About this Recording
8.120886 - WILLSON, M.: Music Man (The) (Original Broadway Cast Recording) (1957)
English 

The Music Man
Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Original Broadway Cast, 1957

 

Just call him ‘Iowa Stubborn’.

It took Meredith Wilson eight years and 32 drafts to bring his childhood memories of Iowa onto the stage, but anyone who has ever sat entranced by The Music Man will agree that it was well worth it.

Willson was a strange amalgamation of small-town hick, classical musician and showbiz slickness…all of which somehow found their way into his 1957 musical hit.

He was born in Mason City, Iowa on 18 May 1902 and it isn’t hard to see the show’s fictional ‘River City’ peeking out from under the thin disguise of the place Willson called home. His mother was also a much-loved music teacher, so it’s also easy to find the inspiration behind Marion Paroo, one of the most endearing of all musical comedy heroines.

But then came Chapter Two in Willson’s life, when he went to New York City after graduating high school to enroll in the Institute of Musical Art, which would later change its name to the better-known Juilliard School of Music. By the age of nineteen, he was hired by renowned conductor/composer John Philip Sousa as first flutist in his band and it was only a few more years before he was playing with the New York Philharmonic, frequently under the baton of the charismatic and unpredictable Arturo Toscanini.

This would have been exciting enough for a 22 year-old musician who was still shaking the hay off his Midwestern boots, but Willson soon slid into the even-more-popular world of radio and before his thirtieth birthday, he was one of the major musical forces for NBC Radio.

And for a long time, that’s where it looked like Willson was going to stay. Except for a stint in the Army during World War II, he spent the next seventeen years at NBC, writing hit songs such as “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You” and spending each week as the musical supervisor for Tallulah Bankhead’s exercise in sonic mayhem called The Big Show.

But one day in 1949, the ingratiating Willson was holding forth to a bunch of his friends about what it was like to grow up in Iowa. In the crowd was composer Frank Loesser, who instantly thought Willson’s remembrances should become a Broadway musical.

He originally thought of Willson conducting the orchestra himself, turning around to the audience to offer folksy reminiscences of what it was like back in that kinder, gentler time and place.

And something that Loesser said must have struck a spark in Willson’s head. One of the bonus tracks on this CD is of a song called Till I Met You which Willson recorded with Eileen Wilson (only one “l”, no relation!) on 25 October 1950.

Except for the fact that the title phrase was later changed to Till There Was You, it’s note for note and word for word the same song that anchored the second act of The Music Man (and later became the only Broadway tune covered by The Beatles!).

By 1951, the hot producing team of Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin (Where’s Charley?, Guys and Dolls) optioned the show which Willson was at this point calling The Silver Triangle.

It dealt with a shyster salesman of non-existent musical instruments and the noble piano teacher who had the power to expose him.

In that respect, it sounds just like the show that opened on Broadway six years later, but in most other ways, it was a lot different.

Willson was obsessed with a subplot about (in his words) “the school janitor’s son who was a spastic” and it was this serious chunk of the story which eventually caused Feuer and Martin to drop it in 1955.

But just before they left, they gave Willson a parting gift of a new title: The Music Man.“I always thought that The Silver Triangle sounded like something Ibsen had written,” Feuer confided as he headed out the door.

By now, Willson was committed to the project and he kept working furiously on it, but in the era where saucy shows such as Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game were hits, he had trouble peddling his squeaky-clean vision of 1912 Middle America.

Producer after producer turned him down and Willson finally turned to a friend named Franklin Lacey to help him solve the book.

Lacey’s major achievement was to convince Willson the janitor’s son had to go. He changed into the shy, stuttering brother of Marian the Librarian and, as played by a young man named Eddie Hodges who had just made a success on a TV show called Name That Tune, he was a real audience pleaser.

Willson finally found a producer in the gentle, venerable Kermit Bloomgarden, more known for his serious dramas such as The Diary of Anne Frank and The Crucible than his musicals.

But Bloomgarden had the essential quality of belief and he put together an ace production team, headed by director Morton DaCosta and choreographer Onna White.

They had a lot of trouble, however, finding someone to play their leading character, the musical con-man now called Harold Hill. Danny Kaye, their first choice, said he couldn’t possibly see himself in the part. Dan Dailey, Phil Harris, Gene Kelly and others all passed.

Finally, a B movie actor best known for his villains in Westerns stepped onto the scene and everyone soon wondered how they could have thought of anyone else other than Robert Preston.

The young and winning Barbara Cook, fresh from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, stepped into the sensible shoes of Marian Paroo, while veteran comedians David Burns and Pert Kelton brought humour to the supporting roles.

It took audiences a little bit of time to get used to Willson’s ‘talk songs’, where a stream of rhythmic, but unrhymed, lyrics were spoken rapid fire over a chugging accompaniment. Still, once they caught on, they loved it.

The score was—and still is—rich with melodic invention, unexpected counterpoint and music that can make you laugh, even without lyrics. It also has some of the best character songs ever written, such as The Sadder-But-Wiser Girl and My White Knight, although the latter number has caused some serious debate over the years.

The long introductory section, talk-sung, is obviously vintage Willson, but what about the rest? Many musical comedy historians insist that Willson’s first supporter, Frank Loesser provided a cast-off melody from The Most Happy Fella to give Marian’s big aria the soaring touch it needed.

Doubters should look to the film version, where Willson only replaced one song, My White Knight, with the vastly inferior “Being In Love”. Maybe he was trying to prove a point to someone?

Many performers have shone as Harold Hill over the years, from Van Johnson and Bert Parks to Matthew Broderick and Eric McCormack, but Preston remains unique.

Listen to the snap, crackle and pop of his sheer performing energy as he tears into the show’s defining number, Ya Got Trouble, and you’ll know what musical comedy is really all about.

Alas, Willson was pretty much a one-trick pony, with his next two Broadway shows (The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Here’s Love) proving pale imitations of his initial bountiful originality. His final show, a musical look at the world of Christopher Columbus called 1491, closed on the road in 1969 and that—for all intents and purposes—was ‘Goodnight My Someone’ for Meredith Willson.

And that’s a shame, because, when you listen to the joy with which he conducts the bonus tracks from The Music Man on this recording, you’ll hear a man for whom music was all tied up with happiness. And for one show, at least, it all came true just the way he had always dreamed it would.


Richard Ouzounian


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