Meredith Willson and the making of The Music Man

Speaking of the program for The Music Man (see previous post), here is the essay I put together and published therein about Meredith Willson, Robert Preston, and the creation of the musical.

The Music Man was the first musical that Meredith Willson (1902-1984) wrote. In some ways he was well-prepared: His beloved home town, Mason City, Iowa, served as the model for River City, and he populated his play with characters based on the sometimes quirky Iowans with whom he grew up. His  mother, a piano teacher, taught him that instrument and encouraged him to learn another. He took up the flute, ordering it from a big-city music firm, to be delivered to their home in Mason City. He anticipated the arrival of that flute with the same eagerness that the citizens of River City await the Wells Fargo wagon. (When Harold and Tommy in The Music Man try to invent a music holder for a flute, they are solving a problem that Willson and the Mason City blacksmith took on when Meredith was in high school.)

Willson was an accomplished musician. He attended the Institute of Musical Art (which became the Julliard School) in New York City and played first chair flute and piccolo in the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Tosconini (1924-1929). Before that, he played in John Philip Sousa’s band (1921-1923), one of the greatest concert bands in America. “The inspiration for ‘Seventy-Six Trombones,’” write Bill Oates in his study of Willson, “may have come from one of the Sousa reunion concerts Willson played, such as the November 4, 1922, Hippodrome performance. Dozens of former members of the famed band wore a variety of uniforms from different time periods to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” en masse. If seventy-six trombones did not perform in that aggregation, it must have seemed like it.”

Willson left the Philharmonic in 1929, moving to San Francisco, where he became the music director of radio station KFRC. There he composed—and directed—music for many radio programs. He also began to write music for orchestras and film. Among his compositions are the popular songs “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and “You and I,” the latter a Number 1 hit for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. His film scores include Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and William Wyler’s The Little Foxes, both of which earned him nominations for the Academy Award.

He became the musical director of the NBC network, working out of Los Angeles. As such he began both to conduct the orchestra for popular programs and to appear as himself—that is, as the character of music director—on radio shows. He conducted and performed on the Burns and Allen Program (with George Burns and Gracie Allen), The Big Show (with Tallulah Bankhead), and The Jack Benny Program. He also starred in several radio programs, including a popular weekly series in which he introduced the average listener to the joys of classical music.

Through the decades on radio, as well as with friends, Willson became known for his folksy humor and his stories of the men and women of small-town Iowa. His friend and fellow-composer Frank Loesser thought he could create a good musical out of these stories and characters, and in 1951, he was asked by producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin to write a musical “about your Iowa boyhood…” Feuer and Martin had recently produced a huge hit on Broadway, Where’s Charley?, and would go on to populate the stage with Can-Can, The Boy Friend, and Guys and Dolls (among many others). They were serious in their request, and Willson took up the challenge.

And so began a process of writing and rewriting, discarding and adding. Draft followed draft, songs followed songs. Willson wrote over 40 songs for the show, 22 of which were cut during the six years of The Music Man’s development. Martin and Feuer dropped out, parting cordially, and Kermit Bloomgarden came on board as producer. Willson’s problem was over-writing: his early versions of the play would have run well over four hours. With the help of writer Frank Laskey and director Morton DaCosta, Willson finally shaped the play into a stageable form, and casting and rehearsals began.

In 1957 actor Robert Preston was approached by DeCosta and Bloomgarden, who asked him to read for the leading role in The Music Man. Preston was working in theatre in New York, having left a successful Hollywood career for more meaningful roles on the New York stage. As Preston later recalled, they had “tried several well-known musical-comedy performers and found that each one wanted to add something of his own to each scene—something characteristic.” Ray Bolger, a wonderful soft-shoe dancer and singer, best known for his role as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, wanted to open the second act of The Music Man with a bunch his signature numbers. The producers “wondered what the devil happened to The Music Man,” said Preston, “while ‘Once in Love with Amy’ [Bolger’s well-known popular song] —or whatever—came out.”

DeCosta and Bloomgarden began to audition actors not necessarily associated with musicals to play Harold Hill. They thought they had finally found their leading man when Robert Preston, who had never been in a musical, read the part. Willson, who was in Los Angeles trying to interest Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, and band leader Phil Harris in the role, was skeptical about Preston, thinking of him more in terms of his movie roles as a cowboy or soldier or Mountie. “I’ve got five words for you, Buster,” DeCosta told Willson over the phone. “Wait—till—you—hear—him.”

Two days later, Robert Preston walked into Willson’s home in California, accompanied by producer Bloomgarden. He walked over to Willson’s piano to sing “Ya Got Trouble,” a tricky speak-song that became one of The Music Man’s most popular tunes. “If you can sing ‘Trouble,’” Willson had said, “you can sing anything in the show.” Preston had worked on the song for a week, and after Willson played an upper octave E-flat, “Preston disappeared into Harold Hill,” performing “Trouble” without breaking a sweat. His ownership of the role was complete.

The Music Man opened on December 19, 1957 at the Majestic Theatre. It played for 1,375 performances. The production won five Tony Awards, one for Robert Preston as best leading man in a musical, and one for the production itself, Best Musical, beating West Side Story, which had opened three months before. The cast album won the first Grammy given for “Original Cast Recording,” and Preston went on to star in the successful 1962 film version, written by Willson, of the musical.

Willson went on to write the music and lyrics for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960) and the book, lyrics, and music for Here’s Love (1963), an adaptation of the movie Miracle on 34th Street. When he died of heart failure in 1984, he left behind a large body of work: hymns, concerts, popular songs, humorous books of autobiography, scores for motion pictures, and, of course, The Music Man. He is buried in Mason City, Iowa.

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2 Responses to Meredith Willson and the making of The Music Man

  1. cant get enough of TheMusicMan says:

    TMM is my favorite screen musical. As i have read more background, i found that 22 songs were cut as mentioned in other blogs.
    Before i read this article, i believed if they cut 22, then what act pieces were also cut ….?
    The article intimates that there were many of those were cut also.

    Is there any research or writings stating what were Willson’s ORIGINAL ideas that never made it.
    Are there any recordings of the 22 cut songs? Or acting cuts to an (original longer (+4hrs) script) ?

    If Peter Jackson (LOTR) had done the MGM musical , you bet he would have had
    a Special Extended /Expanded DVD version of the exising TMM.

    • Tom Shafer says:

      A lot of your questions are answered by Meredith Wilson in his memoir about his life and the making of The Music Man, “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory”. I thoroughly enjoyed the book as I researched the musical. Tom

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