There’s trouble brewing, but it’s not in River City this time. A far cry from the events of the much-loved musical The Music Man, Jacob Chase’s Trouble puts its seventy-six trombones away in boxes and embraces its dark side.
The film opens with the arrival of a nameless traveling salesman (Anthony Rapp) peddling knives on the doorstep of a disillusioned old man (John Rubinstein). The peddler presents his sales pitch as a musical tale about a traveling salesman who came to his town when he and his sister were young. The traveler brought joy and light to their lives until he fled one night with all of their money. Utterly betrayed, the young girl fell into a pit of despair that not even her brother could save her from. Older now, the salesman hopes to fulfill a vow he made to himself to take revenge on the traveling peddler who ruined his sister’s life all those years ago—and the old man in the chair is his answer.
This murderous musical short takes cues from its predecessor The Music Man to imagine what might have happened if, after the lighthearted events of the original production, Professor Harold Hill fled in the night and left his lover Marian and her little brother Winthrop destitute and alone. Taking its name from the famed song “(Ya Got) Trouble,” Trouble picks up the story years later with Winthrop, played here by Rapp, leading a murderous rampage against Hill.
To convey all of this backstory is a massive undertaking, but director Jacob Chase shares information in an economical way. We pick up on bits and pieces in dialogue and through visuals to make sense of the story, such as the unexpected return of the salesman’s lisp or the mention of a “professor” who lived in the house before the old man. And, the final reveal of the musical instruments in the foyer is a cherry on top for any musical theater fans. With that said, viewers who are unfamiliar with the source material may find themselves confused at these details and leave feeling dissatisfied or confused.
Interestingly, Trouble strays tonally from what came before it, instead making use of suspenseful musical beats and dark-edged shots to imbue the story with a sense of fear. Chase is also smart to use these elements to trick his audience into trusting the salesman, thereby creating a natural turning point that reignites our engagement with the story, as we reevaluate who we can trust.
Chase’s directing also does well to blend the modes of musical theater and film, such as his embrace of the camera to enhance the story’s theatricality. Filmically, there are sharp cuts, quick pans, and match cuts to punctuate key moments, but there are even simpler elements like well-choreographed dance sequences and ghost-like figures of past characters who blur the lines between dream and reality. These details blend together well, giving us a glimpse of musical theater without straying far from the film medium.
In terms of character, Rapp is truly in the spotlight here, a testament to his long history as a renowned Broadway actor (best known for playing Mark in Rent). His musical prowess, theatrical acting, and commitment to the quirkiness of the role come together in a stellar performance that keeps us wanting more. There may be the occasional awkward bar or lyric—attributable more to the composition and pacing of the song rather than to Rapp’s performance of it—but this single musical number still manages to compete with those we’ve seen in big-budget Oscar films over the years (think La La Land or Into The Woods). The production value is high for such a short piece, and Rapp’s performance successfully swings from melodious ballad to high-energy revenge tune, showcasing his skill and talent.
This short-form musical film starring one of Broadway’s best, and taking after such a beloved musical, reminds us that there is so much merit to reworking stories of the past. This time, we’ve left behind River City and traveled somewhere where perhaps billiards are the least terrifying thing we have to fear.