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Meredith Willson and The Music Man: Making Yesterday Worth Remembering

By Lawrence Henley

 

At more than fifty years of age, The Music Man has withstood the test of time by anyone’s measure. Despite its lack of glamour or a serious theme, the show belongs on any credible top-ten list of most beloved Broadway musicals from the pre-1970s era (Broadway’s “classical period,” if you will). Even with today’s propensity for expletives and violence in entertainment, the inordinately wholesome The Music Man remains a ticket-sales colossus. It has been through multiple revivals, two film versions, and endless television references and parodies. Undeniably, the show is a theatrical staple found in all sectors of American theatre: Regional? Local? Educational? Community? Eventually, they all produce The Music Man.

Why is a huge cross-section of theatre audiences so perpetually endeared to this musical? Is it because The Music Man takes us back to a more carefree, forgotten world of passenger trains, shady footbridges, barbershop quartets, fragrant picnic parks, ice cream socials, and the patriotic marching music of John Phillip Sousa? Could it be the flawless, hopelessly upbeat and richly textured score? What about the amazing rat-a-tat-tat rapid-fire lyrics, or the liberal use of musical devices such as contrapuntal combo-melodies and syncopated rhythms? Or, perhaps, it’s the wonderful “lost-to-history” references to turn-of-the-last-century products like Bevo (an early “near-beer”), Cubebs (“medicinal” cigarettes), Sen-Sen (a masking agent for “tell-tale” breath), and Cap’n Billy’s Whiz Bang (a racy post-World War I comic book)? And, is it possible to go into Disneyland and avoid hearing Iowa Stubborn, Wells Fargo Wagon, and Lida Rose (rhetorical question there, it is not possible)?

All of these can be considered as we sort through the great composers of the best pre-Hair era musicals. It’s completely unsurprising to find the names Sondheim, Berlin, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Lerner, Loewe, and Loesser on such lists, but alongside these please add the name Willson. “Willson,” you say? “With two L’s?” Well, I grant you, the unlikely story of how a clean-shaven, bespectacled piccolo player from unremarkable Mason City, Iowa found himself in this elite company requires explanation.

The reality, of course, is that the late Meredith Willson (1902–1987) was more than a small-town musician who hit the jackpot on Broadway (1957’s The Music Man and 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown). Willson was born in 1902, and the sights, sounds, and people of his “River City” and small town Iowa would remain with him all his life. In The Music Man, 1912 Mason City has been frozen in time, and through his genius that world becomes real for generation after generation. All of the places and faces we love in The Music Man sprang forth from Willson’s wistful memories of the “hailstone and Sarsaparilla belt.”

After the marching band days of his Iowa youth, Willson at seventeen journeyed to New York for classical training at the Damrosch Institute (Juilliard), becoming principal flute and piccolo in the great Sousa’s own band, and then for the New York Philharmonic under the legendary Leopold Stokowski. In his spare time, Willson began to “moonlight” as a bandleader, composer, and arranger in the bourgeoning new mass media of radio, television, and film. Eventually, he became a celebrity through variety shows and commercials. Later, when Willson and his second wife, Rini, moved to Hollywood, his fame was sufficient to author a top-selling 1948 autobiography, And There I Stood with My Piccolo.

In their New York days, “Mere” (as he was known to friends) and Rini both loved Broadway shows, and Mrs. Willson would consistently chisel at her husband to write one. Eventually, he acquiesced, encouraged by networking with fellow songwriters like Frank Loesser. He knew how much cash the creator of a hit musical could generate over time. The gifted but salaried composer figured that, if he could snare himself a Broadway hit, financial independence would be his.

Through his memoir and broadcast fame, Willson landed on the radar screen of two of Broadway’s hottest producers, Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin. Blazing hot from Guys and Dolls, the duo would eventually follow their smash with Can-Can, The Boy Friend, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Via Willson’s book, Cy and Ernie had zeroed in on a potential theme for a new hit show: a lighthearted throwback to a simpler time full of brass bands, candy kitchens, and 4th of July Americana.

After giving The Music Man its name (the original title was The Silver Triangle), Cy and Ernie eventually lost interest in the project. During their four-year collaboration (1951-55) Willson’s music flourished, yet the development of the show’s book proved exceedingly tough. By 1955, Willson had written enough music to fill two musicals, but after two-dozen rewrites the story still wasn’t concise. Nonetheless, through Feuer and Martin, he gleaned invaluable insight on how to birth a hit musical.

Feuer and Martin asked Willson to work with them on a new project, which he “Iowa stubbornly” rejected. Betting all of his marbles on The Music Man, he tapped a colleague, Franklin Lacey, to help streamline the cumbersome book. Undaunted, Willson rang up Most Happy Fella producers Kermit Bloomgarden and Herb Greene who were immediately enchanted by Willson’s audition. They offered to produce it on the spot. Music Man finally opened on December 19, 1957 at the Majestic Theatre. An instant critical and financial smash (eight Tony Awards), it ran through April 15, 1961 for a colossal total of 1,375 performances.

With today’s epic stories and overwhelming technology on Broadway, it seems a real reach to think of Meredith Willson’s work as groundbreaking and innovative, but from a musical standpoint it really was.

Introducing The Music Man’s signature tune as a lilting waltz sung by the female lead (Goodnight, My Someone), he wasted almost no time in resurrecting that same great melody as a show-stopping march, this time sung by the male lead (Seventy-Six Trombones). Then, later, he reprised both tunes in the same song while reversing the roles! Willson also used the device of rhymed verse (sans melody) that mimicked an accelerating and decelerating train (Rock Island). Then, he inserted groundbreaking stage rap (Ya Got Trouble). The medley Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You interwove two superb melodies and several voices in counterpoint (Marian the Librarian with The Buffalo Bills barbershop quartet). He then repeated this technique with the novelty Pickalittle/Talkalittle blended with the drinking standard Good Night Ladies.
The show’s famed love ballad (Till’ There Was You) earned Willson more money than all of the show’s royalties combined after being recorded by The Beatles. The Fab Four wanted something in their repertoire that would appeal to parents and critics. They performed Till’ There Was You as the second song in their historic American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show and also for Queen Elizabeth II in 1963’s Royal Variety Show. Today, Sir Paul McCartney owns the publishing and performance rights to Meredith Willson’s music catalog.

Equally crucial to The Music Man are Willson’s unforgettable characters: the winsome Marian Paroo, an inscrutable intellectual who doubles as a lonely piano teacher; Winthrop, Marian’s sad, adorable and linguistically-challenged kid brother; the buffoonish Mayor Shinn and his pompous wife, Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn; Charlie Cowell, the hard-tack anvil salesman hell bent on revenge; and, above all, Professor Harold Hill, the ultimate flim-flam man who, in the end, is rehabilitated by Marian’s love and tenderness.
It would be criminal for any discussion of The Music Man to omit mention of two legendary individual performances. Tribute must be paid to the late, great Robert Preston (Harold Hill) and also to Barbara Cook (Marian), still thought of by many as Broadway’s ultimate female voice.

Robert Preston Meservey (1918-1987) was a gifted Hollywood heavy relegated to countless B-grade Westerns and detective shows. Tired of “Tinseltown,” Preston moved to New York, seeking a better platform for his considerable stage talents. Willson, despondent after striking out in L.A. with movie stars Danny Kaye, Dan Dailey and Gene Kelly, turned to Director Morton “Tec” DaCosta. Tec’s sage advice was to fly back to New York and hear Preston’s callback audition, the show-stopping Ya Got Trouble. Within seconds, he proved to be Professor Hill personified. Preston’s electrifying stage and film performances in The Music Man were unforgettable, and it remains difficult for anyone who saw them to conceive of anyone else playing the role.

Despite the fact that some may view The Music Man as nothing more than a happy show loaded with novelty and nostalgia, its legacy has proven that it is much more than that. Audiences, critics, producers, performers, music educators, Iowans, and ex-Beatles alike continue to embrace it. Is it possible that Meredith Willson was using the “Think System” on all of us?


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