The Music Man
The Music Man is a 1957 musical comedy by Meredith Willson. It is unusual in that the music, lyrics, and book were all written by the same person. It is set in "River City," Iowa in 1912. It is a light-hearted, "feel-good" musical (in marked contrast to 1957's West Side Story.) Brooks Atkinson's opening-night review made much of Willson's Iowa background, saying "Mr. Willson’s roots are not in Broadway show business but in Americana.". It ran for 1375 performances.
The plot revolves around Harold Hill, the "music man" of the title, who comes to town to organize a boy's marching band; a central theme of the musical is the importance of marching bands and the pride they inspire in their members and in the town.
Harold Hill, is, unfortunately, a swindler. His scam is that he "sells" towns on the proposition that he is going to organize a band, and teach the children to play. He keeps the parents and children going by ordering instruments and uniforms... but in reality, he has no knowledge of music and no ability to teach it or conduct a band. His MO is to leave town shortly after the uniforms arrive, leaving the band in effect all dressed up with no place to go.
Perhaps the most familiar song from the musical is Seventy-Six Trombones, Hill's reminiscence of an imaginary parade when five top bandleaders "all came to town on the very same history day," creating a band in which "Seventy-six trombone led the big parade/With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand/They were followed by rows and rows o'/The finest virtuosos/The cream of every famous band!"
Willson was interested in the sound of rhythmic talking (he had created a group of actors that performed radio commercials in that style). One unusual "song" is "Trouble." It is delivered as rapid-fire rhythmic pattern, mostly spoken rather than sung, puntuated with isolated musical chords (indicated by the word "Slam!"). In order to sell the town on the idea of a band, Hill uses scare tactics, looking for something he can use to convince the town that there is a problem which can only be solved by forming a band. He seizes on the only newsworthy thing that has happened recently in River City: a pool table which has just been added to a billiard parlor. He delivers what is almost a sermon, telling the River City parents that pool is a bad moral influence: "Ya got trouble my friends, right here in River City... with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool." In a classic example of "slippery slope" rhetoric, he tells them that pool is "the first big step on the road to the depths of degradation," and the next thing they know their sons will be drinking, gambling, consorting with "libertine men and scarlet women" and listening to "ragtime, shameless music that'll grab your son and your daughter with the arms of a jungle animal instinct." And the only solution is to hire him to organize a boy's band.
The song "Till There Was You" has become a standard, and was recorded by the Beatles on one of their early albums.
The Music Man is the only Broadway musical to feature a barbershop quartet. An integral part of the plot, they are not initially a quartet, but four members of the school board who are always sniping and bickering. As soon as Harold Hill coaxes them to sing one single, perfect chord together, they are thrilled with the sound they have produced. They are now, literally, in harmony. Harold Hill predicts, correctly, that henceforth they will never be seen out of each others' company.
In 1962, The Music Man was translated into an unusually faithful screen adaptation, starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones and directed by Morton da Costa, mostly from the original Broadway production.
Notes and references
- A fictionalized version of Willson's childhood home town, Mason City, Iowa
- Atkinson, Brooks (1957): "The Music Man. Robert Preston Becomes Lyric Stage Star in Meredith Willson's Revel." The New York Times, December 29, 1957, p. 53
- The Music Man, Internet Broadway Database]
- The Music Man, Internet Movie Database]