LOS ANGELES, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Matthew Broderick has a reputation as a nice guy, and I can confirm that he deserves it.
Last month I attended a press conference for the new "Wonderful World of Disney" production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," which stars Broderick and airs on ABC this Sunday from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST. While waiting for my car afterwards, I had to share space with a bunch of autograph hounds in the parking area.
These aren't fans, by the way, but a new breed of hustlers who've made a business out of selling signed publicity pictures on eBay. They're so aggressive and take up so much space with their grimy accordion files of carefully organized photos, that ordinary starstruck types rarely get the chance to ask for autographs anymore.
They're also quarrelsome as a pack of dogs. "Whose Matthews are those?" asked one idly, noticing a pile of signed 8-inch by 10-inch pictures of Broderick on a bench.
"Tim's," mumbled the guy sitting next to them.
Big put-upon sigh. "Tee, Eye, Emm, Pot-ost-rophee Ess," came the response, with much exasperated eye-rolling.
"Oh! Well, EXCUSE me for making you SPEAK!"
These two looked like they might be about to start a blob-vs.-blob shoving match, and I didn't want to get in the thick of it, so I moved away. But not before noticing just what "Matthews" had been signed. And here was the evidence of Broderick's nice-guy-ness.
Broderick's career, you might recall, was in a dip for a while after his early streak to stardom in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" some 20 years ago. But recently he's been back in a big way.
There's his plum role in this new television remake of "The Music Man," of course. But in the past couple of years Broderick's also been the toast of Broadway, opposite Nathan Lane, for his performance in the phenomenal hit "The Producers."
He also starred in the very smart political satire film "Election," with Reese Witherspoon.
So I doubt he particularly enjoyed being presented with a picture of himself as "Inspector Gadget" by some avaricious autograph hunter. But he'd signed it, with "best wishes," in fact. I'd say that was remarkably good-natured of him.
And so was his response at the ABC news conference, upon being asked the obvious question about how he approached a role that's still so indelibly stamped with the memory of Robert Preston.
"Well, what I did was try to look and sound as much like Robert Preston as I possibly could," Broderick said amiably. "Then I found that it came out very different."
As Professor Harold Hill, the out-of-town Jasper who persuades some small-town citizens of turn-of-the-century Iowa that the way to keep their kids out of trouble in River City is through music lessons, Broderick is slight and sly where Preston was big and blustering. But his performance is just as thoroughly charming, as indeed is this entire new production.
Even 9-year-old Cameron Monaghan gives the memory of little Ronny Howard (now Ron Howard, the director) as the lisping Winthrop a run for its money. It's impossible to see this determined, freckle-faced boy sing "Gary, Indiana" or "The Wells Fargo Wagon" without a big smile forming on your face, and I'm really not normally a sucker for this sort of thing.
But it's Broderick's sunny yet insinuating interpretation of "The Music Man" that breathes new life into this beloved old show.
"Matthew's a natural song-and-dance man, even if he's sort of reluctant to admit it," said choreographer Kathleen Marshall.
"There are people that can do steps, but don't necessarily own them. So even though he comes in apologizing up and down, saying 'I'm not really a dancer,' he is."
Broderick's boyishness infuses the show with a new feeling of youth and freshness. "By casting Matthew, everybody could be aged down so that the cast is predominantly at least 10 years younger than a normal production of this," said co-executive producer Craig Zadan.
"The barbershop quartet is usually a bunch of older actors," Zadan noted. "But here we had very young guys. And I think the relationship that Harold Hill had with the kids in the town, by being closer to their age, Matthew was able to bring in a Pied Piper effect."
Zadan and his producing partner, Neil Meron, have previously revived the musicals "Annie" and "Cinderella" for ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney" -- as well as the film "Chicago," a huge hit out in theaters right now that might just bring back movie musicals as a viable commodity. ("Music Man" choreographer Kathleen Marshall, by the way, is the sister of "Chicago"'s director and choreographer, Rob Marshall.)
But Zadan and Meron never considered doing "The Music Man" as a feature.
"There's an edginess and flavor to 'Chicago' that said big screen," said Maron. "'The Music Man' is for the masses ... the small screen with big screen values."
Zadan noted that because they are such expensive productions, he and Maron basically do these small screen musicals at a loss, at least at first.
But the "Wonderful World of Disney" projects eventually end up succeeding financially because of the collaboration between Disney and ABC, which Disney owns. "And then we bring out the DVD and home video after the movie airs on television, and we do well with it," Zadan added. "So it reimburses the studio and network."
I asked Kristin Chenoweth, who plays Marian the Librarian, what it's like to be a hugely talented musical comedy star now that Broadway musicals barely exist anymore.
"Yeah," answered Chenowith, rather ruefully. "I actually had a decision to make whether to do this or (the Broadway revival of) 'Thoroughly Modern Millie,' which was written for me in mind. But there was really no choice because more people will see us in this musical in one night than will come see me in a Broadway show."
"Take it away, boys!" said Chenoweth, gesturing towards producers Zadan and Meron. "I'd like to know that myself."
"You know, the fact that 'Chicago' has been received the way it has been is just good for introducing newer talent," said Meron tactfully. "Let 'Chicago' live and let's see the trickle-down effect."
"It was sad for me," said Chenoweth, "because of course I'd love to play a role like that. "But it's also so great that they got two major stars in there who did the job that they did, and then maybe we'll do more and more. I'm hoping this musical thing just keeps."