One of a bare handful of hit Broadway musicals to have been written in its entirety by a single person, The Music Man opened to rave reviews in 1957, beat out West Side Story at the Tony Awards, and ran for 1,375 performances. Then it was turned into one of the most popular Hollywood musicals ever filmed. The story of a smooth-talking con man who breezes into a hick town to swindle its residents and ends up losing his heart to the local librarian was successfully revived on Broadway in 2000, filmed a second time for TV in 2003, and continues to be performed regularly by regional and amateur theater companies throughout America.
Why, then, is Meredith Willson—the author of its libretto and music and lyrics—so completely forgotten? Because nothing he did before or after The Music Man was of lasting interest. Willson (surely one of the last males in America to carry the first name of Meredith) was 55 years old when The Music Man premiered, and the two musicals that followed it, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960) and Here’s Love (1962), were successful in their day but have since failed to hold the stage. (The peculiarly unmusical movie version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, with Debbie Reynolds as a brassy survivor of the Titanic, was a big hit, but it dispensed with most of the score, featuring only six of Willson’s songs.) Willson also wrote the music for one film of note, William Wyler’s 1941 adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, but his score was undistinguished. Only one of his non-theatrical songs, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” continues to be sung, and except for the ubiquitous “Seventy-Six Trombones,” none of the numbers from The Music Man quite established itself as a standard (although “Till There Was You” came close).
Willson was, in other words, a one-hit wonder, and the immense and enduring popularity of his hit, coupled with the fact that he was by all accounts exceedingly likable and seems to have led a blameless private life, has had the unexpected effect of blotting out any lasting memories of the man who wrote it.
Fortunately, he also published a pair of anecdotal memoirs, And There I Stood with My Piccolo (1948) and “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory” (1959), in which he tells the story of his life up through the opening night of The Music Man. These charmingly breezy books, which went out of print long ago, were republished without fanfare by University of Minnesota Press in 2009 and are now available in paperback. They tell the story of a singularly eventful professional life—making clear in the process that The Music Man, while not literally autobiographical, was nonetheless deeply rooted in the details of Willson’s own childhood and youth.
Born in 1902, Willson came to New York at the age of 17 to study with the legendary French flutist Georges Barrère. He then spent three years with John Philip Sousa’s band and in 1924 joined the New York Philharmonic, subsequently playing under such conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Willem Mengelberg, and Arturo Toscanini.
What is all the more surprising about these youthful achievements is that Willson came from the most inartistic and unselfconsciously provincial of backgrounds: an Iowa town called Mason City. To read the opening chapter of And There I Stood with My Piccolo, published nine years before The Music Man opened on Broadway, is to realize at once that the “River City” of The Music Man, with its “Iowa-stubborn” citizens who blanch at the thought that their children might inadvertently stumble across the novels of Balzac in the public library, is a barely fictionalized portrait of Mason City.
That it should also be a fundamentally affectionate portrait says much about Willson himself, who would forever after think of his hometown as the Edenic land of lost material that he portrays with only the gentlest glints of irony in The Music Man: “How well I remember my first ice cream cone. ‘The man down at the corner by the bank sells ice cream in a little glass!’ And my first street carnival was all Ferris wheel and butterfly scarf dancers making swirls in colored lights.”
Hearing the Mason City Municipal Band inspired young Meredith to take up the flute—he claimed to have owned the first flute ever seen there, which his parents ordered for him from a mail-order house in Chicago—and in 1921, after just two years of study with Barrère, he became the principal flutist in Sousa’s band, going directly from there to the New York Philharmonic.
For most aspiring musicians, landing a job with the Philharmonic at the age of 22 would be the dream of a lifetime, and Willson tells of his triumph with self-deprecating delight in And There I Stood with My Piccolo. His portrayal of life with the famously temperamental Toscanini is especially vivid:
Like the troops on the transport ship in that famous cartoon who all marched overboard because their commanding officer was a stutterer and couldn’t manage to say “Halt!” any of us in Toscanini’s orchestra would have unquestioningly done the same, though as much from reasons of being afraid of him as of loving him.
But Willson, who had also played in dance bands and pit orchestras in Iowa and New York, aspired to be a composer. In 1929 he left the orchestra and moved to the West Coast to work in radio, quickly becoming the musical director of a San Francisco station. Within a few years he was living in Hollywood and conducting for such popular programs as Maxwell House Coffee Time, on which, in addition to leading the orchestra, he doubled as the comic stooge to George Burns and Gracie Allen.
After brief and modestly successful attempts to establish himself as a film composer and popular songwriter, Willson returned to the airwaves. In 1950 he became the musical director of The Big Show, a series starring Tallulah Bankhead and Fred Allen which was network radio’s last big-budget variety program. By then, TV was rapidly supplanting radio, and after The Big Show was canceled in 1951, the untelegenic Willson, finding it difficult to make the transition to the new medium, decided to try his hand at writing for the theater, hanging on to such work as was still available in radio in order to pay the bills.
Encouraged by his friend Frank Loesser and by Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, the producing team that had brought Guys and Dolls to Broadway the year before, Willson resolved to put the Mason City of his youth on stage. The results seem so effortless that those unfamiliar with the complex process of creating a Broadway show will be startled to read Willson’s detailed account in “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory” of his six-year struggle to write The Music Man and bring it to the stage. Among other things, he admits to having written 40 different songs for the show, only 18 of which made it into the final script.
The plot of The Music Man, in which Harold Hill, a musical illiterate, passes himself off as an experienced bandmaster in order to defraud the citizens of River City by selling them instruments that he cannot teach their children how to play, is far from the only original and unprecedented aspect of this singular piece of work. Willson, who had never before written any kind of stage work, produced on his first try (albeit after much revision) a musical-comedy book that is technically impeccable to the point of virtuosity, not least in the way that it compresses the equivalent of an entire expository dialogue scene into the four-minute-long opening number, “Rock Island,” set on the train that brings Hill to River City.
That said, the score of The Music Man is the show’s most immediately engaging feature—even though “Ya Got Trouble,” Hill’s show-stopping introductory solo, dispenses not only with rhyme but also with melody, the lyrics spoken instead in rapid-fire patter. Willson was not a natural tunesmith, even though in “Till There Was You,” the confessional ballad sung to Hill by Marian Paroo, the lonely town librarian, he eked out a warm, expansive arch of melody that is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky in its straightforward warmth.
More often, his “tunes” are either functional vehicles for his lyrics or superbly knowing pastiches of turn-of-the-century popular-song genres. The most memorable example of Willson’s gifts as a pasticheur is “Seventy-Six Trombones,” whose tune sounds exactly like a trombone counter-melody from a Sousa march (and which, when slowed down and recast in waltz time, does double duty as the sweetly naive ballad “Goodnight, My Someone”).
Brooks Atkinson spoke for his colleagues in his New York Times review, calling The Music Man “a warm and genial cartoon of American life” and going on to say that “if Mark Twain could have collaborated with Vachel Lindsay, they might have devised a rhythmic lark like The Music Man, which is as American as apple pie and a Fourth of July oration.”
It is a tribute to the conceptual strength and theatrical soundness of The Music Man that most of its subsequent productions, including Susan Stroman’s 2000 Broadway revival, have made little or no attempt to deviate from the precedents established by Morton Da Costa, the show’s original director, and Robert Preston, who created the role of Harold Hill on Broadway and transferred his performance to the screen with exuberant aplomb.1
But The Music Man is more than just a cartoon. It is, to begin with, highly innovative in its use of unrhyming lyrics and parlando “speak-songs” (as Willson called them). Moreover, an imaginative director who takes The Music Man seriously, as Bill Rauch did in the nontraditionally cast production that he staged in 2009 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, can find in it overtones of loneliness and doubt that more traditional stagings usually overlook. (At its climax, Harold Hill is nearly set upon and lynched.)
Willson loved the real-life River City of his youth, but he needed no reminding that a town full of upright, censorious gossips who lead ultra-proper lives can make things hard for any citizen who begs to differ with them (We’re so by-God stubborn we can stand touchin’ noses/For a week at a time and never see eye to eye). And that’s the hinge on which The Music Man pivots: The bookish Marian is an outcast because she is unmarried and serious about literature, and it is Hill, the brash and dishonest outsider, who opens the eyes of the well-meaning but priggish townspeople to her worth—just as his musical ignorance doesn’t stop him from showing them that there’s nothing wrong with having a good time.
To see a production that underlines this subtext without hammering it into the ground is to be reminded that The Music Man is as evocative of small-town America in its essentially optimistic way as is Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s much darker study of the complexities of life in a closely knit community.
Willson would always be characteristically modest about his crowning achievement: “The existence of The Music Man proves Somerset Maugham’s contention that anybody with a good memory can write down a story. I remember my childhood so well that each character in the show is not one, but a composite of three or four different people.”
The degree to which the results embodied his personal experience—and used up the clay from which he could mold his art—was further demonstrated by the fact that he never again wrote an original musical-comedy book for Broadway. He collaborated with Richard Morris on The Unsinkable Molly Brown and adapted Here’s Love from the film Miracle on 34th Street, neither of which comes remotely near matching The Music Man in quality.
Clearly, Meredith Willson, like most amateur authors, had only one story to tell, that of his own childhood. But if you tell your story in the right way, you only need one, and with The Music Man he ensured for himself a lasting place in the annals of American theater. No other musical says so much about the homespun joys of life in turn-of-the-century America, or says it so endearingly. It is, in its unassuming way, a masterpiece of popular art, one that will surely continue to be performed for as long as Americans continue to believe in their own fundamental innocence—or long to recapture it.
1 Another reason for this faithfulness is that the film version of The Music Man, also directed by Da Costa, is one of the few Hollywood musicals to clearly suggest the potent theatrical impact of the original Broadway production on which it was based. As a result, most stage directors now use the film as a model for their own productions.