Stage To Screen: The Music Man

Playbill

Few Broadway shows can touch The Music Man. It’s probably in the top ten of the most well-known musical comedies, or just musicals in general. It’s rousing, it’s funny, it’s winkingly naughty, it has a lot of cool plays on words, it feels like yesteryear. Most of all, who hasn’t wanted to go marching out of the the theater or around the living room after watching it?

For those who may not be familiar with the story, it concerns a con-man named Harold Hill who sells the people of River City, Iowa on the idea of starting a boys’ band. They’ve just had a new pool table delivered to the local billiard parlor, and according to Professor Hill, if they don’t take care River City will sink into a cesspool of corruption and sinfulness.

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Only thing is, Harold can’t read a note of music or play an instrument. He generally skips town when the instruments and costumes he promises arrive, but this time he’s got a little bit of insurance he calls The Think System. If a would-be band member wants to play an instrument, all they have to do is think of playing it and they can. They get suitable instruction books, of course, but the Think’s the thing.

Harold, whose real name is Gregory, can sweet-talk his way out of anyone who shows even the slightest suspicion of who he is and what he’s doing. Mayor Shinn’s wife, Eulalie, for instance is all set to read him the riot act when Harold butters her up about leading a classical dance troupe. Eulalie flutters and smiles bashfully, suddenly won over. When the local school board asks to see his credentials, Harold blows a pitch pipe and starts singing, and while the men harmonize he gives them the slip.

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Least likely to be taken in is Marian Paroo, the town librarian and piano teacher. First of all, she knows something about music, plus the townspeople are a little suspicious of her anyway because the books in the library were left to her by a rich benefactor. They were close, apparently, not to mention the books are by such risqué authors as (gasp!) Balzac, Rabelais, and Chaucer. So Marion’s seen as a gold digger and not exactly of upright morals, although the town does respect her.

I’m not going to give any spoilers because it’s all too good, but suffice it to say that the proceedings become a question of who knows what and how long have they known it. It’s also a lot of fun and a lot of music.

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Meredith Willson: America’s Music Man

Music Man composer Meredith Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa on May 18, 1902, and while not exactly a prodigy, he developed quickly as a musician. His mother taught him to play the piano as a young boy, and then in high school he learned to play the piccolo and flute. After that Willson continued his studies at the Institute of Musical Art, now the Julliard School of Music, in New York City.

After graduation Willson hit the ground running, performing with the John Phillip Sousa concert band, which, according to AllMusic, toured the United States and Central and South America. He then went on to perform as a flute and piccolo soloist with the New York Philharmonic, no doubt giving out on Sousa marches now and then. After that, he worked as a radio music director in San Francisco, and then Hollywood came calling.

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A rehearsal of Good News of 1938. Clockwise: Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, L.K. Sidney, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, Meredith Willson, Harry Link, Harold Arlen, Judy Garland. (McHugh, pg. 16)

Willson was a key figure on MGM’s Good News radio program, which was sponsored by Maxwell House and ran from 1937 to 1940. In addition to writing the theme song, “Always and Always,” Willson was an occasional presenter on the show, which received a tepid response from the public even though every episode featured stars of current films. Fortunately, Willson’s scores for The Great Dictator and The Little Foxes went over like gangbusters.

After serving in World War Two, Willson continued to work in radio as well as founding a group called the Talking People, which sang and talked in unison, often appearing in radio commercials (hear one for Jell-O here).

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Franklin Lacey (Ojai Art Center Theater)

When Willson met Franklin Lacey, however, The Music Man as we know it began to take shape. It was already forming in Willson’s mind as he worked on his autobiography, And There I Stood With My Piccolo, but Lacey helped Willson revise the work.

The Music Man is a very personal show. It not only incorporates Willson’s background with the John Phillip Sousa touring orchestra, but it includes bits of Willson’s childhood in Iowa. For one thing, Willson and his friends loved using plays on words and words as sounds, and this shows in songs like, “Rock Island,” “Pick A Little, Talk A Little,” and “Sincere.” It also reflected the grand language his mother always liked, which gives the show a charmingly Victorian and Edwardian feel.

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visitmasoncityiowa.com

Phil Harris was Willson’s first choice to play Harold Hill, but according to TCM he didn’t want to go to Broadway, so in an unusual move, Robert Preston was cast as Harold instead. Preston, who usually played second leads, had seen a career resurgence since heading for Broadway after returning from his World War Two service. Harold Hill was Preston’s first lead role and he’s wonderfully charismatic and energetic. It was as if he’d been waiting for the part to come along.

Barbara Cook, Pert Kelton, David Burns, Marilyn Siegel, Eddie Hodges, and the Buffalo Bills rounded out the cast, and the show opened on December 19, 1957 at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway, where it would run for 1,375 performances in its original stretch, closing on April 15, 1961. The show was a massive success, garnering six Tonys, including a Best Actor for Robert Preston.

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Robert Preston and Barbara Cook in the original production. (Playbill)

We all know where this is going next: When The Music Man gained traction, Hollywood started sniffing around, and Warner Bros. won the rights.

The next hurdle was finding someone to play Harold Hill because it was thought that Preston was too old for it, despite his basically creating the character. The role was turned down by Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and Ray Bolger, and apparently Cary Grant was even offered the part, but according to legend Grant said, “Not only will I not play it, but if Robert Preston doesn’t do it, I won’t even see the picture.”

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Preston with Shirley Jones during the making of the film. (Pinterest)

Who knows if Grant really said this, because he’s also thought to have responded the same way when offered the part of Mr. Higgins in My Fair Lady, but either way, Preston was all set to recreate his role in the film.

Although the script was written by Marion Hargrove of See Here, Private Hargrove fame, the bulk of the Broadway cast and crew were brought to Hollywood to make the film. Among the exceptions were Shirley Jones, who replaced Barbara Cook as Marian, Ron Howard, who played her little brother, Winthrop in place of Eddie Hodges, and Paul Ford, who had replaced David Burns as Mayor Shinn. The music was also left mostly intact, which is a testimony of how successful and iconic Willson’s score really is.

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Rehearsing the “Marian the Librarian” number. (Cinema Montreal)

The movie looks like a stage production in spots, such as the opening scene on the train, which is shown in a cutaway as opposed to shooting down the length of the car. When rhythm and unity are as important as they are in a song like “Rock Island,” it’s important to see everyone’s faces at the same time as much as possible, because it not only gives the number punch, but it makes Harold Hill’s reveal at the end of the number even more of a troll. The movie often ends scenes as if taking place in a theater, with the house lights going on and a spotlight on the key players. It’s an effective and subtle way to transition.

As for the cast and crew, they had a fantastic time making the movie, but the production was not without obstacles. Shirley Jones found out she was pregnant with her son, Patrick Cassidy during the production, but since they were well-along she only wanted director Morton DaCosta to know. DaCosta reassured Shirley that they could pad her out and use other tricks to hide her growing baby tummy, and they left it at that.

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A lot of the women, however, knew better, but Robert Preston was completely fooled until he and Shirley had to shoot a love scene on a footbridge and Shirley’s growing progeny kicked him.

The movie premiered in Mason City, Iowa, on June 19, 1962 and the town went all-out with a dance, a parade, and an ice-cream social, and since the premiere coincided with the North Iowa Band Festival, Willson himself would lead one-hundred twenty-one bands down the main street.

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June 15, 1962. (Cerro Gordo County, Iowa)

It goes without saying that the film was a huge hit, and since its debut it’s been played countless times all over the world and performed in theaters of all kinds. Harold Hill has been played by such actors as Matthew Broderick, Robert Sean Leonard, Dick Van Dyke, Norm Lewis, Craig Bierko, and Eric McCormack, although no one can see Harold marching down the street without thinking of Robert Preston. And special mention must be made of the late, great Rebecca Luker, who played Marian opposite three different Harolds (Eric, Robert, and Craig).

This year, the show was revived on Broadway with Hugh Jackman as Harold and Sutton Foster as Marian and looks to be absolutely fantastic (It was nominated for six Tonys). Julliard named one of their residence halls after him. Most of all, Mason City is still immensely proud of Meredith Willson, who never lost his love for his beloved hometown. There’s even a museum called The Music Man Square named in Willson’s honor.

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Recreation of River City’s Main Street at The Music Man Square. (Postcard Jar)

Mayor Kenneth E. Kew said at Willson’s 1984 funeral, “{Wilson} was a small-town boy. He was Iowa stubborn. To me each time I hear ‘Seventy-six Trombones’ I get chills of pride. From this day forward, whenever I hear thunder rolling across the sky like timpani and bass drums, I’ll say to myself there goes Meredith. He’s leading another big parade.”

Another review is coming up on Sunday. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you then…


The Music Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.

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Bibliography

McHugh, Dominic. The Big Parade: Meredith Willson’s Musicals From the Music Man To 1491. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Oates, Bill. Meredith Willson, America’s Music Man: The Whole Broadway-Symphonic-Radio-Motion Picture Story. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2005.

Willson, Meredith. But He Doesn’t Know the Territory: The Story Behind Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

4 thoughts on “Stage To Screen: The Music Man

  1. As an Iowa native, I’ve always had a special place for this particular musical. Although I yearn to go see the Hugh Jackman version, that’s probably not going to happen — but it’s okay, because I love the Robert Preston version and can watch it any time I want 🙂

    BTW, I tagged you here with the “Running Wild in Impractical Outfits” tag. Play if you want to!

    Liked by 1 person

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