Theatre yesterday and today



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No, not this guy (Robert Preston):

This guy (Meredith Willson):

For it was the composer-lyricist Meredith Willson who gave Robert Preston his signature role, creating the character of “The Music Man,” an ironic title if there ever was one, considering that a rival salesman at the top of show declares, “He don’t know one damn note — from another!”

Born on this date in 1902, Willson was fifty-five years old when his new musical opened at the Majestic Theatre to some of the best reviews of the 1950s (now known as Broadway’s Golden Age). It was his first time at bat in the theatre (and would prove his one and only home run), but was enough to cement his place in the proverbial Hall of Fame. Admittedly, The Music Man is cornball and sentimental, but also so true that it never feels anything less than genuine. Nothing is spoon-fed to its audience; everything it does, even if by way of manipulation, is earned, since it wears its noble heart on its sleeve. Nor is it ever too sincere for its own good, in that it offers a number of wisecracking characters, who almost always get the goods on whomever the target may be.

In full disclosure, I am unduly prejudiced in assessing The Music Man due to its influence on me as a child. It was love at first sight when I saw the 1962 film as a five-year-old in its initial engagement in theatres. As I have written before, seeing it on the enormous screen at the 6,000 seat Radio City Music Hall may have had something to do with its impact, but I’m pretty sure that had I viewed it for the first time on a small black and white TV screen it would have still had the same magnetic hold on me. And when the question of how it could speak to a young Jewish kid from Long Island, considering it took place in a far away land called Iowa involving modest church going folks consisting of farmers and the like, my answer is always the same: why does Fiddler on the Roof resonate with every culture it plays around the world for the past sixty years? Because its universal themes speak truthfully to faith and family.

For what else is The Music Man other than a story of one young man’s yearning for family (the little boy Winthrop, whose father has died), and a community longing to put their faith in something (or someone)? And if they find out shortly before its conclusion that they may have chosen the wrong vessel, they quickly figure out that they found the right vehicle to supply what was missing from their lives. What “Professor” Harold Hill, the salesman “whose foot gets caught in the door” represents, is the selling of something badly needed. And that is (for want of a better phrase) the Sound of Music — which is at the rhythmic heartbeat of the play — its power to feed the soul. I know that I’m playing directly into the hands of the criticism this musical has faced over the years, but I know these attributes are the real thing. At the center of what we experience in every great musical is how its music transports us out of ourselves and into a realm where limited possibilities seem unlimited for a time — usually about two-and-a-half hours.

All this leading to who was Meredith Willson and how did he come to write The Music Man in the first place? To research that is easy, since he fortunately wrote a book about it well worth reading, with a title bearing the double-meaning “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory.” This refers specifically to what possessed Willson to have the temerity to become a theatre composer and lyricist in middle-age (also writing the book in the bargain). Having successfully scored a few films, Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, among them, his “not knowing the territory — the lay of the land, so to speak — made him feel that he might be sharing the same gall as his fictitious Harold Hill. Having been born and bred in Iowa, Willson knew it might take years to convince himself, as well as others, that the real people he wanted to write about offered a fictional story he alone could tell.

The poster art for the 1962 film that is always what first springs to mind when I think of the show.

Nearly a decade earlier, Willson had written a 1948 memoir And There I Stood With My Piccolo, where he first delved into his childhood and life in the sticks. Even though he left Mason City at a young age to pursue his musical education in New York City (as one of the earliest students at the newly formed Julliard School, no less) he never left his home state far behind in either lifestyle or his writing. According to Willson, over the years he wrote more than forty songs and forty drafts of The Music Man (originally titled The Silver Triangle), facing ruthless opposition and rejection by producers every time he auditioned its score. It wasn't until a much-needed final assist from playwright Franklin Lacey (whose billing wound up in small print in the opening night Playbill with a co-story credit), that the libretto was trimmed and focused to such a degree that it made all the difference. When it premiered on December 19, 1957, by end of the first number, musically beginning the show without hardly using the orchestra, it knocked its audiences out. No less an aficionado than Stephen Sondheim, years later in his 2011 book Look, I Made a Hat, wrote how "Rock Island" ".. is surely one of the most startling and galvanic openings ever devised."

It certainly was enough to hook me into the show (well, that and to borrow Sondheim's adjective, the galvanic performance of Robert Preston as Harold HIll). To this day, I wouldn't think of turning the dial if a Music Man song comes up while listening to Sirius Satellite Radio or a Pandora Mix. Not to mention all the covers of the songs romantic ballad, "Till There was You," recorded by no less than Paul McCartney with the Beatles in 1963. That was a moment, when I first heard him sing it on the radio and I shouted out loud, "That's not Shirley Jones!"

Happy Birthday, Meredith Willson. Thanks for all the music, man.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: