May 18, 1902 – Meredith Willson:
You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays.
No one can deny the artistic and popular success of the Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim landmark musical West Side Story (1957); there have been three successful Broadway revivals (in 1960, 1980 and 2009).
West Side Story is much loved by musical theatre types, it has tens of thousands of high school, community theatre, and regional productions, two Broadway revivals, 1980 and 2009, a film version in 1961, and is currently being filmed again in an adaptation written by Tony Kushner,(Angels In America), directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck.
However, it’s also hard to deny the continued popularity of Meredith Willson‘s The Music Man, which beat out West Side Story for Best Musical at the Tony Awards in 1957. After a three-and-a-half year run on Broadway, the show had two Broadway revivals and two film adaptations as well.
Hugh Jackman (X-Men‘s Wolverine) will take over the title role of Harold Hill when The Music Man opens again on Broadway this fall. It’s a role originally embodied by Robert Preston in the 1957 Broadway production, and in the 1962 film version.
Most theatre people would say that West Side Story is the greater artistic success. The Music Man may have won the Tony because it was more commercial, but don’t forget that it is extremely well-written and clever musical. Music Man also had the benefit of speaking to the cultural sensibilities of its era. After World War II, especially in the 1950s, there was a lot of glorification of small-town America and good old wholesome American values. On television, there was Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show and Father Knows Best, and in musical theatre there was The Music Man, a marvelous musical as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July. West Side Story was about Puerto Ricans gang members in Manhattan with several dead bodies by final curtain.
Though West Side Story had opened just three months earlier, The Music Man captured audiences, critics and five Tony Awards.
Meredith Willson, the composer, librettist and lyricist of The Music Man, had been a busy conductor and performer on radio for 20 years before his big success with The Music Man. Willson worked for six years getting his show produced.
When The Music Man arrived on Broadway in December 1957 it was even more dazzling than the opening of My Fair Lady two years earlier. My Fair Lady had a book more or less by George Bernard Shaw and a score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. The Music Man had little advance anticipation. It came out of left field with a book, music and lyrics by a man who had never been represented on Broadway before.
The film version stars Preston, Broadway’s first Harold Hill, and Shirley Jones. It was one of the biggest hits of the year and highly acclaimed critically. I watch it every July 4th.
Willson was known at that time, if he was known at all, as a funny guy on the popular early 1950s radio program, The Big Show, featuring 90 minutes of comic, stage, screen and music talent, aimed at keeping American radio alive and well against the rapidly growing television tide. It was Gay Icon Tallulah Bankhead, and featured Fred Allen, Jimmy Durante, José Ferrer, Frankie Laine, Ethel Merman, Danny Thomas and Willson, who began his responses to Bankhead with, ”Well, sir, Miss Bankhead”. He also composed of the show’s very successful, hymn-like closing number, May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You.
In case you don’t know, The Music Man is about an unethical traveling salesman whose grift was selling band uniforms and instruments to small-town people in the Midwest on the promise that he would form a school band and teach their children to play. Once he had collected his money, however, he was off on a train in search of new victims.
Willson was born in Mason City, Iowa and grew up there, The Music Man was a love letter to his youth, and its score is a gathering and refinement of the facets of music that had led him to composing as a career.
His first taste of music was the big strutting brass marching band that the Music Man uses to bedazzle his victims. Willson played flute and piccolo with a band led by ”the March King” John Philip Sousa, whose memory he evokes in one of the musical and visual high points of The Music Man:76 Trombones.
His love of that early 20th century staple, the ”barbershop quartet”, inspired him to include two songs, It’s You and Lida Rose, that are harmonized in close barbershop fashion by a group called ”The Buffalo Bills” who appeared in the Broadway and film versions.
In Brooks Atkinson‘ New York Times review of The Music Man in 1957, he writes that: ”Willson’s music translated the thump and razzle-dazzle of brass-band lore into a warm and genial cartoon of American life”.
Wilson evoked a small-town America that no longer existed in the mid-1950s but was still a part of the childhood memories of some Americans and the fantasies of others. He did it so tenderly, so lustily and so entertainingly that The Music Man stood apart from all the other musicals celebrating Americana on Broadway after the success of Oklahoma! in 1943.
The original Broadway cast recording of The Music Man won the first ever Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album (Broadway or Television).
He followed-up The Music Man with even more Americana with The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960). Yet, this time Willson only contributed the score, which, while it included a song that captures the vigor of Molly Brown’s unsinkability, I Ain’t Down Yet, lacked the emotionality that Willson brought to The Music Man. The plot is a fictionalized account of the real life of Margaret Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic. It was directed by Dore Schary and choreographed by Peter Gennaro with a cast that included Tammy Grimes and Harve Presnell. Grimes won the Tony Award. Grimes then did the national tour for a year. A film version was released in 1964 with Debbie Reynolds who was nominated for the Academy Award.
His third musical, Here’s Love (1963), a musical adaptation of the film Miracle On 34th Street (1947) was a commercial success, but it was considered the least interesting and slightest of his theatre scores. Here’s Love was directed by Stuart Ostrow and choreographed by Michael Kidd, and it ran for 336 performances. The top-notch cast included Janis Paige, Craig Stevens, Lisa Kirk, Fred Gwynne, Michael Bennett, and Baayork Lee. The song It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas was its only hit.
Willson studied at the Institute of Musical Art, now the Juilliard School, before he toured with the Sousa band. In 1924, he became first flutist with the New York Philharmonic, under Arturo Toscanini.
He served as musical director for ABC and later NBC, at times writing and conducting more than a dozen musical programs a week.
After moving to Hollywood to work for NBC, Willson arranged and composed the score for Charlie Chaplin‘s great film satire of Nazism, The Great Dictator (1940) earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score, and arranging music for the score of William Wyler‘s The Little Foxes (1941), receiving another Oscar nomination.
In 1942, he headed the music division of the Armed Forces Radio Service.
Willson also wrote symphonic and concert pieces and several popular songs such as You And I which was a Number One for Glenn Miller in 1941 on the Billboard charts.
Till There Was You from The Music Man was recorded by The Beatles for Meet The Beatles! (1964).
He wrote the University of Iowa’s fight song imaginatively titled Iowa Fight Song. He also wrote the fight song for his hometown high school Mason City, Go!.
One of my favorites of Willson’s many songs is an oddity, Chicken Fat, written in 1962. In school gymnasiums across the nation, it was the theme song for President John F. Kennedy‘s youth fitness program. Willson’s song had kids moving through their basic exercises at a frenetic pace: push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, torso twists, running in place, pogo springs, and, of course, plenty of marching. With a lead vocal by Robert Preston, a marching band, and full chorus, it was probably recorded during sessions for the film version of The Music Man. Two versions of the song exist: a three-minute, radio-friendly version, and a six-minute version for use in the gym class. In 2014, Chicken Fat was used in a television commercial for the iPhone 5S.
Willson died of heart failure in 1984; he was 82-years-old. His funeral in Mason City included mourners dressed in Music Man costumes and a barbershop quartet which sang Lida Rose.