man” are photographed at the theater on Thursday June 27, 2019.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

“Meredith Willson is a genius,” she beams. “It took him years and years to write this show, one of the few musicals in which the same person wrote the lyrics, book and music. Which is one reason it has such integrity as a work of art. ... It’s deceptive. I came in thinking it was going to be easy-breezy, but it’s quite energetic. There’s also strange issues with the timeline — when it’s night and day doesn’t quite follow. But it carries you along. ... It creates this dream that keeps giving. It’s joyful. I has no pretension. It just seeks to be pleasing and beautiful and funny. And it’s surprisingly very moving, too.”

The scope and legacy of the five-time Tony Award-winning musical (beating out “West Side Story” for the coveted best musical accolade in 1958), which moved to the big screen in a 1962 Academy Award-winning film adaptation, is not lost on West.

“It’s such a well-constructed musical,” she says emphatically. “Maybe the most well-constructed musical we have. All the tension we have, and the conflict you want from two central characters, is perfectly crafted and provides plenty of fun and fireworks.”

Willson’s genius yielded a feast of sumptuous songs including the beautifully romantic “Till There Was You” (covered by the Beatles no less in 1963; McCartney would later make it a staple of his set list at many of his concerts), the boisterous “Ya Got Trouble” and the showstopping “76 Trombones.”

“I hope everyone joins their local bands after the show regardless of how well they play,” says a chuckling Packard, who offers that he indeed can “sort of” play the trombone in real life. Most importantly, he hopes audiences will connect with the musical’s very touching story line and memorable score. “They’ll be left with ear worms of Meredith Willson’s delicious music, and hopefully feeling good.”