The Music Man
“And There Was Music”: A Songwriter’s Journey through Familiar and Unfamiliar Territory
By Amrita Ramanan
There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you.
There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you!
– “Till There Was You”
In 1951, Meredith Willson was one of America’s most beloved songwriters and composers. With credits spanning film, television and radio – including the recognizable holiday tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – his songs travelled through the airwaves into the homes and hearts of millions. Yet, despite his already extensive career and growing popularity, an apprehensive Willson embarked on an ambitious new project: writing the book, lyrics and music for a musical theater comedy about a con-artist posing as a boys' band organizer in a small Iowa town. Six years – and 40-odd drafts later – Willson’s first foray into musical theater successfully transitioned from the page to the stage and became a milestone in the American musical theater canon: The Music Man.
Aptly titled, The Music Man evokes a nostalgic reflection of Willson’s childhood experiences and explores the transcendental power of music on his life and the lives of the people in his hometown. Born in Mason City, Iowa in 1902 to John David and Rosalie Willson, infant Meredith was accustomed to hearing the lilting sound of piano scales echoing throughout his home. In addition to operating the first kindergarten in Mason City, his mother taught piano lessons to hundreds of Mason City children, as well as the Willson youngsters. After fine-tuning his piano skills, Willson expressed interest in expanding his music repertoire to other instruments and persuaded his mother to purchase a flute and piccolo for him from a mail order catalog. At age 10, he became the youngest member of the first band erected in Mason City, composed of his piccolo, two clarinets, two cornets, one euphonium, one tuba, one snare drum, one bass drum and an alto. As noted in his 1959 memoir about the making of the The Music Man titled But He Doesn’t Know The Territory, Willson remarks on how the creation of the band developed:
“The band…. came into existence just for Tuesday evening recreation because some of us had found out we were musical and Tuesday was a good available night. I don’t think any of us in the band would have ever believed it if we had been told that the day would come when you’d rehearse your high school band in the daytime in a special music building connected with the school and actually get credits for it like Current Events or Physics. When I look back through the annuals I can pick out a couple of guys out of every graduating class that turned out to be the kind of people people still change the subject over whenever their name comes up back home. I mean guys who were in jail or should be, or things like that. But none of those guys were any of the guys who showed up every other Tuesday to try to play ‘The National Emblem’ on their own time.”
With content harmoniously dictating form, The Music Man conveys Willson’s love affair with music by allowing music to infuse every moment and scene, from the opening sound of a distant train whistle in “Rock Island” where the rhythms of the train gradually frame the cadence of the travelling salesmen’s song to Amaryllis’ piano lesson underscoring a conversation between Marian Paroo and her mother. Then, through the lens of the citizens of and newcomers to River City (a playful nickname for Mason City he obtained from his mother), Willson explores the influence of music in their physical and emotional transformations. The quarrelsome school board gains a sense of synchronicity by forming a barbershop quartet. Teenagers stay out of “trouble.” A con-artist develops an unlikely, intimate bond with a librarian and music teacher, with their love cleverly personified in the words, “There was love all around. But I never heard it singing.”And a timid, lisping 10-year-old boy finds his voice.
Though The Music Man may seem like a distant memory in Meredith Willson’s past, it remains a constant reminder of how music can change lives and awaken a community. And it is this timeless resonance that allows Willson’s musical to ring loud and clear for years to come.
In addition to her role as production dramaturg for The Music Man, Amrita Ramanan's dramaturgy credits include Trouble in Mind, Ruined, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, and Crowns (Arena Stage); Skywriter (2009 Cap Fringe Festival); and Cymbeline (Great River Shakespeare Festival). She’s editor and regular contributor to Arena Stage’s blog, Stage Banter, and Sub/Text: Your Virtual Dramaturg.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.