A song in ‘The Music Man’ suggests ‘Seattle Stubborn’

Noah Racey as Harold Hill with townsfolk in "The Music Man" (credit Mark Kitaoka, courtesy 5th Avenue Theatre)

Harold Hill (played by Noah Racey) with townsfolk in “The Music Man” (credit Mark Kitaoka, courtesy 5th Avenue Theatre)

As I sat in last night’s opening-performance audience of “The Music Man” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, one of the many tunes hit home. Early in the show, “Professor” Harold Hill arrives in River City, Iowa–like I did a century later as New To Seattle–and finds it hard to become friends with the locals. They are more than happy to tell him why in Meredith Willson’s famous song, “Iowa Stubborn.” With a slight change that immediately popped into my head and which you will notice quickly, here are some of the lyrics:

Oh, there’s nothing halfway
About the Seattle way to treat you,
When we treat you,
Which we may not do at all.
There’s a Seattle kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude
We’ve never been without,
That we recall.
We can be cold
As our falling thermometers in December
If you ask about our weather in July.
And we’re so by God stubborn
We could stand touchin’ noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.
But what the heck, you’re welcome.
Join us at the picnic.
You can eat your fill
Of all the food you bring yourself.
You really ought to give Seattle a try.
Provided you are contrary. ….

Now I submit this is a pretty good description of the much-debated local phenomenon known as the Seattle Freeze.

Regular visitors to this space know I think the Seattle Freeze exists. In my definition, it’s the notion that Seattleites don’t cotton much to newcomers, preferring to hang out with existing acquaintances. You can find written references to this sense of coolness going back more than 70 years. It’s so unlike the culture I experienced in several previous places of my habitual abode, like New York, Houston and the Los Angeles area, but not unlike that of Albuquerque. The Seattle Freeze has been attributed to everything from the Nordic reserve of early Seattle settlers to the long periods of sun-less days. I now see it more as a simple fear of rejection, the reason that Seattle households have far more dogs than children.

I also thought the lines in “Seattle Stubborn” “Iowa Stubborn” concerning touchiness about weather had local resonance, too.  I’ve never lived in a place so defensive about its climate, nor with so little sense of humor about it.

In Seattle’s thriving theater scene, I love these big live-stage productions, in part because they often are so ironic. (Juxtaposition, I suppose, is my middle name.) Last year, the baseball musical “Damn Yankees” opened at the 5th Avenue Theatre on the very same day that Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox pitched a perfect game just 20 blocks south against the haplessly damned Seattle Mariners. A 5th Avenue production of “Oklahoma!”, which kicked up a debate about Sooner racism after a black man was cast in the role of the heavy, said a lot more to me about Seattle’s own segregated past.

Believe it or not, “The Music Man,” set in 1912 and Broadway-debuted in 1957, actually contains an explicit reference to Seattle written into the original libretto. Near the end of the first act, the citizens of River City wait excitedly for arrival of “The Wells Fargo Wagon” (the UPS truck of its day and its rechristened, current banking parent a corporate sponsor of the production). The folks sing about previous shipments. Warbles one fellow, “I got some salmon from Seattle last September.” I detected no audience reaction to this local alliteration, but the line whizzed by pretty fast. Or maybe the Seattle theater-goers were just being stubborn.

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