By Marlo Ihler
On May 18, 1902, the Willson family of Mason City, Iowa, welcomed a fourteen-and-a-half pound baby boy, the largest baby born in the state at the time. It was an auspicious beginning of a lifetime of impressive achievements for Robert Meredith Willson, award-winning American composer, conductor, songwriter, author, and playwright (John C. Skipper, Meredith Willson: The Unsinkable Music Man [Mason City, Iowa: Savas Publishing Co., 2000], 1).
As the youngest of three children born to a lawyer father and schoolteacher mother who also taught piano, Willson was a bright, musical youth who learned to play the flute and piccolo exceptionally well. In his first memoir, There I Stood with My Piccolo, he describes his love of band music as a young man: “I hung around the bandstand in the summertime and practically passed out when they played ‘Custer’s Last Stand’. . . . Naturally I wanted to play in the band someday, and that got me dreaming about [John Philip] Sousa’s band and show business” ([New York City: Doubleday, 1948], 5).”
At seventeen, he left his beloved hometown to attend what is now the Juilliard School in New York City. Only two years later he was following his dream of playing and touring with John Philip Sousa’s band. By the time he was twenty-two, he was playing under Arturo Toscanini’s direction in the New York Philharmonic, as well as playing with the New York Chamber Music Society (http://www.imdb.com).
By the early 1930s, a career shift took Willson to California to work in radio, starting in San Francisco and moving to Hollywood a few years later. He would stay in radio for the next twenty-five years, music directing and participating in some of the most beloved radio shows of the time.
During the 1930s and ’40s, he also composed numerous orchestral works and film scores. For the latter, he received two Academy Award nominations for his work on Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941) with Bette Davis.
During World War II, he served as a major in the U.S. Army, and used his talents as the head of the Music Division of the Armed Forces Radio Service (http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist/willson.html). Following the war, he continued songwriting while concurrently working as the music director of NBC’s radio and television networks (http://www.songwritershalloffame.org).
By the early 1950s, Willson’s wife and Broadway producer friends had suggested that he try his hand at writing a musical comedy about his boyhood home. What resulted was the immensely successful and critically acclaimed The Music Man, a story of a traveling con man who tries to swindle a small town into signing up their sons for his boys’ band, guaranteeing to teach them to play. The setting for the musical was based on his hometown of Mason City, Iowa, and many of the characters are based on his own family and friends. He called it “an Iowan’s attempt to pay tribute to his home state” (http://www.imdb.com).
The Music Man, directed by Morton Da Costa, opened on Broadway in 1957 and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actor for Robert Preston’s performance of con man Professor Harold Hill. It also won a New York Drama Critics Award and the first ever Grammy for the original cast album. It ran for 1,375 performances over next five years (www.ibdb.com).
Numerous songs from the musical are renowned, such as the ever-invigorating “76 Trombones,” the barbershop standard “Lida Rose,” the sweet “Goodnight, My Someone,” and the teasingly humorous “Marion the Librarian.”
In 1960 Warner Brothers purchased the film rights for $1 million. In 1962 the film version of The Music Man, starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, and again directed by Morton Da Costa, premiered in Willson’s hometown to a crowd of nearly 100,000. The event included more than 100 marching bands, festivities, and the entire cast of the film on hand to celebrate the occasion.
That year the film received six Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Music Adaptation. It also tied for a Golden Globe for Best Film-Musical Comedy (The Music Man DVD, Special Edition Documentary, 1998, Warner Home Video).
The show enjoyed other reincarnations since the original in 1957. In 1980 it had a short-lived Broadway revival with Dick Van Dyke as Harold Hill. Another revival in 2000 was much more successful, starring Craig Bierko as Harold Hill and Rebecca Luker as Marion. This production received eight Tony Award nominations and ran for 699 performances. There was also another film version made in 2003 starring Matthew Broderick as Harold Hill and Kristin Chenoweth as Marion (www.ibdb.com).
But despite these successes, the route to get there was a different story in and of itself. With his usual Iowa stubbornness, Willson resisted the idea of writing the show in the first place. He talked about starting the process in his second memoir, But He Doesn’t Know the Territory: The Making of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man: “So, one day, without giving the matter too much thought, I wrote ACT ONE, SCENE ONE on the empty paper, not, of course, to show these people that I could write a musical comedy but to show them I could not. And for the next six years I was way out in front. . . . ACT ONE, SCENE ONE. . . . The fifth word was the sticker” ([New York City: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959], 16).
He obviously harnessed his talents as a writer and composer, and went on to create other award-winning Broadway musicals, such as The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1960) and Here’s Love (1963), a story based on Miracle on 34th Street. He also composed two symphonies and over 400 individual songs, many of which have become standards, such as “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Pine Cones and Holly Berries,” and “My Wish.”
His writing talents weren’t isolated to music. In addition to his other two memoirs, Willson wrote a third entitled Eggs I Have Laid (1955); a musician’s help book, What Every Musician Should Know (1938); a novel, Who Did What to Fedalia? (1952); and a novelization of The Music Man (1962).
Some of Willson’s other accomplishments include being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1982, having a residential hall at Julliard named in his honor, and posthumously receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1987.
After an amazing life full of music, a diverse career, and abundant successes, Willson passed away from heart failure on June 15, 1984, in Santa Monica, CA, at the age of 82.