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August 2009
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Harve Presnell 1933 – 2009 R.I.P.

I enjoyed much of Michael Jackson’s music, but with all the coverage of his passing I didn’t notice the passing of another performer whose work I have admired since I was a teenager.

Harve Presnell had a great voice and fine presence on stage and screen. He also appeared in several of my favorite musicals. In comparison to the 30s, 40s and 50s; the 60s and 70s didn’t seem to produce as many great musicals. One can claim The Music Man qualifies, which though it was written by Meredith Wilson, still seems to celebrate the same sort of themes as earlier R&H musicals from the 40s and 50s. The same applies to R&H’s The Sound of Music. I recommend both highly, but even though both came out in the 60s, they seem to fit better in the 50s or earlier.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown came out later than Music Man, and earlier than The Sound of Music. Even though a Western, it seemed to fit more in the 60s than either of the others. Harve Presnell sang the male lead, opposite Debbie Reynolds in the title role. I thought he was perfectly suited to that role. His voice gave the movie more class and matched the mountains he mined. Movie musicals were waning, at least in comparison to earlier, and arguably later; but Presnell and Reynolds fought the trend.

Another Meredith Wilson musical, Paint Your Wagon, touched 60s themes perhaps better than any other musical of the time. Like Unsinkable Molly, it too came with a Western setting. Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg and Ray Walston gave wonderful performances, but none of them were really singers. Harve Presnell was. This piece from Paint Your Wagon shows that.

My advice: seize the time to watch more musicals. If you like Westerns or Musicals in general, then especially start with these two Western Musicals. I recommend Paint Your Wagon first. It not only had Meredith Wilson’s influence, but also Alan Jay Lerner and Paddy Chayefsky. Lerner contributed to many other classics of musical theater, e.g. My Fair Lady and Brigadoon. Chayefsky wrote for stage and screen creating such masterpieces as The Americanization of Emily and Network . Quite a list of credits for one movie musical, but I think it still lives up to them.

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