Willson’s Presents Musical Americana Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the great pieces of Americana on stage, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man became one of the most popular musicals of the 1950’s.

Summary of Event

Meredith Willson was fifty-five years old when The Music Man opened December 19, 1957. To that time, Willson’s only Broadway experience had consisted of playing the flute in the Rialto Theater orchestra thirty-five years earlier. As a flutist, he had played with march king John Philip Sousa and with Arturo Toscanini in the New York Philharmonic Symphony. He had also conducted for Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles symphonies and served as musical director of the National Broadcasting Company’s Hollywood division. As a composer, he had written a variety of classical compositions, motion-picture scores, and several popular tunes, including the standard “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You.” "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" (Willson)[May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You] Though he had not worked in musical theater, Willson drew on his extensive musical experience to create a Broadway hit that would become the quintessential American musical and alter the direction of the rest of his life. Music Man, The (Willson) Theater;musicals Musical theater [kw]Willson’s The Music Man Presents Musical Americana (Dec. 19, 1957)[Willsons The Music Man Presents Musical Americana] [kw]Music Man Presents Musical Americana, Willson’s The (Dec. 19, 1957) [kw]Americana, Willson’s The Music Man Presents Musical (Dec. 19, 1957) Music Man, The (Willson) Theater;musicals Musical theater [g]North America;Dec. 19, 1957: Willson’s The Music Man Presents Musical Americana[05690] [g]United States;Dec. 19, 1957: Willson’s The Music Man Presents Musical Americana[05690] [c]Theater;Dec. 19, 1957: Willson’s The Music Man Presents Musical Americana[05690] [c]Music;Dec. 19, 1957: Willson’s The Music Man Presents Musical Americana[05690] Willson, Meredith Preston, Robert Cook, Barbara DaCosta, Morton

Willson, who had also developed a reputation as a humorist, would regale his friends with reminiscences of Mason City, Iowa, the small midwestern town where he had been born in 1902. Frank Loesser Loesser, Frank , a veteran Broadway composer, suggested that Willson write a musical about his youth as early as 1949. To his annoyance, Willson’s wife, Rini, Willson, Rini agreed and regularly reminded him of the suggestion. In 1951, Ernie Martin Martin, Ernie and Cy Feuer Feuer, Cy called to ask him to write a musical comedy for their highly successful Broadway production company. Willson still resisted, but one day he began writing notes for his Iowa play, at first entitled The Silver Triangle. His efforts excited Feuer, who moved to California to guide Willson while he shaped the work into a musical comedy.

After six months and several drafts, an exhausted, discouraged Feuer went back to New York, releasing all claims to the work he had retitled The Music Man. Willson became obsessed with the project and worked on it almost exclusively for the next five years, ultimately employing Franklin Lacey Lacey, Franklin to help clarify the story and penning thirty-two separate drafts. Believing it was finally ready for production, Willson contacted Kermit Bloomgarden Bloomgarden, Kermit , who, after a midnight audition, agreed to produce the “beautiful play”—as soon as Willson fixed the problems with the book. By the time rehearsals began, Willson had written more than forty drafts and almost fifty songs that were never used in the final production. Rewriting continued until the afternoon of the Broadway opening.

Meredith Willson achieved three major accomplishments with The Music Man. First, he created a remarkably cohesive show; because he served as writer, composer, and lyricist, he avoided the inevitable, and often glaring, patchwork effect of the work of collaborators. Second, Willson composed a new kind of song for the Broadway theater. At the time, Broadway musicals were largely written by a small number of librettists, lyricists, and composers who shared the same background in musical comedy. This select group had developed a distinct style for Broadway musicals.

Because of Willson’s different background, he created a different sound for the musical comedy. One unique feature of his work was his lyrics, which rarely rhyme. He developed a method for writing songs in rhythms that grow out of the speech of his characters. This is most notable in Harold Hill’s two soliloquies, “Trouble” "Trouble" (Willson)[Trouble] and the beginning of “Seventy-Six Trombones,” "Seventy-Six Trombones" (Willson)[Seventy Six Trombones] and in novelty numbers such as “Rock Island,” in which a group of traveling salesmen create the sound of a moving train, and “Pickalittle,” in which the town gossips create the sound of chickens. Another unique feature was Willson’s use of the same melody for Harold Hill’s march, “Seventy-six Trombones,” and for the female lead Marian’s love song “Goodnight, My Someone,” to show subtly that the two characters had more in common than meets the eye. Willson used contrasting songs to show differences in character in Hill’s “The Sadder but Wiser Girl” and Marian’s “My White Knight.”

Finally, Willson used types of music that had not previously been identified with musical comedy, including the march and the barbershop quartet. In fact, The Music Man was the first Broadway musical to use a barbershop quartet. Ultimately, Willson successfully created an openly sentimental story about the 1912 American Midwest as seen through rose-colored glasses—the kind of story that sophisticated New Yorkers would normally hoot off the stage. Because of the show’s honesty, its combination of love and irony, however, Willson delivered a valentine that was eagerly accepted by its audience.

The audience was caught up in the production from the moment the curtain rose to show the traveling salesmen creating the sound of the train as they bounced along in their railway coach, discussing the scoundrel Harold Hill. The scenery and costumes re-created the innocent America of yesterday: the Victorian parlor, the high school gymnasium, the footbridge where lovers met. By the time a handcuffed Professor Hill stood before his boys’ band, leading them in the cacophonous but recognizable “Minuet in G,” "Minuet in G" (Willson)[Minuet in G] the audience was cheering, crying, and applauding in unison for the show’s curtain call, “Seventy-Six Trombones.” Writing in The Saturday Evening Post, Walter Kerr described the audience response: “The rhythmic hand-clapping which greeted the finale of The Music Man on opening night was the only time I have ever felt a single irresistible impulse sweep over an entire audience and stir it to a demonstration that could not possibly have been inhibited.”

Robert Preston’s performance in the title role of Harold Hill attracted as much attention as the production. Preston had been known as a “heavy” for twenty years in the film business; he had never sung, danced, or appeared in a musical. His performance, though, was electric, winning over the audience and critics alike and earning Preston a Tony Award Tony Awards . He maintained the freshness and vitality of opening night through the entire Broadway run and re-created the role in the successful 1962 film version. The personal achievements of Willson and Preston overshadowed the significant contributions of Barbara Cook as Marian and Iggie Wolfington Wolfington, Iggie as Marcellus, who both earned Tony Awards for their supporting roles. Morton DaCosta’s meticulous staging was also notable, as were Howard Bay Bay, Howard and Raoul Pene du Bois’s Du Bois, Raoul Pene contributions in designing the turn-of-the-century Iowa set and the costumes of its citizens.

Meredith Willson turned his career to the musical comedy. In 1960, he collaborated with Richard Morris on the successful The Unsinkable Molly Brown. In 1963, he returned to Broadway as librettist, lyricist, and composer for the short-lived Here’s Love; his final endeavor, 1491, a 1969 musical about Christopher Columbus, closed before reaching Broadway. Nevertheless, Meredith Willson’s achievements with the Broadway musical overshadowed all the other successes in his long and versatile career.

Significance

The Music Man, which ran for 1,375 performances, was one of the longest-running Broadway musicals of the 1950’s. Second only to My Fair Lady (2,717 performances beginning in 1956), it outdistanced even such notables as The King and I (1,246 performances beginning in 1951), Guys and Dolls (1,200 performances beginning in 1950), and West Side Story (734 performances beginning in 1957). Musical comedy and theater history textbooks barely make note of the production, mentioning only the unique success of the sentimental midwestern story and Robert Preston’s remarkable portrayal of Harold Hill. It is more often remembered as the musical that whipped West Side Story in every major category for every major award of the season.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of The Music Man is that it has become a picture postcard of an innocent midwestern town, epitomizing the popular image of pre-Depression America. It is as representative as Grant Wood’s 1930 painting American Gothic, American Gothic (Wood) which is created on stage in the opening of the show. At about the same time, that image was also etched in America’s memory by two other midwesterners who had been transplanted to Southern California. Walt Disney created Disneyland’s “Main Street U.S.A.” in 1955; Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, set in 1928, evokes this same image and was published in September, 1957, three months before The Music Man opened. These three independent but intertwined memories, created at the height of the optimistic Eisenhower era, continue to be experienced by thousands around the world. They present a simpler America, when the “bad guy” was nothing more than a lovable rogue who could bring excitement to a monotonous summer day and when reform could be achieved through the beauty of true love and laughter.

In The Music Man, Meredith Willson also created a play that is accessible at a variety of levels, be it the professional, university, high school, or community theater. Its basic requirements are few: a leading man who can handle the patter songs, a leading woman who can sing, and a barbershop quartet. There are no dream ballets, no difficult harmonies. There is a plethora of roles, so entire families often take part in amateur productions. The production’s dances are simple; almost anyone can march, or do a square dance, or even climb on a library table. Audiences of even the most amateurish productions respond to the bickering school board that is united for the first time as a barbershop quartet, and they cry and cheer when the band muddles its way through “Minuet in G,” saving Professor Hill from a mob and uniting him with Marian in love.

The appeal of the material is also evident in its acceptance outside the Broadway theater. Within one year after the play opened, at least twenty different recordings of the music were in record stores; thousands of high school bands were soon marching to “Seventy-Six Trombones.” The successful 1962 film version, Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];The Music Man[Music Man] Music Man, The (DaCosta) again starring Robert Preston as Harold Hill, re-created the look and energy of the stage production. It was the first film musical to sell for a million dollars to television, where it is frequently rebroadcast.

The night before the Broadway opening, a benefit performance of The Music Man never seemed to get off the ground. After the show, a discouraged Max Allentuck, one of producer Kermit Bloomgarden’s associates, went to a restaurant and ran into some of the Broadway theater crowd, who were not encouraging about the show’s prospects. One man, however, spoke up, stating that The Music Man was “one of the great pieces of Americana.” William Saroyan was right. Music Man, The (Willson) Theater;musicals Musical theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“A Happy Oom-pah on Broadway.” Life 44 (January 20, 1958): 103-106. The best source for several color photographs of the Broadway production of The Music Man. These provide a good feel for the show, but the text provides almost nothing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kramer, Mimi. “The Unmusical.” The New Yorker 64 (March 21, 1988): 103. A review panning the New York City Opera’s revival of The Music Man in 1988. Staged too much like grand opera, the show lost all the qualities that have made it a success in other productions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Scott. Deconstructing Harold Hill: An Insider’s Guide to Musical Theatre. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2000. The Music Man takes pride of place in this critical study of seven Broadway musicals, from Camelot (1960) through Sunday in the Park with George (1984).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Pied Piper of Broadway.” Time 72 (July 21, 1958): 42-46. Written six months after The Music Man’s successful opening, this article examines the backgrounds of the production and of Robert Preston. Offers insight on the show’s success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willson, Meredith. But He Doesn’t Know the Territory. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959. Willson’s folksy description of writing The Music Man, from the project’s conception to the opening-night curtain. Provides his perception of the show’s unique achievements and an informative account of the workings of Broadway theater production in the 1950’s.

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