The Music Man
Six Years, 40-Odd Drafts and a few Good Laughs: Meredith Willson's Struggle to Write The Music Man
By Marilyn Millstone
Fall 1957: Leave It To Beaver debuts on CBS television. Russia launches Sputnik, ushering in the space race. West Side Story – a musical that dares to bring violence to the stage – premieres on Broadway. Eugene O’Neill is posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Long Day’s Journey into Night. And on December 19, a long journey of a different kind finally comes to fruition: after six years and 40-odd drafts, Meredith Willson’s first musical – The Music Man – opens at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre.
In his 1959 memoir about the making of the musical, But He Doesn’t Know The Territory, Willson describes waiting for the opening-night downbeat with his wife Rini:
“Rini and I were sitting in the farthest two seats over the side under the box nearest the exit. Plenty places to hide, easy to duck out fast. I had a hold of her cold hand with its wet palm and she had my cold hand with its wet palm.”
Willson has cause to be concerned. Only hours earlier, he and director Morton DaCosta had made a significant change to one of the show’s crucial numbers, deciding to bring Harold Hill – played by Robert Preston – back in to finish the song “Marian the Librarian.” The change is rehearsed until an hour before showtime.
“It would have meant a major alteration for Bob [Preston] any time, let alone the day of the opening,” Willson recalls in his memoir. “A tough switch. To say nothing of having to come back and nicely sing 16 pay-off bars after dancing your head off for eight minutes…Not a gripe out of Bob, though. Not a murmur.”
It is the final change in a musical that Willson has been relentlessly revising for half a decade. An accomplished songwriter known for composing the catchy “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” Willson has written over 40 songs for the show – and ends up cutting over half of them. He also makes the difficult decision to drop a major character and turn a nameless bit part into the key role of Winthrop, a little boy whose self-consciousness about his lisp dissolves at the sight of a shiny new trumpet.
But the greatest challenge Willson has faced in writing The Music Man involves wrestling with a subtle concept that has preoccupied him for years. “I had developed an abiding conviction…that in a musical comedy the song ought to materialize out of the dialogue,” he notes in his memoir. “I was really getting Iowa-stubborn about…the way…to bridge dialogue and song.”
The concept finally jells in Willson’s mind, and he writes a new opening scene in which salesmen on a train speak the opening number instead of singing it. He uses the innovative technique several times in the musical, perhaps most memorably in the number “Ya Got Trouble.”
Troubles of all sorts plague the show’s development over the years. Prospective producers appear, then – feeling that Willson’s sprawling script can never be transformed into a hit – disappear. Willson himself considers abandoning the project to take a job he’s been offered on another musical; his wife Rini talks him out of it. And after the first night of the show’s pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia, Willson overhears a critic in the theater lobby proclaim: “They’ll never make it.”
But these troubles vanish the day after the Broadway opening, when critical reviews hit the streets. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson gushes: “Willson’s music is innocent; the beat is rousing and the tunes are full of gusto…The Music Man is a marvelous show.” The show runs for 1,375 performances, garnering five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and winning the first Grammy for “Best Original Cast Album.” Five years later, in 1962, Robert Preston marches Harold Hill from Broadway onto the Big Screen; the film version of The Music Man – both produced and directed by the show’s Broadway director, Morton DaCosta – wins an Academy Award and appears on many lists as one of the best movie musicals of all time.
Forty years later, on May 18, 2002 – the centennial of Willson’s birth – his hometown of Mason City, Iowa (affectionately referred to as “River City” in The Music Man) pays spectacular homage to him: adjacent to Willson’s boyhood home (a museum since 1995), they open Music Man Square: a multi-million-dollar entertainment complex dedicated to keeping the performing arts alive in the Hawkeye State.
Marilyn Millstone is a magazine writer and playwright, whose first play – The Sculptress – was selected for production by Fells Point Corner Theatre last year and won third prize for Best Play at the 2011 Baltimore Playwrights Festival. She is delighted to be assisting Arena Stage’s literary manager, Amrita Ramanan, with dramaturgy for The Music Man.
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.